Donald Trump is proving to have a winning hand in a rigged game.

Conservative talk radio icon Mark Levin screamed it out last week, to all who would listen: Donald Trump is taking conservatives for a ride. And this week, GOP voter screamed back: We don’t care! The New York billionaire, whose political philosophy can best be summed up as narcissistic pragmatism, cleaned up in the five states that voted this week, winning 54 to 63% of the vote in the three-way contests. Ted Cruz, the movement conservative that more closely shares Levin’s worldview, barely broke out of the teens.

Lest one write off the results to the liberal northeast, Trump initially turned heads in this year’s contest when he swept South Carolina and unexpectedly bested Cruz across the fertile conservative heartland of the deep south. Levin was not saying anything that we have not heard before, but at some point conservatives are going to have to look in the mirror and consider that their electorate might not be who they thought they were. Trump is on the verge of seizing the GOP presidential nomination, and it is about time that people stop suggesting that he is little more than a blowhard and consider that he might have some serious political chops.

Trump is, after all, about to win the Republican nomination, and only in the past few weeks has the man assembled anything resembling a professional political staff. He has taken on and systematically disposed of fourteen rivals, from a group that included nine state governors and four U.S. Senators and was decreed early on in the process to constitute the most formidable slate of Republican contenders for the presidency ever assembled. It goes without question that almost every one of those who he defeated had a greater claim on the nomination — in terms of substance and credentials — than he did. Seriously. Rick Santorum turned out to be an afterthought in this year’s Republican field and never moved from the JV debate table to the main stage, but he was a Senator from a major industrial state who won eleven states in the GOP primaries just four years ago. For his part, Jim Gilmore was a successful Attorney General and Governor of a major state, and he was never even invited to the JV debates. Yet while Santorum and Gilmore were each serious public figures with solid political bona fides, neither were more than an afterthought in this race.

People mock candidate Trump at their peril. Jeb Bush tried to dismiss Trump’s methods as the taunts of a child in a sandbox, but Trump’s attacks, however childish they might have seem in the moment, resonate because they strike a nerve. Jeb did lack a sense of energy and passion for the job. Marco Rubio was too young and inexperienced. Similarly, Trump’s “lyin’ Ted” barbs at Cruz for mixing his religion in with political rhetoric touches on many people’s distrust of candidates who intermingle the two.

Trump’s most recent narrative, however, has been inspired. The game is rigged. As of this week, Donald Trump has won 52% of the delegates that have been awarded through primaries and caucuses while winning only 42% of the votes cast, yet he has successfully attacked the Republican National Committee for rigging the rules of the game. Against him. Perhaps even more to the point, he painted Ted Cruz — whose share of the delegate count was roughly equal to his popular vote share — as the establishment insider on whose behalf the game has been rigged.

Few may recall — the dynamics of the campaign have evolved so quickly — but Trump launched the rigged game narrative at the moment of his greatest weakness. He had just lost the Wisconsin primary and been shut out by Cruz in caucuses and state conventions in North Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Trump, the man who touted himself as a can-do CEO, was caught flatfooted, standing helplessly in the klieg lights as Ted Cruz wrested delegate majorities away from him in Louisiana and Colorado. Nothing was rigged, Trump was simply being pummeled by a Cruz political organization that understood the rules of the game and had built an organization — including over 280,000 volunteers across the country — designed to fight and win the battle for delegates on a state by state basis, exactly it has been done from time immemorial. Trump, as best one could tell, had no organization, he had no volunteers on the ground of any note. He had his family, and not a whole lot else.

Yet out of lemons, Trump made lemonade. It is all a rigged game, he pronounced. And this time it was the Cruz team that looked on helplessly, as the media bought Trump’s rigged game narrative, hook, line and sinker. Like Trump’s attacks on Jeb Bush and others, the rigged game narrative worked because it resonates with the underlying anti-establishment anger that has been the subtext of this year’s presidential cycle. Trump’s slogan may be Make America Great Again, but from the day he joined the race last June, Trump has fed off of the anger and resentments of a large share of the Republican electorate who believe that our economy and political system are rigged against them and their families. Forget the fact that Trump has actually benefitted from the primary rules, and has won a greater share of delegates than his share of the votes that had been cast, Trump’s supporters easily embraced his cri de guerre that the nomination process was rigged against him — and against them.

Three graphs help explain the anger of the Republican base voters that have cast aside traditional conservative shibboleths in favor of Trump’s economic populist rhetoric. First, there is the oft-mentioned statistic that American worker wages are the same today in real terms as they were four decades ago. As presented here, while US gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and world GDP per capita have both grown steadily in real terms (adjusted for inflation) since 1973, American worker earnings have not. Stated more simply, the era of globalization, free trade and technological change have benefitted billions around the world, just not the American family.

