James Carville, the colorfully talented shill of Bill Clinton’s successful campaigns, coined the most memorable slogan of those campaigns, and it continues to be the essence of presidential politics: “It’s the economy, Stupid.” Mr. Stupid forgets it at his peril.
The wisdom survives in the Donald Trump phenomenon that puzzles the highly paid wise men. Pat Caddell, the pollster and sometime strategist, calls it “economic nationalism.”
The voter, he says, has figured out that he has been played for a sucker, played by foolish trade deals, runaway illegal immigration and lots of big talk. Jobs lost to Mexico or Southeast Asia by employers looking for bigger profits aren’t important, the economists explain, because the profits will be invested and create new and different jobs here. That sounds good to the man who still has a job, not so good to the man who doesn’t. You have to be sophisticated to understand economics, and it’s easier to be sophisticated when you’re still working. The unsophisticated man picks up the nearest club to hit someone with, and this year the club is Donald Trump.
The result is playing out now in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. The smart guys, who never see what they don’t want to see, were stunned by the returns in Michigan. Hillary Clinton was well and truly thrashed by Bernie Sanders, if only by 2 points. She was supposed to win by 20.
The Donald’s critique of free trade, repeated over and over since last summer, was the break from the way it’s supposed to be that can happen in a campaign dominated by outsiders and insurgents. “Trump is the populist outsider,” Pat Caddell tells Breitbart News Daily, “and Ted Cruz is the ideological insurgent.” The polling stunned the pollsters because it reveals Republicans and independents, even more than Democrats, as anti-free trade. “[Voters] have had it with trade deals, just as they have had it with the Washington establishment.”
The economy is always crucial; if a man doesn’t have a job he doesn’t have time to worry about anything else. His children have to eat and he has to keep a roof over their heads. Foreign affairs have always been a concern left to the experts, but Mr. Trump’s talk about how the establishment has sent American jobs to China and Mexico and bringing illegal aliens from Mexico to take what’s left, makes “foreign affairs” important to voters whose interests in things foreign is limited to French toast, Szechuan chicken, Brazil nuts and Canadian bacon. In the past the politicians could count on ignorance and indifference to make their games of three-card Monte work as planned. Not now.
Marco Rubio, whose fading prospects depend on what happens today in Florida, guessed wrong early on immigration becoming a member of the infamous Gang of Eight and guessed wrong on trade, too. He’s in a panic about trade now.
So is John Kasich, who supported the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which is not the adornment of his record he once thought it would be. He told NBC News last summer that “I think we have, in some ways, been saps.”
Voters in both parties are suspicious of all deals now, and this is sure to apply to backroom deals if the latest scheme to stop Donald Trump succeeds in a smoky room (but no cigars, please) at a brokered convention in Cleveland. The scheme might not get that far. If Mr. Trump wins both Florida and Ohio, and it’s possible if not quite probable, the race is effectively over.
Issues can be hard to explain and sometimes boring. Economics is, after all, “the dismal science,” and numbers and data make eyes roll and teeth itch. But average voters, with their folk wisdom and gifts of hunches, hints and inklings, eventually make sense of most things. The experts of the press are rarely as smart as their readers, and figured the Trump phenomenon was about his celebrity, his blarney and his bluster. The experts could not look beyond their pretensions to see that the Donald was tapping into what Pat Caddell calls a “free-floating anxiety” about economics and a sense of political alienation that has been building in fly-over country for years.
The Trump phenomenon was supposed to have fizzled by now. Everybody said so. But it hasn’t, and maybe it won’t. Even if Bernie Sanders is returned to Vermont and the U.S. Senate, as seems likely, and Donald Trump is returned to his skyscrapers and his real-estate deals, as seems not quite as likely, the revolutionary moment will not pass so quickly. Having had its day, the establishment will just have to get over itself.