At one level, Trump’s survival, so far, is less a testament to his shrewdness—though it is a disservice to claim he hasn’t been shrewd—than it is to Washington’s studied cowardice. Trump is not only making gaffes, he’s brashly owning them, daring the political gods to smite him in what has become an epic rebuke to the dull, predictable, cautious political culture that everyone outside the Beltway has learned to recognize and abhor. In terror of the gaffe, candidates have increasingly immersed their true selves behind carefully vetted talking points, anodyne scripts, and cynical consultants, all with the primary purpose of suffocating in its cradle anything approaching a cavalier statement, never mind a surprising or provocative thought.
The culmination of this effort is before us: the enthusiasm-starved campaign of Hillary Clinton, who over her decades in politics has perfected the talent of making even the most cutting-edge idea immediately sound like a cliche. Set against this apotheosis of safe, gaffe-free politics, millions have delightedly embraced a man who seems to recognize their appetite for something recognizably real, even if it’s vulgar and offensive. His gaffes aren’t a sideshow: they’re integral to his pitch. For this cohort, a vote for Trump is a vote to make the safe, protected, consultant-scripted lives of everyone in D.C. miserable every single day, because they’ve earned it.
The larger explanation for the Trump phenomenon is even more unsettling for Washington’s political class, especially the media. They have lost their power. Only a decade or two ago, the media world was confined to a group of people in D.C. and New York—a group that largely knew each other, mingled in the same places, vacationed in the same locales. The most influential members of the group routinely defined what constituted a gaffe, others echoed that view, and it became the conventional wisdom for the rest of America. In the age of the Internet, with bloggers spread out across the nation, and multiple platforms across the political spectrum, that’s no longer possible. The growing divergence between these “insiders” and the new “outsiders” has played to Trump’s benefit, every single time he made what was once conceived as a “game-changing” error.