After Donald J. Trump won the Indiana primary and clinched the Republican nomination, many in his own party asked, “Could life ever be sane again?” Some recalled a nearly four-year-old video on the satirical news site The Onion: “After Obama Victory, Shrieking White-Hot Sphere Of Pure Rage Early GOP Front-Runner For 2016.” (If I were the person who conceived that headline, I’d be afraid to write anything again.)
Most reporters and political scientists admit that they underestimated Mr. Trump’s chances of getting this far—though he’s led in almost every poll of G.O.P. voters since he announced his candidacy last summer. Few give him much chance of beating Democrat Hillary Clinton this fall (his poll numbers outside the Republican-primary universe are abysmal), but he has already proved some curious truths about new American politics.
1) Republican voters are astonishingly obedient. The Republicans have not had a contest for a presidential nomination that lasted the entire primary season since 1976, when Gerald Ford faced Ronald Reagan. Just a few days ago, it was a given that opposition to Mr. Trump would last through the final primaries in California and New Jersey, but after Indiana he became the seventh consecutive non-incumbent to force his main opponent out of the race before all of the states had weighed in. Given his high unfavorability ratings and the polls showing him losing to Ms. Clinton, why did Republican voters in the Northeast and Indiana break his way so decisively in the end? Is party unity so prized among Republicans that they’ll grant it to even someone as divisive as Mr. Trump? Was his surge attributable to a backlash against negative media coverage of Mr. Trump, to simple awe at his ability to bully other candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—or to simple loathing toward his only viable opponent, Ted Cruz?
Notably, Democratic primary voters have been more willing to keep their options open. Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008 all lost primaries through the end of the season, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992 also had significant opposition in almost every state. With his Indiana win, Bernie Sanders is likely to make 2016 another 50-state contest for the nomination.
2) Experience is no longer necessary. Mr. Trump will be the first major-party nominee since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 never to have held elective office. Like Ross Perot, who came the closest during this period to vaulting into the White House on his first foray into politics, Mr. Trump has capitalized on the somewhat widely held belief that government should be run “like a business.” (General Eisenhower, a public-sector employee, knew better.) What is more astounding is that Mr. Trump has shown no interest in the details of public policy, not even bothering to become acquainted with basic military terms in preparing for debates. It would be euphemistic to say that anti-intellectualism triumphed in the Republican primaries; “anti-knowledge” is more accurate and closer to Mr. Trump’s minimal-syllable vocabulary.
Even if Mr. Trump loses in November, we face the prospect of other celebrities with little or no political experience running in 2020 and beyond, emulating not only the real-estate tycoon but former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. The hyper-masculine, action-movie style seems popular in the Republican Party, but is there a Democratic version of a no-experience-needed personality, perhaps based on the knack to get adversaries to talk it out? Do Warren Beatty and Oprah Winfrey now regret resting calls to run for office that, at the time, seemed ridiculous?
3) The Northeast has risen again. For the first time since 1944, both major-party candidates will be from the Northeast (even if Mr. Sanders somehow takes the Democratic nomination from Ms. Clinton), even as the region has its lowest share of Electoral College votes in history. Despite Mr. Cruz’s attack on “New York values,” both Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton were able to unite the Bronx with Birmingham, Ala. This coalition was more surprising on the Republican side; orthodox conservatives like Mr. Cruz have long had an advantage in the Bible Belt, and the success of the blatantly secular Mr. Trump in the rural South has obliterated the traditional dividing line between the moderate and hard-line wings of the party. The revelation that Southern Republican voters won’t go along with free-trade, immigration reform and cuts to Social Security in exchange for pro-life and anti-gay policies is deeply troubling to the G.O.P. leadership.
4) The two-party system is omnipotent, the parties themselves are weak. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders had long been mentioned as independent or third-party candidates, but they evidently figured out that they would go farther by attempting to take over the Republican and Democratic parties. (Had Mr. Sanders faced several establishment candidates instead of only Ms. Clinton, he might have prevailed in the same manner that Mr. Trump did.) The American political system, and in particular the Electoral Collage, is simply too heavily weighted—“rigged,” as Mr. Sanders would say—in favor of the two major parties. So far this year, the only possible independent candidate to be taken at all seriously was former mayor Michael Bloomberg, yet another New York City resident spectacularly ill-suited to win over the heartland voters who feel alienated from both major parties. There has been talk among Republicans of finding a conservative alternative to Mr. Trump in November, but the effort seems to have fizzled even as Mr. Trump has strengthened his hold over the G.O.P.
But even as the two major parties control the general-election machinery, they seem to have lost control over their own nomination processes. One reason is money: They don’t have much to give to candidates, at least compared to the candidates’ own fundraising operations and ostensibly independent PACs. Mr. Trump, of course, also proved that a candidate adept at getting news coverage—i.e., free media—owes nothing to the party establishment and can win anyway.
5) Republican elected officials are becoming creative with semantics. The day after the Indiana primary, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, in a tough re-election race this fall, tried to have it both ways. Her communications director said that the senator would “support” Mr. Trump as the Republican nominee but not “endorse” him. The wording suggests that she will cast a ballot for Mr. Trump but not advise anyone else to do so. (Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”? Or the reverse?) We can expect similar hair-splitting from other Republican candidates in lower-ticket races. And if they are successful, perhaps a new voting option in Congress, allowing representatives to “support but not endorse” pieces of legislation.