Until a few months ago, the conventional wisdom among political insiders was that Donald Trump's presidential campaign was, if not a piece of absurdist performance art, then at least extremely unlikely to live up to the hype it had generated, once actual Americans started casting actual votes in actual states. Then, after Trump's poll numbers held up in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the conventional wisdom shifted. Trump became seen as, if not the Republican Party's presumptive nominee, then at least a highly competitive front-runner.
I am not a political insider. I do not mainline Quinnipiac polls, attend Tammy Haddad brunches, or have strong feelings about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I am a writer and an American voter who, until tonight, had processed the news of Donald Trump's political legitimacy using what psychologists call "partitioning," and non-psychologists call "lying to my damn self." With every lopsided poll, every would-be Republican nominee who fell under Trump's steamroller, I plugged my ears and la-laaaa-laaaaa'd my way to a good night's sleep.
But tonight, after watching Trump absolutely murder the New Hampshire primaries, the partition dividing my self-deluding subconscious from my rational mind came down like the walls of a bankrupt Atlantic City casino, and it hit me:
Donald J. Trump could become the fucking president.
Trump's dominance has been apparent for months to pollsters and political junkies (not to mention Republican operatives, who long ago progressed to the bargaining stage of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle). But I—like most actual, professional political pundits at some point in this election cycle—had managed to concoct various reasons that Trump wouldn't actually win. Nate Silver predicted that Republicans would turn on him, Ezra Klein sketched out what a Trump loss would look like, and David Brooks proclaimed that Trump's "turnout problem" would doom him in Iowa. Ross Douthat said, point blank, "Donald Trump isn't going to be the Republican nominee," and Bill Kristol prophesied that Trump's "mystique" would disappear after he lost in Iowa. For these people — and for people like me, who watch politics but not with the ardor of a national political columnist — there seemed to be plausible reasons that Trump's nativist appeal, rich man's bluster, and extraordinary media savvy might not be enough to carry him to victory. There might be an out.
But there's no out now. Real people in real states are casting real votes, and it's entirely plausible that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. It's even possible that he will win the general election.
And if you're a person, like me, who hadn't quite wrapped your head around the idea that the 45th President of the United States, a successor to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the commander-in-chief of the United States military, the possessor of the launch codes to thousands of nuclear weapons, and the standard-bearer of America's reputation around the world could be a man who:
- Has never held political office
- Has no longstanding commitment to any identifiable set of political beliefs, other than "winning"
- Has called Mexican immigrants "rapists"
- Has repeatedly smeared women with sexist and derogatory terms
- Has said that, as President, he would deport a number of undocumented immigrants comparable to the entire population of Ohio
- Has called global warming a "total hoax"
- Has called for the reintroduction of waterboarding on wartime prisoners
- Has called for the killing of terrorists' families, a violation of the Geneva Conventions
- Has called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States
- Spearheaded a nationwide conspiracy theory about the legitimacy of Barack Obama's birth certificate
…well, buddy, it's time to shed the scales and see the light.
It's still too early to call the Republican nomination for Trump, of course, to say nothing of the general election, where Trump's low nationwide favorability ratings could doom him. There is still plenty of time for Republican primary voters to change their minds, and opt for a safer, less volatile candidate to represent them in November, and the New Hampshire primary hasn't always been historically predictive. (Just ask 2008 winner Hillary Clinton.)
But if Trump does lock up the Republican nomination with a series of victories in the next few weeks, it might not take much for him to win in November — a major misstep by the Clinton or Sanders campaign could do it, as could an economic recession, a late third-party entry by Michael Bloomberg, an exogenous shock like a terror attack, or something else nobody has thought of yet.
For me, and for the increasingly few people still living in denial about Trump's electoral chances, let this be your wake-up call. This isn't a drill: Trump almost won in Iowa, he won in a landslide in New Hampshire, and there's a very real chance that he could keep winning, all the way to the White House.
I need to lie down.