Many people were surprised that Donald Trump shot to the top of the Republican presidential polls (in an NBC poll today, he has 19% percent, to Scott Walker‘s 15% and Jeb Bush‘s 14%), but that’s only because they allowed their own tastes to prevent them from getting an accurate view of this gargantuan personality. Trump is large and comical figure–vain, blustery, selfish, self-indulgent, a bully, a baby–but he is also smart, articulate, rich, very good at calling attention to himself, at grandstanding, at making more out of whatever little or much he has accomplished. And he has accomplished a great deal–longevity, for one thing. He has been a front page of the tabloids public figure since the eighties, which is no mean feat; what few peers he has, like Madonna and Al Sharpton, are mostly jogging in place while he is riding high. He has written a bestseller, been the star of a highly rated television show, and built big buildings and casinos and golf courses. He knows how to dish it out and how to take it, and he is not afraid to mix things up. He knows, as Warren Zevon said, “the name of the game is to get hit and hit back.” Among his media spectacles, he has made a number of blatantly fraudulent runs at public office that all seemed to evaporate whenever he had to get serious.
This one might still get evaporate, although it has gone on longer and gone deeper and created more furor than any of his previous stillborn efforts. He has owned the summer. His outrageous comments about Mexicans and his nasty, ignorant comments about John McCain have done nothing but catapult him to the crowded, splintered, directionless herd of Republican contenders. More than anyone in that field, he has a real constituency, a real claim to a body of voters.
And they are a potent group. They are the Tea Party group, an angry, aggrieved bunch of mostly working class white people who don’t like what progress is looking like in the mid-early 21st century. They have been a formidable group. They have won a lot of local races, and ousted a lot of middle of the road Republican officials. Because they are decentralized and committed, they can have a disproportionately large influence in primary elections and caucuses. I have already predicted that Trump will go deep into the primary season; the truth is, I see no reason to believe that he cannot win the nomination. The longer he sticks around, the more credibility he will develop. The more people vote for him, the more other people will find him acceptable. He will pass through the membrane of legitimacy.
One of the problems is that there is no one in the field who seems to match up well against Trump. Jeb Bush still seems like a reluctant candidate; I have never seen a presidential candidate with less passion. He never seems to be enjoying himself. One could see Trump having a bit of a rough time with people like Rick Perry and John Kasich, meat and potato governors whose in the trenches experience contrasts with Trump’s glamorous gunslingerism. But they have not broken through. One can see people like Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, like sharp-tongued picadors scoring points against him, but they can only bloody Trump, not beat him. There is no august personage who can flatten him, no Ronald Reagan who could just chuckle at him and make him irrelevant. Nor is there a high road that can work, nor a low road. Trump is the product of belief–a focus group of New Hampshire Republicans done by Bloomberg found them echoing Trump’s own line on himself: his presidency would be `successful” and “classy”; he “speaks his mind;” he is “one of us.” They are responding to his style, and like all things involving style–clothes, music, decor–you can’t persuade someone who likes it that it’s wrong. You can only wait for them to like something else. You can only run as hard and as smart as you can, and hope to be there when tastes change.