LOS ANGELES, Aug. 26, 2015 – Donald Trump has threatened to run for president since at least the year 2000. He vocally considered it as early on as 1987. In 2012, he soaked up a considerable amount of media attention with his promotion of the birther movement and loud hints that he was going to run for president, only to relent and endorse Mitt Romney.
All this leads many to say Trump had never been serious about a run to begin with.
Now in 2015, Donald Trump is a candidate. Yet even after leading not only national polls, but in key caucus and primary state polls for many weeks, Trump’s candidacy is still looked at as a joke ready to fall flat by the political professionals and many casual observers.
The truth is that they are mistaken.
At this point, Donald Trump is not only well positioned to be the Republican nominee. He is on course to be the 45th president of the United States.
Trump spends so much time talking about how smart he is that it obscures the fact that he really is very smart. When he immediately baptized his campaign with rhetoric calling most Mexican illegal immigrants “criminals” and “rapists,” observers from across the political spectrum declared his candidacy dead on arrival.
He did not apologize, the media universe surrounded him, and other so called “legitimate” candidates were left talking to themselves. Donald Trump immediately defined the conversation on his own terms for all involved, and the enthusiasm for his candidacy among Republican base voters exploded.
Donald Trump was still a joke to most, this episode in red meat feeding and alleged race baiting an anomaly. He finally stepped into his political grave when he remarked that John McCain was not a war hero, or that he was only a war hero because he was captured. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
This time the leadership of the Republican Party, who were for the most part distantly critical or silent on the Mexican comments, unleashed a torrent of condemnation. Some prominent conservative commentators asked Trump to apologize or step aside. After all, nobody criticizes veterans in American politics, much less in the GOP.
John McCain, not a political hero to many conservatives, has nevertheless always been a hero for his war record.
But again Trump did not back down, saying McCain had failed the vets, that he was the one to fight for them, and to perhaps everyone’s surprise but his own, the support and the media attention for his campaign continued to rise.
This emerged as the pattern. Donald Trump says something controversial. The political experts claim his campaign defeated, and he re-emerges stronger than ever. This perplexing pattern is described by intellectuals in and outside the GOP as unique to the reality TV show nature of Donald Trump’s campaign and as something that could only last during these early months of the contests.
When the debates come and “The Donald” is forced to be specific about issues and command the stage next to his fellow candidates, the logic went, his lack of substance would make him fold in front of the nation.
Then the first debate came.
A strong debate performance from many of Trump’s rivals on stage and a night where his chief highlight seemed to be an opening exchange with moderator Megyn Kelly over his calling certain women sexist names seem to vindicate the predictions that the debates would mark at least the beginning of the end of Trump. A Frank Luntz focus group on Fox News, as well as crude and ugly remarks Trump made about Megyn Kelly immediately following (surely he can’t get away with insulting women, never mind the fact that he already seemed to get away with insulting Mexicans and veterans) seemed to make his decline official.
But then an amazing thing happened: The wider polls started coming in, and by a debate audience of 20 million people tuned to watch Donald Trump (who wouldn’t have just to see Marco Rubio), Donald Trump was widely considered the winner. Trump’s strength was undiminished.
Like Neo in the Matrix, the rules of the political universe do not apply to him.
What Donald Trump has accomplished has been to win the strident allegiance of the base of the Republican Party, in the face of the opposition of the establishment, while automatically nullifying the chief advantage of the establishment, namely, that it has the money to overwhelm insurgent candidates. (Yes, Donald Trump apparently is worth far more money than Jeb Bush and the entire Republican National Committee have raised this cycle combined.)
But the real test of his strength is that Donald Trump has won the allegiance of the conservative base of the GOP without being a conservative. True, he’s very conservative on immigration, and he has made that the central policy issue of this campaign for all Republicans.
But in an era where the war against RINOs (moderate Republicans) is unendingly waged by tea party and conservative commentators, politicians and voters, most of these same forces have embraced a candidate who by all real metrics is more progressive than Mitt Romney or John McCain, showing perhaps that what most conservatives want isn’t a pure conservative, but someone who is going to fight unapologetically to “make America great again.”
Donald Trump is not a conservative. He is a businessman. A good businessman takes over a market by giving people what they want, and Trump is the best at that. And herein lies what Democrats should fear from Trump as a nominee and what conservatives should fear from Trump as a president: If you read between the lines in some of the Democratic appraisal of Trump’s debate performance and his campaign debate, there is subtle appreciation for his approval of at least the idea of a single payer system and of his support for Planned Parenthood generally, if not abortion in particular.
He has softly made clear that, while he wants to cut taxes, he supports a progressive income tax because it’s better for the poor and that he want to raise taxes on unproductive hedge fund managers.
A Republican presidential nominee is always most conservative during a primary, then has to struggle to become more moderate during a general election. But Donald Trump is a moderate now. When it is time to run in the general, he will be better positioned than any other Republican candidate in memory to offer up a platform that excites Democrats.
If the current pattern holds, the Republican base will forgive him for it, as long as he takes a bludgeon to Hillary Clinton.
Sometimes the person who looks like the fool is actually the wise man. People have looked at Donald Trump as a loud oaf who speaks without thinking, who couldn’t possibly stand up against polished politicians over the long run.
But you don’t build a multi-billion dollar business empire in real estate, entertainment and retail without understanding precisely what it is that makes people want to buy. Trump is not beholden to the ideological strictures of left and right.
Money is worth just as much coming from a Democrat as a Republican, and so is a vote. the screaming praise of 35,000 blue-collar voters on a Sunday in Mobile, Ala., means more to him than the limp scorn of a couple pundits on Fox and CNN.
Trump wins because he is a businessman who knows what people want. He wins because he gives it to them.