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A second graph, below, illustrates how even the flat worker earnings illustrated above masks differences across the population over time. Illustrated here are the changes in real family incomes over time, aggregated by the level of education of the head of the family household. As shown here, over the past quarter century — a period during which American workers have found themselves increasingly in competition with lower cost workers across the globe, in the wake of the globalization of corporate supply chains and free trade agreements that give foreign made industrial and consumer goods relatively unfettered access to US markets — educational attainment has become essential for families wanting to sustain their incomes in real terms, and to prosper. As this shows, particularly since the financial collapse in 2008, families with heads of households with less than a college degree have seen substantial declines in family incomes.

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Finally, while both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into voter resentments toward a Washington establishment that is seen as doing the bidding of donors and lobbyists, often at the expense of working Americans, Bernie Sanders has added a sharp anti-corporate rhetoric. This third chart illustrates the 17% decline in wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP since the 1970s, as compared with near doubling of after-tax corporate profits over the same period, to current historically high levels.

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Those who continue to be puzzled by Donald Trump’s appeal should take heed. As suggested by the data summarized in these three graphs, the system has been rigged. Rigged may be a harsh term, as United States globalization and free trade policies have engendered the steady growth in global GDP per capita that has lifted economies around the world and reduced the share of the world population living in extreme poverty by over 50%. But from the standpoint of domestic politics, our economic and trade policies have been pro-trade, have been pro-capital, and have punished labor. Stated another way, they have been pro-donor, anti-voter. Forty years ago, Howard Beale screamed out,’I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ Perhaps we should only be surprised that it took this long.

The Cruz strategists were caught off guard by Trump’s pivot and the power of his rigged game gambit. After all, it was Trump who had benefitted disproportionately by the rules — who had received more delegates than votes — yet he was the one whining. It was Cruz who was following the rules, yet it was the Cruz campaign that was being pilloried for stealing delegates, for undemocratic practices, and — in the greatest irony of all — for being the point person of an establishment plot to steal the nomination. Ted Cruz, after all, is the movement conservative who has little or no following among the establishment cabal of DC donors and lobbyists. But for the emergence of Donald Trump, this might have been Ted Cruz’s year. Cruz was supposed to be the outsider in the race in an outsider’s year. Trump, as Mark Levin tried to convince primary voters in advance of Tuesday’s vote, is a fraud.

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Donald Trump might be a fraud, and he certainly is no movement conservative. But he has proven to be a dexterous politician who continues to grow and adapt. In the wake of his loss in Wisconsin, Trump hit bottom. Paul Ryan emerged as the insider white knight that might save the party from implosion, while Ted Cruz became the favorite in the eyes of many to win a contested convention. Trump’s response was swift. He sacked his political team, replaced them with long-time Republican insiders, and launched his rigged game attack on the Republican National Committee. Three weeks ago, many across the GOP pronounced Trump’s demise in the face of Cruz’s Wisconsin victory and deft political moves at state delegate conventions. Now, less than three weeks later, the campaign conventional wisdom has been upended again. Where just weeks ago Ted Cruz was on the cusp of being anointed as the front-runner for a nomination that Trump was seen as sure to lose on the first ballot, today Trump has reestablished his dominant position as the presumptive Republican nominee.

Hillary Clinton is the next person up against Donald Trump, and she had best bring her “A” game. For months now, she has found herself playing defense against Bernie Sanders, whose attacks mirror Trump’s rigged game narrative, and as of yet she has not figured out an effective response. This week, with an eye to the fall campaign, Hillary tested out a mocking attack on Donald Trump. Donald Trump does not know the American people, she suggested. He needs to stop flying around in that big jet, going from his palatial home in Florida and his penthouse in New York, and get to know the American people.

Sixteen Republicans who took their best shot against Trump can tell Hillary that mocking him as an out-of-touch plutocrat is a non-starter. If he has done nothing else over the past nine months, Donald Trump has proven that he has his finger on the pulse of a large swath of the electorate. He may be rich, but voters don’t care about that. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were rich. And so, incidentally, are Bill and Hillary Clinton.

When Donald Trump says it is a rigged game, it resonates with voters because that is what they experience in their daily life. And they are not just making it up, it is all there in the data. For decades now, American policies have helped the rest of the world grow and prosper — to lift all boats as it were — while little of it trickled down to the average American family. As sixteen candidates before Hillary have already learned, when you make fun of Trump, it only alienates you from voters who have come to believe that he is the one who — as Bill Clinton would say — feels their pain. He will be a tougher foe that polls suggest, and Hillary and her advisors should learn from those who went up against him and failed. He is no fool, and did not get as far as he has by accident.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.

POSTED BY DAVID PAUL AT

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Financial advisor to city and state governments. Lifelong Red Sox fan (don't hold it against me).

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