Every new year, in a spirit of self-examination, I try to catalog my worst blunders from the preceding year. But this year, like almost every pundit in America, I have one mistake that overshadows all the others, one confession that makes my other faults seem venial by comparison.
I underestimated Donald Trump.
To really make a clean breast on this issue, I have to reach back earlier than 2015 (some forecasts take more than a year to be disproved), to a column I wrote in the far-off days of the 2012 campaign, when Mitt Romney flew to Vegas, baby, to accept an endorsement from the Donald.
This struck me, at the time, as a needless move by Mitt, because it left him sticky with the tar of Trump's birther nonsense while delivering little in return. The idea that Romney needed the kind of voters excited by Trump's flamethrower style, I wrote, confused "the existence of a fan base (which Trump certainly has) with the existence of a meaningful constituency (which he almost certainly does not)." And even if there were real Trumpistas, Romney would win their allegiance eventually: "Anyone who thrills to Trump's slashing attacks on the president probably isn't sitting this election out." As a third-party candidate, I went on, Trump might pose some danger to Romney's general-election chances. But Trump's "third party rumblings are like his birther bluster -- sound and fury, signifying only ego." And Romney would risk little with conservatives by giving him the stiff arm. "Trump isn't Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin: His conservatism is feigned, his right-wing fans are temporary admirers with no deep commitment to his brand or cause, and hardly anyone in the conservative media is likely to rise to his defense."
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Now, if I were the sort to engage in special pleading, I would note that this may not have been technically wrong as an analysis of the status quo in 2012. I still don't think Trump would have run third party if Romney had stiffed him, for instance, and I'm quite sure that right-wing talk radio wouldn't have backed him if he had.
But don't let the technicalities fool you: I sold Trump wildly short, and his entire campaign to date has proved it.
First, Trump has had a very easy time turning his celebrity fan base into a meaningful constituency. Exactly how meaningful remains to be seen, but for months, far more Republicans have told pollsters that they intend to vote for him than have rallied to any other banner. They may not all be Trump voters in the end, but that there is a significant Trump faction in our politics no sane observer can deny.
Second, that faction has turned out to include precisely the kind of voters Romney needed in 2012 and who stayed home instead: Blue-collar whites with moderate views on economics and a weak attachment to the institutional GOP. (So weak, a recent New York Times analysis makes clear, that many are still registered Democrats.) These "missing white voters" might not have put Romney over the top, but they certainly would have helped his chances in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan -- all places where Trump is running strongly at the moment.
Third, even as he's wooed the disaffected and nonideological, Trump has also won over or at least neutralized an important segment of the conservative media. He isn't Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, sure, but they've both been covering for him, as have a raft of performers who like to portray themselves as keepers of True Conservatism's flame. And this cover has enabled Trump -- no True Conservative himself, to put it mildly -- to put together an unusual coalition, a mix of hard-right and radical-center voters, that's unlike anything in recent politics.
Now, if I wanted to avoid giving Trump his due, I could claim that I didn't underestimate him, I misread everyone else -- from the voters supporting him despite his demagoguery to the right-wing entertainers willing to forgive his ideological deviations.
I certainly overestimated poor Jeb Bush, whom I wrongly predicted would profit from Trump's rise. But for the rest -- no, I had a pretty low opinion of the right-wing entertainment complex to begin with, and I'm not remotely surprised that the white working class would rally to a candidate running on populist and nationalist themes.
I am very surprised, though, that Trump himself would have the political savvy, the (relative) discipline and yes, the stamina required to exploit that opening and become that populist. And for that failure of imagination, I humbly repent.
Of course, I'm not completely humbled. Indeed, I'm still proud enough to continue predicting, in defiance of national polling, that there's still no way that Trump will actually be the 2016 Republican nominee.
Trust me: I'm a pundit.
(And I'll see you in the confessional next year.)
Ross Douthat writes for the New York Times.