Op-ed: The anti-establishment front-runner

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, October 25, 2015 4:36pm
  • Opinion

If we had been told at the beginning of the year that in October a Republican presidential candidate would be leading the polls nationally and in almost every state, drawing support from across all factions of the GOP and sucking up all the oxygen in the race, most people would have guessed Jeb Bush was going from strength to strength.

Of course, it is his nemesis and tormentor, Donald Trump, who is at the top of the heap. Trump is something new in Republican politics. He’s the anti-establishment front-runner.

Trump lacks many of the attributes of a traditional front-runner — the endorsements, the broad fundraising base (because he’s not really fundraising), the well-oiled campaign apparatus. What he does have is the polling strength, the dominance in the media and the ability to drive the debate. He is not the candidate of any one faction, but performs well across the spectrum and especially with GOP moderates.

He has usurped the position held by the strongest establishment candidate almost by default for decades, and reduced Bush, the presumptive heir to that slot, for now, to a well-funded also-ran.

It’s a different time with different players, but what has transpired so far would be a little like George W. Bush struggling against Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes in 2000.

Usually, other candidates measure themselves by the yardstick of the establishment front-runner. How do they match up against him? How can they exploit his vulnerabilities? In this race, it has often seemed that the most important strategic decision a candidate can make is deciding how to react to Trump.

Usually, the establishment front-runner gets disproportionate media attention by virtue of his strong position in the polls and the belief that he really could be president someday. Thanks to his media skills and his ratings, Trump gets this kind of press attention — and more.

Usually, insurgent candidates cluster on the right and cannibalize one another’s support, while a center-right establishment candidate consolidates the middle of the party. This time is different. With the rise of the outsiders, the field has been divided between political neophytes and everyone else — with everyone else fighting for running room the way the insurgents usually do.

It’s not that Trump has the outsider mantle to himself. Ben Carson is running a strong second and probably has more room for growth. It’s just that the outsider market share is so large. If you count Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz as outsiders (subject to debate), the latest Monmouth poll shows the traditional candidates collectively getting 25 percent.

Trump happened to arrive at a moment of palpable Republican disgust with the Republican Party. This made its voters susceptible to the charms of a candidate who, like Trump, is a walking incendiary device, and resistant to the appeal of a candidate who, like Bush, is almost stereotypically establishment — the big-donor-approved member of a family dynasty who got into the race accompanied by “shock-and-awe” presumptions of inevitability.

Bush became Trump’s perfect foil. And while many of the other candidates have sidestepped Trump, or dismissed him, or (rarely) skewered him effectively, Bush has repeatedly engaged in hand-to-hand combat with him, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it serves Trump’s interests to continually have opportunities to kidney-punch a son of the establishment.

If Trump is thriving for now, many of the qualities that make him different from a traditional front-runner have significant downsides. He’s not a steady hand. He’s not a conservative or even a center-right Republican with a broadly conservative record. He’s never held or run for office. He has little hope of uniting the entire party behind him, and if he stays this strong into next year, he will be the target of a fierce, no-holds-barred counterattack from within the party.

But he’s setting the pace. He’s the anti-establishment front-runner.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka and former President Donald Trump stand on stage during a July 2022 rally in Anchorage. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Tshibaka’s insincere defense of democracy

There are a lot of possible explanations why fewer votes were cast last November

Capitol
Opinion: Humanism and the billionaire class

Compromise is the right thing to do and they should do it.

tt
Opinion: The challenged truths of 3 elected representatives

“Politicians lying is nothing new.”

This photo shows the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The wrong way to define demand

And as glaciers go, the Mendenhall is only a minor attraction.

Zachary Hamilton (Courtesy photo)
Borough mayoral candidate: ‘The best is yet to come’

Zachary Hamilton is running for Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor in the special election

Love, INC in Soldotna, Alaska, provides homelessness prevention and housing services to people on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: COVID relief funds help homeless children in Alaska

We need to sustain this kind of investment.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Alaska must act now to capitalize on carbon markets

Alaska has vast forests and coastlines that can provide natural carbon management

1
Opinion: MLK Day clinics offered in the ‘spirit of service and advocacy for equality and social justice’

Attorneys across the state will be spending their holiday as “A Day On, Not a Day Off”

The M/V Tustumena comes into Homer after spending the day in Seldovia in 2010. (Homer News File)
Opinion: New federal funding could aid Alaska Marine Highway System

The evidence is clear that the AMHS is in grave danger of failing and moving into Alaska’s history books

(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: I’ve seen the union difference

As a community we can show solidarity…

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Sullivan’s irrelevance in defense of democracy

Two years ago this week, supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol…

People vote in polling booths at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: What’s on your 2023 schedule so far?

There is a Kenai Peninsula Borough Special Mayoral Election coming up in February