At one point Donald Trump seemed a relic of the past. A celeb in the 80s, ridiculed by Bloom County and known for conspicuous consumption, it seemed bankruptcies and time made him irrelevant. Later I heard he had a reality show and the catch phrase “you’re fired,” but I never watched or thought about that much.
So how do we get to a point where he’s the leading candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination? And can he win?
The answer to the first question says a lot about Trump and what propelled him to his current position. He became politically relevant when he embraced the “birther” cause, claiming he had special investigators who determined that it was almost certain that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Typical Trump – the birther cause was one that most Republicans either shied away from or treated ambiguously (‘I think he was born in Hawaii, but I understand the concern.’)
Not Trump. He went all in, with grandiose claims of his own investigation and proof. Soon he was the darling of the birther crowd (probably his core constituency to this day – they bonded with him). But then it appeared Trump was humiliated and put in his place at the 2011 White House Correspondents dinner. That was the day Obama published his real birth certificate and then ridiculed Trump, who was in the audience showing no humor.
And while the birther controversy died down, Trump never surrendered. Most people thought he had been politically destroyed. There was talk of him running for President in 2012, but it never materialized.
That episode says a lot about Trump – he knows how to grab center stage, will say anything to get attention (whether true or not) and never backs down, even if all the smart people say it’s time to apologize and move on. He’s in constant fight mode, any sign of regret or retreat is seen as weakness, and when the vultures are circling, he doubles down. To those sick of scripted boring candidates who say what is expected (but never follow through), Trump is a welcome relief.
Take his reaction to how Bernie Sanders handled “Black Lives Matter.” After they disrupted one of his events, Sanders met with the group and actually integrated them into his message and program. Trump’s reaction: Sanders is weak and disgusting, caving into pressure. Trump’s people would physically remove the protesters. That’s Trump – strength is a virtue, and backing down, compromising, or just not trying to win is not only weak, but disgusting. That’s how Trump lives his life.
So can he win? Of course. But it is very unlikely.
The Republican field has 16 or so candidates. At this point, the plurality in the polls is around 20%. One person in five. Looked at that way, Trump is not exactly being embraced by the Republican faithful! So what does he need to do to win?
- Gain support as the field narrows. Soon Republicans with little support will realize they lack the resources and capacity to compete in this marathon. Trump has to gain a chunk of their supporters if he’s to have a chance. It’s very unlikely that people who don’t now support Trump would turn to him. If Rand drops out, his supporters may find Rubio or Walker a much better choice than Trump, for example.
- Marginalize Walker and Christie. If anyone is looking for a “Trump lite,” those two qualify. (I suspect it’s rare that Christie is considered ‘lite’.) Christie is the no-nonsense tell it like it is candidate who actually is smart and understands the policy issues. He is more measured in how he fights, always keeping a door open for compromise. Walker is resting on his “I took on the unions and got the liberals really pissed and won” record to gain support. Walker, like Trump, doesn’t back down and considers that a strength. Unlike Trump, he saves his venom for true political foes, not reporters like Meghan Kelley.
- Start a winning streak in the early caucuses/primaries, and start to be seen as Presidential enough. In other words, at some point being Trump will get him a chunk of support, but also set a ceiling. To break through that ceiling, he has to at some point stop the bombast and appear reasonable. I don’t think Trump can do it – his strength and weakness is that he can’t help but be himself.