Rick Perry’s political career ended with a whimper, a remarkable if predictable fall for the longest-serving governor in Texas history and a leader many considered the Republican Party’s savior just four years ago.

History may judge the end as sealed back in 2011, when Perry froze on a debate stage and tried to recover with an embarrassed “oops.” Others may remember the former governor with the movie-star looks and a resume of successes as Donald Trump’s first political victim.

Perry all but declared war on the billionaire businessman in July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” who could destroy the Republican Party. On Saturday, Trump’s campaign was soaring while Perry’s White House ambitions were dead. And with Trump suffocating the rest of the packed field, it’s only a matter of time before he helps push another GOP candidate out of the race…

“There is no play in the playbook for where we are right now,” said John Jordan, a California winery owner and major Republican fundraiser. “Donors don’t know what to think. Nobody saw the Trump phenomenon coming. Probably a lot of Jeb donors wish they had their money back.”

Perry, a national laughingstock after the 2012 campaign, has been transformed into a symbol of the debate the Republican Party is being robbed from having. Just as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty became the mascot for people who wanted to end the Iowa Straw Poll, critics of Donald Trump are waving battered Perry 2016 bumper stickers

“Trump may yet fell even better men than Perry,” says S.E. Cupp, a conservative CNN commentator who had covered Perry’s murder board-style attempt to become a better candidate. “The casualties will be many, and Trump’s sword is capricious and dispassionate. It probably didn’t help that Perry came out swinging the hardest against Trump first.”…

Rick Perry was like Luke Wilson’s hero character in “Idiocracy” — lost in the Costco, surrounded by people who preferred to drink Brawndo than to hear about criminal justice reform. “I thought he was tackling the big issues facing the country,” former Perry adviser Avik Roy said Monday on Fox Business. “The persistence of black poverty, Wall Street reform, the Middle East. But that’s not what the polls show people care about.”…

The beautiful thing about these theories is that they’re impossible to knock down. We simply did not live in a country that was willing to look past “oops.” Perry’s alternately gripping and rambling speeches were so little-noticed that his grand exit, with its call for compassion to non-white Americans, will be his eulogy. The media is already feeling some guilt about round-the-clock Trump coverage, so it’s ready to wear the hairshirt.

“You had this unbelievable freak of nature Donald Trump come in and take every bit of oxygen out of the race,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican political consultant in Austin.

Factors that long worked in Perry’s favor — including longevity in public service — worked against him.

“Trump reshuffled the deck,” Miller said. “And all of the sudden this is about people who haven’t held office and people who are outsiders.”

“I think it’s clear that people are sending a strong message that they want significant change in Washington,” said Deirdre Delisi, a former chief of staff for Perry. “Rick Perry was just an innocent victim of that message.”

On June 16, in the air-conditioned lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, Trump rode down an escalator and launched his own campaign for president, touting the opposite: his lack of experience in government. “Politicians are all talk, no action,” Trump riffed. “Nothing’s gonna get done.”

Over the next few weeks, Perry stayed the course he had set over years of preparation to run for president again: delivering detailed policy speeches and proposals, presenting himself as the adult in the room…

But Republican voters at this moment appear not to want sober policy prescriptions or dense government résumés. They want Trump.

“With the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, there was just no room,” said Walter Whetsell, a senior adviser to Perry in South Carolina. “There was no air. There was no oxygen for someone like Rick Perry to get a second chance.”

“He’s a nice man,” the business mogul said of Perry, speaking to reporters after a campaign rally in Boone, Iowa, Saturday. “I knew him before he went a little bit hostile. And he went hostile in order to try and get some traction. It didn’t work.”

“Actually,” Trump added, “so far it hasn’t worked for anybody.”…

“Somebody will attack,” Trump said. “You know, somebody like a Rand Paul, who’s down 2 percent. He’ll maybe attack. He’s been very nasty lately. He’s been very nice, very nice, and all of a sudden about a week ago, he started attacking because his poll numbers are down.”…

“Now, I don’t know if that’s because of me,” Trump said. “But it certainly seems to be unlucky to attack me.”

