Though the Trump phenomena in this year’s presidential election is unlike anything we have seen before, it is probably something we should have expected.
For a very long time, candidates and commentators have criticized the American presidential selection process. The complaints are familiar. The election season lasts too long. It is filled with artificial news: gossip about exploratory committees, donor interest, strategist hires and oddly timed vacations to Iowa.
For months and months before anyone attends a caucus or casts a vote, candidates compete for money, endorsements, high rankings in meaningless straw polls and national media attention. The process is so long and so vapid that it is hard to take seriously, even though CNN manages to announce breaking news on a regular basis.
The early candidate debates are not debates. There is no Lincoln/Douglas exchange on the preeminent issue of the day. Instead, there is a crowded stage, a hyped up audience, rapid fire questions from media mavens, and pre-packaged sound bites that trigger brief rebuttals and awkward interruptions from candidates who have not been heard from lately. This is followed by live interviews in a crowded room of campaign spokespersons all simultaneously insisting that their candidate won.
Actually winning one of these debates involves spending over an hour and a half in front of television cameras without saying anything that will embarrass you for longer than a single news cycle.
In between the debates there is a constant and desperate search for any piece of information that might indicate that someone is rising, or someone else is falling, in the imaginary election that takes place in a steady stream of polls.
It is now so common to say that media coverage of presidential candidates resembles a “horse race” that online flashcards for the AP American Government exam advise high school students that some reference to horses running in a circle is likely to be the right answer to a multiple choice question about presidential politics.
The early contests when voters begin to express themselves take place in two small states that are utterly unrepresentative of the rest of the nation. The horses run on some very strange tracks.
While all of this early activity can be superficial, and sometimes silly, prospective candidates with no chance of ever winning join the fray as an easy way to garner publicity. Pat Paulsen, the comedian from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, got more than a thousand votes in the 1972 New Hampshire primary, and ran again in 1996. Pat Robertson, the televangelist, got almost 15,000 votes when he ran in the Granite State primary.
The ballots in New Hampshire include multiple listings for David Duke, the Ku Klux Klaner, and Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy peddler. Harold Stassen, a plausible candidate early in his political career, continued to run for the presidency long after anyone remembered who he was. Craig “Tax Freeze” Freis (a New Hampshire native who went to court to change his middle name from Raymond to Tax Freeze) got 0.7% of the Democratic vote in the 2012 primary.
These, of course, are the obscure contenders, but the newsworthy candidates are often not much better.
George Will, the dean of conservative commentators, has written that the “Republican winnowing process is far advanced. But the nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons.”
This quote comes out of the archives. Will was writing about a normal presidential election cycle, not one with Donald Trump taking victory laps after winning big in New Hampshire.
There is a history here. Complaining about problems in our presidential selection system has a long pedigree. The blame for how we got here is shared equally by both political parties along with the media, the donors, the highly paid campaign advisers and the candidates who tolerate the odd things that happen on the way to the White House.
Donald Trump is not really an anomaly. If you build a circus, you shouldn’t be surprised when a clown comes along and steals the show.
This essay originally appeared in the Roanoke Times on February 17, 2016.