“Stranger things have happened,” U.S. Rep Keith Ellison warned scoffing commentators on a national network talk show a couple of weeks ago, after the East Coast pundits chortled at the idea that Donald Trump could actually win the Republican presidential nomination.
The stranger thing Ellison had in mind, of course, was Minnesota’s fabled “shock the world” election of Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998.
An important difference between Trump and Ventura may have emerged last week, with the first debate of the 2016 presidential marathon. It was Ventura’s debate appearances that propelled his candidacy 17 years ago, vividly contrasting his blunt and boastful flamboyance with his establishment rivals’ studied dullness.
But last week’s talent contest suggested that Trump plays better as a solo act — that he doesn’t really seem larger than life (only a wee bit louder) when seen side by side with the other 62 anti-Obamas in the race.
Still, Trump’s thin-skinned egotism, his permanent war with an adoring press, gives chills of recognition to anyone who remembers the Ventura era. It may only be prudent to ask whether Ellison’s spine-tingling analogy might have merit.
Could some of the trends in modern political life that helped the Body’s bombastic celebrity candidacy triumph now help the Donald’s bombastic celebrity candidacy become more lasting and consequential than many might like to think possible?
The key question would seem to be where Trump’s so-far unsettlingly strong support is coming from. Who are his admirers, and what’s motivating them? Keeping in mind how shaky and tentative poll results are at this stage, the answers seem murky but suggestive.
Analysts have noted that Trump backers are not as a group the most ideologically militant Republicans — and that gender is not an all-important dividing line where Trump is concerned.
The one pattern that seems fairly clear is that Trump does best among Republicans who are younger, less affluent and less educated.
This sort of appeal — if real and lasting — could be significant. This demographic group was vitally important for Ventura, too.
In his 2002 book, “Electing Jesse Ventura,” Jacob Lentz explains that in 1998 Ventura ran third (although a respectable third) behind two establishment rivals among Minnesota voters older than 45. He prevailed by winning handily among all voters younger than that.
Just as clearly, Lentz says, Ventura was elected through the strong support of what Lentz calls “dudes” — white voters, especially but not overwhelmingly men, with modest incomes and no more than a high school education.
The political importance and unpredictability of “dudes” (who go by many other aliases) is not news. For most of the past half-century, the restless discontents of white, working-class Americans have repeatedly shaken and reshaped American politics.
Working stiffs made up Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” (a moniker, one notices, that Trump has resurrected). They later were labeled “Reagan Democrats” and “angry white men,” and today they swell the ranks of the Tea Party. They are often the voters politicians are trying to woo when they ooze concern for the struggling middle class.
Much as we may lament it, affirming people in their resentments and fears is always, among all groups, a big part of politics — and “dudes” have long given enterprising “populists” plenty of hard feelings to work with. Not without reason, blue-collar America has for generations felt increasingly devalued and disrespected both economically and socially.
Trump doesn’t speak the Dudish tongue as a native, the way Ventura did. But he’s mastered a trash-talk dialect that conveys the same contempt for established elites and official experts, the same certainty that ordinary citizens are being bamboozled, and the same confidence that wreaking almost any sort of havoc in the existing order would be positive, as well as entertaining.
I need to note here that while he regularly undermined himself with boorish antics, Ventura in many ways did a surprisingly plausible job as governor. Still, like Trump he practiced politics almost as a form of prankish vandalism, a style that has always pleased the alienated, all across the ideological spectrum — especially young males.
Oddly, one of the facts of American political life that tends to insulate us against this instinct toward anarchic populism is regularly decried by our high-minded elites as a grave democratic flaw we must repair. It is the fact that the key demographic for Ventura/Trump-style mayhem politics — younger, less-affluent and less-educated Americans — don’t as a rule vote in large numbers.
A new Census Bureau report on voter turnout shows that just 23 percent of voters aged 18-34 cast ballots in 2014, compared with nearly 60 percent of those 65 and over. Only 34 percent of those with a high school education voted, compared with well over 50 percent for those holding college degrees. Just 35 percent of those with incomes from $20,000 to $30,000 voted, compared with 53 percent and above for those with incomes in excess of $75,000.
Ventura rode to victory in part on a turnout surge among those lagging groups. Is it wrong to hope that Trump will not?
Meanwhile, the Trump insurrection — in a different way than Ventura’s — is a reminder that another former bulwark against defiant maverick candidacies has been largely eroded.
Our broad-based major political parties have grown frail, unable any longer to reliably anoint unifying, coalition-building candidates of the political pros’ choosing, or to discipline members and politicians through control of political money and other resources. In their place are arising other, narrower money and power centers, including self-financed and celebrity candidates.
A century of well-meaning reform has abolished the bad old smoke-filled room and given us ... well we’re still in the process of finding out.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.