To assess the flow of support among the many candidates since Mr. Trump entered the race in June, I turned to panel data collected by the survey research firm YouGov. In August, the firm re-interviewed 1,418 people it first interviewed in May…

These voters came to Mr. Trump from all of the other candidates, but a disproportionate share of voters for Mr. Perry and Chris Christie abandoned them for Mr. Trump. Mr. Perry lost more than 60 percent of his May support to Mr. Trump, perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

Since his surgery, Perry couldn’t wear cowboy boots anymore. But he still had the power to blow away the room with a speech. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, for example, he took the toughest speaking slot—9 a.m.—and somehow managed to bring the sleepy crowd to its feet. But in the straw poll afterward, he drew just 3 percent. People liked him. They liked hearing him talk. They just didn’t think he should be president, and nothing Perry did could convince them otherwise. (Sound familiar, Chris Christie?) In a presidential cycle where we keep hearing how paramount the power of authenticity is for voters, Perry is a reminder that charisma only gets you so far.

He’s also a reminder of the immigration issue’s continuing power to tear the GOP apart—a fissure Republicans were determined to solve after 2012 but have instead seen only deepen, aided by Trump. Like many Texas Republicans, Perry has been close enough to the border issue to see it in subtler terms. For a time, the Texas GOP even had an immigration-reform plank in its platform. But as Perryism has been replaced in Texas by Cruzism, that nuance, too, has fallen by the wayside. In the speech Friday in which he announced he was suspending his campaign, Perry made this his parting warning: “We cannot indulge nativist appeals that divide the nation further,” he said, calling for an immigration debate “without inflammatory rhetoric, without base appeals that divide us based on race, culture and creed.”

The smart-guy role he adopted for the 2016 campaign never quite fit Perry. He seemed tentative and trying-too-hard in the first Republican debate, which saw him—Texas’s longest-serving governor!—relegated to the pre-prime-time junior-varsity stakes. In public appearances, his folksy delivery could be at odds with his new, multisyllabic scripts. But Perry was no idiot. In Texas, he took a structurally weak governorship and gave it heft, using appointments to strengthen and consolidate executive power. He didn’t win all those elections by accident. And in the end, his political smarts forced him to see the reality. He won’t be president, but in his final campaign, Rick Perry may have found some measure of redemption. Adios, mofo.

The governor’s exit from the race should be a chilling reminder to the other contenders of just what they’re getting themselves into when they head to the CNN debate stage next week. Perry was an A-list candidate back in 2012, snatching Michele Bachmann’s momentum from her Iowa Straw Poll win and drawing crowds. This time four years ago, he was leading the polls in the race for the 2012 GOP nomination.

But his one debate gaffe—when he couldn’t name the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate—ended that effort. The damage lasted; Perry’s “whoops” flub came up in virtually all the coverage of his 2016 bid, and became the defining moment of his political career

The governor presided over the implementation of criminal justice reform in Texas that resulted in prison closures, lower incarceration rates, and less crime. His willingness to embrace that issue made it easier for other conservative governors and legislatures to follow suit. And it gave political cover to Republican politicians in Washington, who followed his lead and embraced efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

But it wasn’t enough to get his campaign the requisite juice.

In my forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail, I document how several Republican presidents, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, all profited politically by feigning a sort of everyman ignorance. After losing a congressional bid, Dubya reportedly vowed that he’d never be “out-countried” again. This was smart short-term politics, but it also reinforced the notion that the GOP was the “stupid” party. That’s a notion that haunts us, and Perry, to this day.

