Say what you will about Donald Trump. He has certainly thrown the Republican Party and the election in general into a storm of chaos and confusion that no one ever expected.
First, it is extremely rare for Republicans ever to have a protracted primary fight. The last time we've seen anything close to this is when Gov. Reagan challenged incumbent President Ford for the nomination in 1976. For years, the saying about Presidential candidates is that Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Few Republicans are falling in line behind Trump this year.
Most people thought that Trump himself never expected to get the nomination. He was running to give himself publicity as a protest candidate. The former Communications Director for the pro-Trump Super PAC, Make America Great Again, published an article indicating that Trump's own top strategists never expected this level of success. This makes sense given many of the crazy promises that Trump made early in the primary season. No one seriously believes he could ever get Mexico to pay the costs of building a wall between our two countries. It should be clear that Trump never expected to have to make good on that promise.
Trump, however, remains solidly in front of everyone else. Even if he does not win an outright majority, he remains a major force within the Republican Party and in politics generally. It's easy for some to write off Trump as a con man, or perhaps more generously a publicity genius who is lacking is substance. Clearly though, Trump has tapped into a popular sentiment that is not of his own making.
A large portion of this country seems to think that life is becoming worse for them and their children. Many of these are working class people without college education, or with a degree that is virtually worthless. They have seen manufacturing jobs and other typically middle class jobs disappear. Those who blame government policies for this traditionally vote Republican. Those who blame big business generally vote Democrat. Both groups have remained frustrated with both parties' inability to change the general trends away from the need for large labor.
Many of these voters reject Democrats, who they see are more focused on minority issues and aiding those at the very bottom who have no work at all. They worry that such programs make it easier for people who do not work at all than people like them who work at very low wage jobs and who do not want to live on government hand outs. These same voters are tired of Republican rhetoric that says they want to re-energize entrepreneurs. Yet, Republican policies seem much more focused on benefiting large businesses which thrive by cutting wages and benefits, or moving jobs overseas. As a result, this group has become frustrated with both parties and seeks a candidate who is going to change the game in a big way. They would rather bet on a wild card who may do just about anything that a candidate who they know will continue to screw them.
That seems to be the appeal of Donald Trump. He appeals to workers who think their situation was better 20 or 30 years ago, someone who will repeal the policies they blame for their decline, including both large entitlements, and free trade deals. They want to see less competition for existing jobs via the removal of illegal immigrants, who remain a very real competitive force in keeping labor cost low by depressing wages for all lower level jobs.
I am not convinced that Trump can fix these things, or even that he wishes to do so. But Trump is speaking credibly to these voters in a way that other candidates are not. You can try to write off Trump as appealing to racism, or white privilege, or him making wildly unrealistic promises about how much any President can really control the economy. The reality though, is that Trump has tapped into a discontent that seems to be the number one issue for a very large minority of working class Americans.
Unless a credible candidate can address these concerns in a believable way, voters will turn to a candidate that unrealistically promises them the moon than one who realistically promises to continuing their miserable downward trend.