Updated 11 months, 3 weeks ago

The mathematical chances of Trump winning the GOP nomination

I was asking myself this question while watching last Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, a contest now featuring only a basketball-team-sized field. One answer is that his opponents — a soporific neurosurgeon, a folksy governor, a hyperventilating middle-schooler, and a brilliant Dark Lord — are unappealing in four very different ways. But to listen just to Donald Trump’s opening statement, it boggles the mind how he has won three of the first four votes on the road to the GOP nomination. Here is what he said:

"Thank you. My whole theme is make America great again. We don't win anymore as a country. We don't win with trade; we don't win with the military. ISIS, we can't even knock out ISIS, and we will, believe me. We will. We don't win in any capacity with health care. We have terrible health care; Obamacare is going to be repealed and replaced. We just don't win. You look at our borders, they're like Swiss cheese; everybody pours in. We're going to make a great country again. We're going to start winning again. We're going to win a lot; it's going to be a big difference, believe me. It's going to be a big difference."

These are the empty ramblings of a yahoo with only the vaguest of promises to “win” and be “great.” The message lacks tact, detail, nuance and — "it’s going to be a big difference,” repeated for emphasis — even sense. This is not the appeal of a would-be statesman. Nor were his nonresponsive answers to charges from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. (Rather than confront the substance of the critiques, he bragged about how wealthy he is, how well he’s doing in the polls and how none of Cruz’s colleagues are endorsing him: The “I’m rich and nobody likes you” approach of a grade-school bully.) Yet these and much more offensive messages seem to be working for Trump, as he maintains a strong lead in national polls and in most of the states set to vote next week in 12 Super Tuesday primaries. The man has, according to one calculation, a 90 percent chance of being the GOP nominee on the ballot in November.

What’s going on? Will Wilkinson, a former Big Thinker, tweeted this week that while he’s “not convinced Trump would be a disaster as president” — presumably because of the formidable constitutional, institutional, and political constraints that limit how much damage (or good) any president can do — he is “convinced a Trump win would be proof of a preexisting cultural disaster.” I think that’s just about right. A New York Times analysis of exit polls from South Carolina and other survey data reports that Trump supporters are thoroughly intolerant of people unlike themselves. People who want to ban Muslims from coming into the United States, not so surprisingly, flock to Trump. But so do voters with bones to pick with other large, undifferentiated groups of people: gays, blacks, and foreigners, to name a few.

One-third of Trump supporters look fondly on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, while only around one-tenth of Marco Rubio and John Kasich voters hold this discredited view. Seventy-eight percent of GOP voters in South Carolina say they oppose the idea that whites are a superior race, but only 69 percent of Trump supporters do. Seventy percent of Trumpites oppose the decision to lower the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina statehouse in the wake of last year’s deadly shooting in a Charleston church, and 38 percent lament that the South did not win the Civil War. Maybe most alarmingly, nearly one in five Trump voters admits to opposing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 move to free southern slaves. And a third of Trump supporters would like to ban gays and lesbians from entering the United States.

As The Economist puts it: “One way to judge politicians is by whether they appeal to our better natures.” By that measure, Trump is a worrying figure. He has found his success by “inciting hatred and violence” and is “so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying.” Matthew MacWilliams presents his own research at Vox showing that Trump voters are particularly susceptible to “authoritarian” attitudes and behavior, which means they mistrust people different from themselves and are particularly responsive to appeals to fear.

If fear drives more voters to support Trump, as the data suggests happened in South Carolina, then Trump’s support is only limited by the extent of that fear. That means his popularity could potentially receive a boost if, for example, there is another terrorist attack on the West like those in San Bernardino and Paris. Or, perhaps, if there is heightened media attention on terrorism.

It’s not news that America is home to xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and stupidity. But Trump’s rise is sad evidence that these stains on the populace are deeper, wider and more indelible that anyone may have guessed.

Big Think | by STEVEN MAZIE