Maybe Ted Cruz and John Kasich looked at the numbers and just gave up. Or more likely, Republican grandees decided that short-circuiting the final primaries would deprive Donald Trump of the oxygen of campaigning, thus buying a few quiet weeks to regroup. Instead, the party’s slowly widening fracture is now a gaping, unbridgeable chasm. The Bushes, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Lindsey Graham can hold their collective breath until they pass out; their condemnations only strengthen Trump’s grip on the news cycle and further embolden his most ardent supporters. This is a candidate who understands only one language: brute animal dominance. Trump has won. A generation of unimaginative and entitled Republican careerists have lost. Period. It’s Trump’s campaign, Trump’s nominating convention, and—for now at least—Trump’s Republican Party.
That makes it all the more important to recognize that, while Trump is a captivating celebrity, his electoral appeal—at least thus far—remains narrow. His support cannot be called a movement; he merely stretches the edges of the permanent resentment faction—mostly white, mostly male—that has figured continuously in our political scene, in various guises, since the George Wallace campaign of 1968. Often, the resentment faction votes Republican, egged on by Roger Ailes’s Fox News and smart GOP operatives of the Lee Atwater/Roger Stone school, backed up by enthusiastic dog-whistle politicking from mainstream Republican officeholders like Reagan and the Bushes. Sometimes, if the dog whistles aren’t loud enough, the resentment faction stays home, as it largely did in 2012. Occasionally, it aligns with a protest candidate like Ross Perot. But it’s always with us.
To begin thinking sensibly about the campaign to come, take a close look at Trump’s numbers in the final primaries—not the percentages for each candidate, but the raw vote. One of the most salient facts of American politics—so easy to forget in these emotionally charged days—is that primaries are nearly always spectacularly low-turnout events. Most Americans wait them out, and this year is no different. Trump’s victory in my own state, Connecticut, on April 26, for example, was widely described as overwhelming, since he crushed Cruz and Kasich on the percentages. But that is only because, even in the highest-profile GOP primary in decades, the overwhelming majority of Connecticut Republicans stayed home. Out of 429,000 registered Republicans, in a state with 2.1 million registered voters overall, Trump won Connecticut with just 123,000 votes. In other words he secured what he is now claiming as a “mandate from the voters” from less than 6 percent of the Connecticut electorate. (Yes, Trump motivated 60,000 more Connecticut Republicans than Mitt Romney did four years ago, but that only speaks to Romney’s weakness late in the uninspiring 2012 primary, not to the breadth of Trump’s support.) The same pattern held for the final showdown in Indiana: Trump persuaded 590,000 Hoosiers to pull the lever for him, more than Romney garnered four years ago. But is that really a lot of votes when there are 4.6 million registered voters in the state, any of whom could have declared themselves Republican on primary day under the state’s rules? Trump’s knockout blow in Indiana came from just 13 percent of the eligible primary electorate.