Commentary: Trump’s N.H. Win A Triumph Over Conventional Wisdom

GOP candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters Tuesday night after being declared the winner of the New Hampshire primary. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
GOP candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters Tuesday night after being declared the winner of the New Hampshire primary. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Donald “The Donald” Trump clinched a resounding victory in New Hampshire. And it’s not just a personal triumph. It’s a victory over conventional wisdom, the Republican establishment, conservative intellectuals and civility.

Quite a few GOP candidates were trumped along the way. Have you already forgotten Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore? Wait a minute, I think that last one didn’t officially quit yet. Anyway, Trump has triumphed over many “career politicians” and is happy to remind you that he’s only been a politician for six months.

It has seemed like a long six months. Trump entered the race with high/low expectations — high expectations that he’d be entertaining as a “reality star” faking his way through a new reality; and low expectations about his actually doing well in the polls, let alone winning any primaries.

But here we are, six months of controversy later. Donald J. Trump has solidly won the New Hampshire primary.

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu has said, “Iowans pick corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents.” I suspect he’ll redefine “picking” to mean “picking the top contenders; one of whom will become the nominee.” But there’s no denying that Trump was successful in first attracting around 30 percent in New Hampshire, and then holding on to it.

How did this crazy thing happen? How did a boastful, brash billionaire win the support of so many supposedly conservative voters? After all, if conservative means being traditional and favoring only gradual, safe changes … what happened? Trump seems like a very un-conservative personality. He’s prone to insult and even uses profanity.

Jeb Bush warned Trump in debates and ads that he wouldn’t insult his way to the White House, but that theory seems a little shakier now.

The loyalty of Trump fans to their candidate isn’t exactly blind, but it might be said to be deaf — many won’t tolerate hearing anything negative about him, especially if in the guise of “facts.” They don’t mind his inconsistency on issues — changing not just liberal views from a few years ago, but changing positions from week to week. That’s one example of how the “political rules” have been turned upside down. Yes, we recall the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and yes, we know the cynical point that “politicians say whatever voters want to hear.” But can you think of another candidate in U.S. history who has so drastically changed positions on so many issues in such a short period?

Again, just asking that question is blasphemy to Trump fans. And I suppose in analyzing his success we shouldn’t question it. We should, like so many of his supporters, just take his success as a given. He is, after all, a winner! Even coming in second in Iowa was winning, he explains. Even his corporate bankruptcies were wins, he explains.

So, on he goes, to South Carolina.

That will be a more conservative battlefield for him. Like Iowa, there are more religious conservatives in South Carolina. But Trump says “the evangelicals” love him. So one assumes he will again bring out his Bible as a prop — and don’t forget that he likes both testaments equally; the one with “eye for an eye” and the one with “turn your other cheek” — and he’ll boast that he is Christian and Protestant and Presbyterian, all three. But will the opposition be as reverent about him? Or will an opponent take today’s advice from GOP strategist Stuart Stevens and make a radio ad for Christian radio stations with Trump sound bites where he’s bleeped for vulgarity?

We’ll see how Trump performs when he has fewer rivals to split the vote. Does he have a ceiling of something like 40 percent going forward? If so, he needs to keep his rivals splitting the non-Trump vote. To conquer, he needs to divide. Perhaps that’s why he keeps taking jabs at Jeb — he wants to give him more media attention as a boost, to keep him in the race.

Most of his opponents have been reluctant to attack him; certainly not in the vicious way Trump mocked Ben Carson when the neurosurgeon threatened to overtake him in Iowa. Will they become more aggressive in making a case against Trump? Will they be more prosecutorial, as Chris Christie was against Marco Rubio in the recent debate? Or will they continue to avoid Trump for fear of being mocked by him?

Meanwhile, Trump is triumphant. And the “more subdued Trump” we’ve been hearing about after he came in second in Iowa will likely disappear like a losing celebrity apprentice. Expect the old Trump to return. He still has opponents to insult, and fans to praise for loving him.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.

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