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Former John McCain adviser Steve Schmidt has aptly summed up the appeal of Donald Trump, saying in August that Trump says in public those things that many Republican voters "across this country are yelling at their televisions." Last week, in the aftermath of the terrorist assault on Paris, Trump showed anew that he authentically voices the anger and frustration of a majority of the GOP electorate. As such, while the odds remain against it, the likelihood of Trump becoming the Republican presidential nominee has gone from persistent longshot to something nearing 2:1 in the past 10 days.
As has been shown continually since the bizarre kickoff of his campaign in June, Trump has a knack for articulating a core authoritarianism that dominates GOP partisan activists. Authoritarianism is a world view expressing hostility to those groups that threaten to disrupt a tidy American social order and sees foreign affairs as a clear battle between good and evil that must be addressed with aggression wherever that threat asserts itself. Over the past couple of generations, such authoritarians have increasingly become the core of the GOP electorate (just as their nonauthoritarian counterparts have come to represent the healthy majority of Democratic activists). While authoritarianism and nonauthoritarianism are core personality traits, the political context can accentuate one or the other. Because of the chilling fear created by the attacks witnessed in Paris on Nov. 13 (and the lingering sense that other terroristic events will occur across the globe), perhaps the most potent activator of authoritarian sentiment has come to the fore.
Of course, as Schmidt's quote suggests, it is not just the substance but the style of Trump's presentation that connects him to this bulk of GOP voters. And, the events of a week ago in Paris provided Trump another opportunity to show off his authoritarian rhetoric and affect in a series of outrageous statements that The Economist's David Rennie accurately identified last week as "security theatre rather than serious security." In addition to a hard line on Syrian refugees, Trump voiced support for a mass database capturing information on the millions of American Muslims and the ongoing surveillance (and possible closure) of mosques. Moreover, his comments on the topics were not just delivered but performed by this master of reality television.
All competitors for the GOP nomination played to authoritarian sentiments on the issue of Syrian refugee entrance into the United States, but, in doing so, most — especially Jeb Bush and John Kasich — were simply unwilling to cross a line that Trump was all too willing to transgress. As Bush said Sunday, in reference to Trump's earlier statements: "You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people. That's just wrong."
Marco Rubio, who has legitimate political talent and continues to make slow progress in the GOP race, scored points for technical merit but not artistry in his authoritarianism. Rubio's kickoff television advertisement is classic in its employment of authoritarian themes: "This is a civilizational struggle between the values of freedom and liberty, and radical Islamic terror. ... There is no middle ground," Rubio says in the spot, in which he speaks calmly to the camera. However, the stylistic contrast with Trump is sharp — from the employment of the word "civilizational" to the smooth voice — and Rubio's style is mismatched with his intense rhetoric.
Two other GOP candidates — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — do have the ability to employ the authentic bombast appropriate to the GOP electorate at this moment. As Christie still carries the albatross of Bridgegate, it is Cruz — along with Rubio, rising noticeably in national and early state polls — who will likely emerge as the viable alternative, particularly as he is the most natural home of Ben Carson adherents if the doctor's candidacy fades.
However, as we are now entering a monthlong holiday period where little fundamental alteration in the presidential sweepstakes will occur, Trump will enter the post-New Year's Day homestretch to the Iowa caucus solidly ahead in national (and Iowa) surveys. While the odds remain against his nomination, the path to it is nearly as clear as any of his counterparts as Trump shows a synchronicity with the GOP electorate at this disconcerting moment in political time.