woody zimmermann 120The media- and political-uproar over Donald Trump’s unconventional and outspoken candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination has exposed some rules that Republicans are supposed to follow. These rules are party-specific – i.e., they don’t apply to Democrats. Many grass-roots Republican voters probably don’t understand the rules or the fact that they apply only to GOP candidates. In this article, I’ll discuss the primary rule. We’ll look at others in later columns.

Rule #1. Every Republican must prove that he’s not stupid. This is absolutely fundamental, since it’s common knowledge among the chattering class that Republicans, on the whole, are incurably stupid – not to mention humorless, over-religious, and priggish. (If this sounds much like the conventional wisdom frequently voiced in the film Babe – i.e., “Pigs are stupid” – it’s no accident.) This rule probably originated during Ronald Reagan’s run for the presidency in 1980, and has become an article of liberal faith since.

Mr. Reagan started out with two strikes against him, for he was both a “fallen” Democrat and a Hollywood actor. (He played mostly in B movies, for heaven’s sake. What on earth could he know?) The media incessantly smeared him as “just a dumb actor reading lines (although there wasn’t a teleprompter in sight). Of course, most of the blow-dry TV dudes delicately ignored the fact that they were basically reading lines, too. Also, few had acting careers, so they had no idea that an actor has to be pretty sharp to be effective. In any theater or film scene he must remember his character’s exact persona, the timing of the scene, his own lines, and the lines of the other characters – plus his movements, his physical interactions with others, and any external events that might occur during the scene. I spent some time working in theater, and I can testify that there are no dummies on the stage “just reading lines.” It takes a first-class intellect to keep it all straight and come across as a believable character. (Actually, we now have some experience with a president who really does read lines from a teleprompter. How’s that working out?)

All this escaped reporters and pundits who believed, beyond peradventure of doubt, that only a Democrat could have the intellect to sit in the Oval Office with his finger on the nuclear trigger. The talking heads also overlooked the obvious fact that Jimmy Carter – a U. S. Naval Academy graduate and former naval officer – evidently failed to see that the presidency’s most important skill is delegating difficult tasks to people capable of completing them successfully. When you’re the Big Guy, you don’t try to do it all yourself. In 1980, Mr. Carter tried to run – from the oval office! – a secret military rescue of the Iran hostages. It was a completely mad adventure from the get-go. You didn’t have to be General Patton to see that it could not possibly succeed with command decisions being made from that distance. Of course, it failed disastrously, and several soldiers were killed. The Iranians grotesquely dragged their bodies through the streets of Teheran while crowds shouted: “Allahu Akhbar! Death to America!”

After Mr. Reagan shrugged off the “stupid” label and won the election, American liberals spent the next eight years holding their breath in expectation that this Hollywood “cowboy” would start a nuclear war. Many Europeans thought the same. In 1987, a Swiss friend expressed a common concern he and his countrymen harbored: that Ronald Reagan was “crazy enough to do it.” He and his intellectual compadres considered Mr. Reagan far more dangerous than Soviet premiers like Andropov, Chernenko or Gorbachev. Andropov – a former KGB chief and a particularly dangerous character – was the “Vlad Putin” of his era. Western journalists thought he was probably a pretty cool dude – a liberal kindred spirit, really – because he preferred scotch to vodka. (I’m not kidding here. This passed for “serious political analysis” in the 1980s.)

Ironically, the Swiss themselves were armed to the teeth then, with men in uniform everywhere and mountain caves bristling with hidden tanks and artillery. Every male under the age of 45 was required by law to keep a fully operable military rifle in his home. I asked our Swiss friend if he thought the Italians might be coming in – or maybe the French. He just smiled and said the Swiss would be ready, whoever it was. It was a strange time – almost as strange as today.

Mr. Reagan disappointed many liberals by not taking us into a major war. Instead, he rebuilt both the economy and the military – ultimately bringing down the Soviet Union by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars). A former Soviet leader later related that when Mr. Reagan’s new program was announced in 1983, the eyes of his Supreme Soviet comrades told him that they knew the jig was up. There was no way that they could match the USA’s effort, from an economic standpoint. (As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, they had finally run out of other people’s money.) Within 10 years, the Soviet Union was kaput – completely vindicating Mr. Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength.” His intelligence on this point – indeed, his entire presidency – has continued to confound critics in both parties, thirty years on. If a “stupid actor” accomplished all that, I’ll take another like him any time. Millions of ordinary Americans would do the same.

Today, all Republicans labor under the burden of the intelligence rule. Donald Trump, the current GOP front-runner, has already encountered copious doses of “the IQ treatment.” Liberal pundits and politician of both parties are hard at work generating articles and sound bites that question Mr. Trump’s intelligence and “temperamental suitability” for the office – hoping to score the knockout punch that destroys him. The outspoken Donald has deliberately defied this rule by issuing brash statements that drive both the media and GOP leaders totally crazy.

Truth be told, Mr. Trump’s detractors have no more prospect of knocking out Donald Trump on the “stupidity” issue than they had of kayoing Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Mr. Reagan was only an actor and later a spokesman for General Electric. He had never run a business, although he did govern California very successfully. But his age was Big Media’s trump card (so to speak). He was just a month short of 70 when he was inaugurated. After the “amiable dunce” attack was crushed by Mr. Reagan’s successful first term, pundits fell back on the “way too old” ploy – suggesting that Mr. Reagan nodded off in cabinet meetings and was addicted to jellybeans. They claimed that some shadowy figure was actually running the country. He was obviously round the bend. Surely another term was impossible.

But our wittiest president demolished the age issue with a memorable one-liner in a debate with Walter Mondale, when he pledged that he would not make an issue of his opponent’s “obvious youth and inexperience.” Even Fritz Mondale cracked up when he said it. Mr. Reagan’s age was not mentioned again, as he cruised into a second term with a smashing, 49-state electoral victory.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, is an extremely successful businessman. His Republican and Democrat opponents can only dream of having The Donald’s financial resources, connections and name-recognition. He can’t be bought because he’s already as rich as Croesus, as he has declared. Mrs. Clinton is loaded, too, but most of the wealth she and Bubba have amassed was given to them by countries, business interests and individuals who hope (and expect) to have insider-influence, if and when Mrs. Clinton grabs the brass ring. Liberal-leaning journalists discreetly avoid mentioning all this, but they don’t mind criticizing Donald Trump’s gazillions because he (gasp!) earned them. (Good grief! What kind of corrupt economic system would permit that?)

This inconsistent story-line plays well in the liberal media, but grass-roots voters aren’t buying it. (Many of them would like to be rich, too.) It means that the Dummkopf label simply will not stick to Mr. Trump. Not only is he not a stupid man, but he’s clearly smarter than the average bear. The media are shouting into a windstorm on this score. The “prove-you’re-not-a-dunce” rule has been brushed aside again by a strong, confident candidate who knows what he’s doing and where he wants to go. It’s far too early to tell if Mr. Trump has the staying power to win it. He wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice, but the voters will have the final say. Many of them have barely started to think about the election. We’ll see how it plays out.

Rules that require GOP candidates to prove that they’re not racists or misogynists will be examined in later columns.