On Tuesday, Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox.com, a website that largely traffics in “explainers”—its Twitter profile commands readers, “Understand the news”—offered his explanation for how Donald Trump is going to lose the Republican nomination for president: “Trump could just ... not win.” Understand?
Despite hiding their classism and racism under the guise of fawning liberal condescension, coastal elites have largely struggled to comprehend Donald Trump’s appeal to as large a swathe of Americans as he has rallied to his cause these past few months. (Coastal elites may overestimate their ability to comprehend most things, but that is neither here nor there.)
“An important thing to know when reading coverage of Trump is that a lot of reporters and politicos believe something like this is going to happen to him.” We believe that everyone deserves free kittens forever, and yet here we are. Also: This is not actually a good justification for holding a belief! Especially for a journalist! Plenty of reporters and “politicos” believed that Trump would never get his shit together enough to invest time and money in, you know, actually building a campaign apparatus beyond rallies and media appearances, and then he went and did just that, hiring two former Republican National Committee data strategists and political data firm L2.
Klein, in his humbly titled “Here’s what I think Donald Trump’s loss will look like,” explains this possibility by reaching back through the history of American politics to Howard Dean, in 2004:
As Andrew Prokop has written, Dean’s lead looked a lot like Trump’s: It was big in New Hampshire and small in Iowa, it was based on huge crowds and hot-button issues, and it scared party elites.
And then Dean just ... didn’t win. He lost Iowa, and then he lost everywhere. No one really knows why Dean collapsed in Iowa. Theories include a vicious air war with Dick Gephardt and last-minute worries among Iowa caucus-goers that Dean couldn’t beat Bush. But there was no defining event behind his defeat — the infamous yelp came later. Dean went into Iowa looking likely to win it, and then caucus-goers abandoned him.
“Losing a presidential primary is often like going bankrupt,” Klein writes. “It happens slowly, then all at once.” As it happens, this is a misquotation from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked. ‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’”
Anyway! This is an extremely unsatisfying answer to a question that is probably impossible to answer—What does the future hold?—but which Klein insists on asking anyway, because he is an incorrigible person.
This kind of loss is common. Candidates lead, and then they don’t. Eric Cantor is invincible, and then he’s beaten by some unknown academic. Hillary Clinton is a juggernaut, and then she’s beaten by Barack Obama. Howard Dean leads everywhere, and then he leads nowhere. Political analysis is a realm of post-hoc storytelling. Something unexpected or unpredictable happens, and then we explain why it was obviously going to happen all along.
But this is, I think, what will happen to Trump. He will lead until he doesn’t. His fall will be quick, and it won’t obey the apparent rules of his rise. If there is a reason for it, it will fundamentally be, “People get more pragmatic the closer they get to an actual vote.” As much as Republicans tell pollsters they think Trump can win the general election, I am skeptical they will truly believe that come Election Day.
This is, at best, wishful thinking. At worst, it’s pop psychology posturing as political theory. Whatever it is, it’s not actually an explanation.