After Donald Trump slightly underperformed predictions last night for a second-place finish, I noted that some celebrating conservatives seemed to think (prematurely) that their nightmare was finally coming to an end. But I wouldn’t have guessed that any of them would take the results to suggest that Trumpism was never a real problem in the first place. Enter David Brooks, with a post-Iowa dispatch entitled “Donald Trump isn’t real.”
Brooks’s column has one overarching message: Don’t worry, the adults have returned. He hastens to announce the return of “normalcy,” the triumph of “the precedents of history,” and the end of Trump’s “showbiz theatrics.” Trump’s army of supporters turned out to be mere “reality TV watchers, not actually interested in politics or governance.” On caucus night, Brooks says, the movement predictably fizzled: “They didn’t show up.”
There’s just one problem: Almost any way you interpret that claim, it is simply wrong. Forty-five thousand Iowans did show up to vote for Trump, more than the 41,000 who voted for Mike Huckabee when he won in 2008, and far more than the 30,000 who propelled Rick Santorum to first place in 2012. Critics were quick to note the quirky math behind Brooks’s dismissal, but it’s especially dumbfounding when you consider how few resources Trump devoted to his campaign organization in Iowa. Despite his scattershot infrastructure and his inept attempts to signal affinity with conservative evangelicals, Trump still drew more votes than anybody except Ted Cruz. There’s something incongruous, then, about the claim that his supporters “didn’t show up”—especially when Brooks simultaneously celebrates the “amazing surge” of voters that propelled Marco Rubio to finish third (which, just to be clear, is behind second).
Now, to be fair, Rubio did slightly outperform expectations. But a third-place finish behind the likes of Cruz and Trump hardly shows, as Brooks puts it, that “the Republican electorate has not gone collectively insane.” And that would be true even if Rubio weren’t a candidate who wants to undo marriage equality, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, whose proposed tax cut is three times as costly as George W. Bush’s, who has almost promised a war with Iran, who denies anthropogenic climate change, and who has mused openly about the possibility of shutting down mosques. Yes, with Rubio in third, the sanity of GOP primary voters is firmly established. Who can remember what all this nasty Trump business was about, anyway? No more than an ugly sideshow—the rise of a xenophobic demagogue in today’s GOP was probably just a coincidence. Now it’s on to New Hampshire, where Trump currently leads by 22 points and Rubio is polling in fifth.