Ross Douthat's conclusion is somewhat at odds with his opening, which is that "Donald Trump’s ascent has left almost everyone who writes about American politics in a state of post-traumatic shock" that "has us all suddenly considering the most unlikely of scenarios, a Trump presidency — which is a wise thing to consider." By column's end, Douthat seems to collect himself:
A series of debates between a man proudly unprepared for the office of the presidency and a woman of Clinton’s knowledge and experience should produce a predictable outcome: She should win, and he should lose.
This is not a hot take. It is a cold take, a boring take, a take that assumes that the political world, even now, is still relatively rule-bound and predictable.
I can't say that I have seriously pondered a Trump presidency, since all along the fundamentals have supported Douthat's larger, though implied, conclusion. Clinton will win both the debates and the White House because Trump is both "proudly" and conspicuously unprepared for the office of the presidency. Accordingly, Clinton has led Trump in national and swing-state polling with some consistency; and just as critical is that polled majorities have consistently deemed Trump "unqualified" for the presidency. For The Donald, that last electoral reality is as bleak as electoral realities come.
As for tomorrow night's debate, I'd wager big money (on margin, of course) that if Clinton somehow collapses and Trump "wins," the above fundamentals won't fundamentally change. Presidential debates "tend to confirm existing trends," as Karl Rove observed in a WSJ op-ed last week, which is an observation confirmed by decades of polling data. The most recent confirmation was President Obama's widely assessed "disaster" of a first debate with Mitt Romney — after which, Obama's lead remained pretty much intact.
On the other hand, Douthat is right to remind us that black swans are real creatures. It is traumatically imaginable (to use Douthat's descriptor) that Democrats in all their diversity stay home in November while dyspeptic, pitchforked white peasants turn out en masse. So perhaps it is wise to consider that "most unlikely of scenarios" — a Trump presidency; but on the other other hand, I can't see the wisdom of investing thoughtful time in pondering this particular, blackest of swans. Trump's presidential ascendancy would signify that American political thought and indeed the American political system are at their rudest of ends, and I, for one, would thereupon invest my time in getting a four-year visa in order. I'd much prefer not to have a cot in Bedlam.
Barring the immensely unlikely calamity of a black electoral swan descending on us like an unhinged pterodactyl, however, we shall all have time to ponder What Is To Be Done? about an American electorate of which, seemingly, 40 percent are as pixilated as Donald Trump. And yet even that worthier contemplation could well be be a waste of time, for we'll be helpless, since the political guidance of that 40 percent will be in the hands of the Grand Old Party, whose grandness withered long ago.
One does imagine another reasonably intelligent autopsy report, to be followed by those pitchforked hordes demanding that the Republican Party's anarchic insanity be accentuated for another four years. The essence of pragmatic electoral politics will then dictate from the top what was dictated in 2013: To hell with the long-term health of the GOP; the midterms are exigent, they press down with the diseased audacity of now, so crank up the insanity.
Such is the likely scenario. Still, there is also that of a white swan floating on the calmer, more thoughtful waters of easily perceived doom. The 40 percent are demographically destined to decline, 2020 will be another no-go for the White House, and ultimately even Republicans' congressional power will diminish into impotence. Perhaps, then, party leaders of some vision and resurrected grandness will see the higher pragmatism of cutting their future losses by cutting the pitchforked among the 40 percent. Because what I omitted in the above assessment is that not all of the 40 percent carry pitchforks. Indeed most will vote for Trump out of no principle but that of partisan allegiance — and the contours of partisanship can be remolded. Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964 with the stroke of a pen; Ronald Reagan further realigned partisanship by introducing the pseudoconservative madness we see today. And whatever is introduced can be reversed.
The reversal is possible. It would come as a breed of black swan to the lunatics, but as a kind of radiant phoenix to the GOP. It is the party's only hope of electoral resurrection.