As you’ve likely heard, Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain coasted to significant victories last night in their respective primaries, in much the same way that Speaker Paul Ryan easily bested his Trumpian challenger earlier in the month. As Charles C. W. Cooke writes writes on NRO, this suggests an obvious question:
In Arizona last night, John McCain beat his primary opponent by ten points. McCain was a key member of the “Gang of Eight.” He has a reputation as a “squish.” He has been an elected official since 1982. Why weren’t these figures swept away? How, in this “climate,” could they possibly have won? Where was the “anger”; the “frustration”; the “revolt”? Back in 2010, the Tea Party became a credible movement because it actually got its candidates nominated — and elected. What, other than benefit briefly from a perfect storm, has the Trump Party done?
Cooke concludes that Trump is sui generis and that his win in the primaries is better understood as a testimony to Trump’s personality, skill, and good fortune than to his policy positions or a genuine anti-incumbency movement.
I’d wager that Cooke is correct and that Trumpism is a one-hit wonder whose success in the presidential primaries will be extremely difficult to reproduce. However, that’s a very convenient conclusion for a NeverTrumper — like Cooke or me — to draw and it’s always a mistake to stop at the first theory fits the facts, especially if it’s narratively satisfying.
One alternative — or, perhaps, complimentary — theory is that the Tea Party is the victim of its own success. To begin with, it taught the Republican Party that a party revolt actually can send long-term incumbents packing, as it did Bob Bennett, Charlie Crist, Trey Grayson, and Mike Castle, among others. If you’ll forgive an unkind analogy, it’s similar to how al-Qaeda’s success on 9-11 made any subsequent attempts to hijack aircraft significantly more difficult. Moreover, several of those once-scrappy-challengers (e.g., Rubio) are now the established incumbents.
The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain how Trump could have succeeded at the presidential level (against some of the same players) while his followers have largely failed elsewhere (to be clear, Trump-friendly candidates have won primaries, at least two unseating incumbent congressmen). On the other hand, the 2012 election had no credible Tea Party candidate, so there may have been a mistaken assumption that that sort of thing couldn’t happen at that level.
Any other alternative theories?