In poker, a wild card can add to the fun of the game. But it throws off the odds and makes the hands more unpredictable. That’s why poker purists prefer to keep jokers and other wild cards out of the deck.
In American politics, the presidential primaries usually function as a vetting process to remove wild cards from the elections. In the most recent Republican primary, for instance, two improbable choices never attracted much in the way of support: the non-politicians Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. They were good for a couple of one-liners. But they weren’t serious candidates.
But the biggest wild card of them all – Donald Trump – has managed to all but secure the Republican Party nomination. Like all jokers, he is throwing off the odds. Few people predicted he would get as far as he has in politics. And few expect him to win in November. But he has defied expectations so far. And the political mainstream is very worried about how he might upend the status quo. Political purists, like poker purists, would prefer to keep jokers out of the deck.
I also believe that Trump will lose in November. He has the highest unfavorable rating of any previous presidential aspirant. He deeply offends key voting constituencies such as women (53 percent of the electorate in 2012) and Latinos (8.4 percent of all voters in 2012). The very qualities that made him virtually unbeatable in the Republican primaries – intolerance, intemperance, incoherence – are not appealing to the general electorate.
Moreover, he has divided the Republican Party so thoroughly that key Republican leaders like Mitt Romney and prominent neoconservatives like Max Boot, Bill Kristol, and Robert Kagan are refusing to support him. Others, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, are lukewarm at best. The Democratic Party machine will pull out all the stops to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton in November. The Republican Party, a house divided, will not be able to function as smoothly or as effectively. For all these reasons, Trump should not only lose the 2016 presidential elections – he should lose by a large margin.
But I am making my prediction based on a conventional political analysis. And Trump is a wild card. He could beat the odds in November.
Trump is not only unpredictable in his behavior. He also makes unpredictable proposals.
For instance, Trump has announced that he would be open to face-to-face negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. “I would speak to him,” Trump said. “I would have no problem speaking to him.”
No sitting American president has met with a North Korean leader. The political mainstream shudders at the thought of Trump providing legitimacy to an outlaw regime. Carol Giacomo, writing in The New York Times, observes that Obama too offered to meet with U.S. adversaries when he ran for president in 2008 (and has followed through with Cuba, Iran, and Burma). But she doesn’t see any evidence that Trump “understands how to use a meeting with Mr. Kim to advance American interests. Just showing up in Pyongyang is not the answer. Mr. Kim would stage a gala celebration in a big public square and Mr. Trump would become a prop for legitimizing the North Korean leader and his nuclear program.”
The North Koreans, like much of the world, are not quite sure what to make of Trump. Although a recent editorial in the North Korean outlet DPRK Today praised him as a “far-sighted presidential candidate,” North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, So Se Pyong, dismissed Trump’s statement as “useless” and “just a gesture for the presidential election.”
Since Trump has never been a politician – and presents himself as an anti-politician — his campaign has been nothing but a series of gestures. To have a platform and well thought-out positions would bring him too much into the realm of real politics. Trump rolls out proposals – building a wall in the southwest and getting Mexico to pay for it, banning all Muslim immigrants, bringing back waterboarding – as a network executive might introduce a new season of TV shows. They’re meant to generate headlines, capture attention, and create a loyal following. They’re not meant to add up to anything larger.
So, when Trump calls NATO “obsolete” and talks about withdrawing U.S. military commitments to Japan and South Korea, it doesn’t really mean that President Trump would preside over a shrinking of the U.S. military footprint abroad. After all, Trump has never interacted with the Pentagon, has never negotiated with foreign leaders. Nothing he says has ever been tested against reality. Indeed, Trump’s understanding of “reality” comes almost entirely from “reality TV.”
Recently, Trump has spoken of becoming “more presidential,” by which he means he will be responsible and boring. “At some point I’m going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored,” he announced at a rally in Harrisburg, PA. It’s remotely possible that Trump’s handlers will transform him into a blander, less volatile, and more predictable candidate by the time the general election gets underway in earnest.
But I don’t think that will happen. It would undermine Trump’s brand. He has presented himself as a joker who will disrupt politics as usual. If he departed from that persona, he would lose his audience and his core group of supporters. And it would be too late to persuade the Republican Party mandarins of his new political sobriety.
So, if you think that Trump is joking when he is making all of his ludicrous suggestions, you’re both right and wrong. He’s very serious about everything he says. But that won’t prevent him from saying the very next day that he was just joking around.
To be a successful politician means to stay on message, and Trump is not interested in message. That makes him the most dangerous of all candidates. He’s so unpredictable that he could indeed pull off an upset in November. In other words, when it comes to Trump, all bets are off.