For a long time, though, being a “good ol’ boy” was decidedly better than being an effete urbanite, and Republicans liked this contrast. Times are changing. Republicans are running out of old, white, married, rural voters. Being a “cowboy conservative” ain’t what it used to be

The stereotypes that George W. Bush helped cement about the “dumb” swaggering cowboy made it almost impossible for Rick Perry to reinvent himself. The two men were never particularly close, but the prospect of electing another Texas governor (literally, the next Texas governor after Bush) was always going to be a tough sell, especially since the two were stylistically very similar. Bush left office extremely unpopular, and didn’t just damage the Republican brand; he did specific damage to a particular type of Republican…

It’s hard enough to get a second chance to make a first impression, but it becomes doubly difficult when your persona viscerally reinforces urban America’s pre-existing negative notions about Southerners. These biases and stereotypes may not be fair. But whoever said running for president would be? In the end, Perry’s accent and swagger were too much a part of our collective conscience for even hipster glasses to overcome.

The GOP needed Rick Perry in these debates. Not because he is particularly great at debating — he’s not. And not because he has experienced any of the normal upward twitches associated with a successful campaign — he didn’t. He should have been up there because anyone with any damn sense in their head knows he’s better qualified than half of the people on the stage, and he has a better story to tell…

There are people who matter in this process, the people who populate the mediating institutions of our politics in the Republican National Committee and in the media organizations that come up with rules for entry. And stupidly, these mediating institutions surrendered their own authority to that of opinion polls during a time when almost no one is paying attention to the election. They think it makes them look impartial and fair. It doesn’t. With 17 candidates, and so little mental energy to sort between them, any low-polling candidate could rip a memorable fart in the undercard debate and get enough free press and a subsequent polling bump to get into the top tier…

That Rick Perry’s candidacy was buried by early polling numbers is a travesty. It’s an over-worshipful deference to democratic-looking tools, like opinion polls. The result is a process that unnaturally favors electoral-curiosities like Ben Carson, or candidates who can only credibly represent one sect within the national party, like Mike Huckabee. Or free-media bonanza candidates like Donald Trump…

For the sake of the party, for the sake of honoring the success of Republican governance in a large state, Rick Perry’s presidential aspirations needed to be protected from the hurricane-season of stupidity. He didn’t lose because he is a loser. He lost the way great poker players lose at tournaments with too many players. Pure dumb luck.

Perry is a victim of Trumpism

[T]he problem is that Rick Perry has spent the years since his last presidential campaign establishing himself as a thoughtful conservative. He tried to set himself up for this run by giving interesting speeches with a fresh message on serious issues like poverty and national security. But in the year when the Trumpenproles deride people who think, he was a man out of step with the times. Perry was the guy who had studied and mastered the details of policy, in a year when it’s becoming a running joke that the front-runner offers no policy details whatsoever.

In short, Rick Perry was the thoughtful adult—down to the horn-rimmed glasses—in the year when a whole section of the conservative “base” decided what it wanted was a loud, thrashing temper tantrum

Perry may be leaving the race, but he leaves looking like a man of dignity, character, principles, and “durable life qualities.” Which, alas, is exactly what we needed in the race right now.

Trump also has his finger on the pulse of the nation in a way that none of the other candidates except perhaps Bernie Sanders does. According to Gallup, the percentage of people who are “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States” has been below 50 percent since early 2004. That is a very long time. Or as Trump says, We don’t win anymore. Moreover, Congress’s ratings have been persistently under water since then, and neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has been especially popular. Or as Trump says, Our politicians are losers…

Republican politicians should be worried about Trump, but not for the reason most of them are. Trump is never going to be the nominee. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina care about the issues a lot more than Trump does. If he is still in first place by the new year, the candidates, their super-PACs, and outside groups will blanket the airwaves with attacks on his many deviations from conservative orthodoxy. That will surely be the end.

A Trump victory is not what should worry the GOP. Rather, the party should worry that, with the field of candidates full of professional politicians, only Donald Trump—the real-estate tycoon from Manhattan who gave money to Hillary Clinton—actually understands the mood of Republican voters in middle America. And Trump is the only one of the bunch who is having any fun.