- - Sunday, February 28, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The late George McGovern told of walking into the airport in Minneapolis two or three days after losing all 50 states to Richard Nixon in 1972. A man and his 8-year-old son walked up to him, a friendly hand extended, and told him that he had voted for him and he was disappointed that he lost. The little boy looked up at Mr. McGovern and told him brightly: “Don’t feel too bad. Second place is pretty good.”

But making second place is no solace at all in politics, a fact that finally dawned on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the last Republican debate, when they performed as if they finally understood that it won’t matter which of them keeps finishing second to Donald Trump in the primaries and caucuses as long as the Donald finishes first. Instead of calling each other names, Messrs. Cruz and Rubio swung the artillery around to aim it squarely at the Donald, and at last pulled the lanyard. The result was sharp, loud and nasty, revealing and entertaining, and the nation will know whether the blows landed to make a difference only when the votes are counted in the Super Tuesday primaries Tuesday night.

Alas, the Trump campaign isn’t really about the details of Obamacare, or what to do about chicanery and worse in the Middle East, or how deeply the front-runner understands the nuances of dealing with despots and dictators. Mr. Trump’s followers are lined up behind him because they like the very things his opponents detest in him, his loud denunciation of the politically correct choking everyone, and his proud ignorance of the insider information every candidate for president before him has always demonstrated as the credentials of qualification. Donald Trump insists that he doesn’t need that because he’s the man of action who will get results.

He’s not a conservative and doesn’t claim to be, so Ted Cruz’s attacks on him as insufficiently conservative hardly damage him; his followers are intrigued and impressed enough by the business shortcuts and braggadocio that so troubles Marco Rubio. Had the Republican candidates made Mr. Trump’s loud mouth and empty suit an issue a few months ago the other campaigns might have been strangled the Trump phenomenon in the cradle. But the cradle has been abandoned now, and Messrs. Rubio and Cruz confront a force of nature who looks more like Rosemary’s baby than the super hero the Trump fans think they see. It’s difficult to see how he can be stopped now because his support crosses ideological, ethnic and any other lines anyone can draw. He’s running as if in a parallel universe, with rules no one in this universe can understand.

With high negatives, Mr. Trump will, if nominated, risk turning the country over to a Democrat with equally high negatives, but his supporters are cheerfully willing to risk that, so great is their anger at the weak and ineffectual elites who have scorned them for so long. But a man whose only anchor is “the art of the deal” might well trade away almost anything to make that deal. Indeed, he might not even be aware of what it is that he is trading away. When his followers finally see him revealed as not the man they believed he was, those followers will be left to seethe in a bitter stew of rage and frustration they helped make. There are laps to go in this race that is not over yet, but that gargling sound just offstage may be the fat lady oiling her throat. She may be about to break into song.


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