Polman: New Hampshire's populist primal scream

Dick Polman
Dick Polman

What a wild night in New Hampshire! In the words of one political reporter, "The voters sent a powerful anti-Washington message." A xenophobic Republican demagogue "stoked citizen anger against the inside-the-Beltway establishment, loudly invoking the '30s populism of Huey Long." The triumphant candidate fed off the "anxieties" of his fans. He "speaks his mind and damns the consequences."

I wrote that on primary night in New Hampshire — 20 years ago. In February 1996, when the Republican winner was red-meat uber-nationalist Pat Buchanan.

I guess that's my way of saying that we've heard Granite State primal screams before, and that the disgrace of Donald Trump triumph may hopefully prove ephemeral.

But a win is truly a win when you've beaten your closest opponent by 19 points, and there's no denying the dominance of "the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory," as commentator Ezra Klein wrote.

"He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he's a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he's also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante," Klein detailed. "He lies so constantly and so fluently that it's hard to know if he even realizes he's lying."

You didn't hear that kind of reality check on TV when the returns were rolling in, as talking heads tend to sprinkle triumphalist fairy dust on whoever finishes first. Sure enough, Trump was typically described last night as "a New York real estate" guy, as opposed to what he really is.

If it appears that the Republican voters are lurching to the raging right, it also seems that the Democrats are moving further leftward. Bernie Sanders buried Hillary Clinton so badly that when Bill came on stage with her last night, he looked as if he could barely keep himself vertical.

We'll see how well Bernie does when he moves to the southern primaries where, unlike in New Hampshire, a huge share of registered Democrats are black (black voters have been loyal to the Clintons since the '90s).

However you slice and dice Iowa and New Hampshire, it appears that the Democrats are bracing for a long slog. It feels like 2008 all over again.

It's hard to know whether Republicans will tread a similar path. The other "winner" last night was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who finished a strong second. But he's short of funds and South Carolina voters might not love his decision to participate in the Obamacare Medicaid expansion program. Jeb Bush finished a tepid fourth last night, but he'll soldier on because he still has the money and because South Carolina has long been a Bush family firewall (1988 for his dad, 2000 for his brother). And Marco Rubio will still be around, hoping to survive his fifth place finish and his debate humiliation.

Which means there are still three "establishment" candidates in the race. If they keep divvying up the sane non-Trump electorate, the easier it is for the demagogue to march onward. And the sane non-Trump electorate will arguably be small in South Carolina, because Ted Cruz will be in the mix for the sizable evangelical vote.

One caveat about Tuesday night: The last three presidents — Obama, W, Bill — all lost the New Hampshire primary. They all finished second, and recouped down the road. So it's possible that a Trump-Sanders faceoff will never happen. I stoked that hope last night when Trump came out to preen in triumph.

At one point, he previewed what he would say in an autumn race. He said of Bernie Sanders, "He wants to give away our country!"

And so it begins. For this, we can thank the primal scream voters. To tweak the immortal words of Marco Rubio, "Let's dispense with the fiction that they don't know what they're doing. They know exactly what they're doing."

Dick Polman is a national political columnist and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia.