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I touched on this a bit in my last post, but I want to spend some more time on it. What the hell is going on with Donald Trump? The fact is, nobody really knows (and I’d include Trump himself in that). Look at the reaction from sophisticated observers to what happened last night. Some think Trump was terrific and did exactly what he needed to do. Others thought he did poorly and is now going to tank. They generally agree on how everyone else did, but because they don’t fully understand why Trump is so popular right now, they can’t get a bead on how his performance last night will play. Chris Cillizza at the WaPo says “I think he may be beyond normal political predictions,” and I think that’s right. I haven’t found any scientific polls on who won last night; there’s a thoroughly unscientific one at Drudge showing that Trump won by a lot, which while probably not worth much, does have a very large number of respondents (over 500,000).
But I think there’s one thing that is beyond debate, and that’s who got the most coverage coming out of last night: Donald Trump, without question. To the right, today’s Globe’s front page. All Trump.
And to the left, today’s NY Times (click for larger). At least you can see the other candidates, but the photo is from the moment at the beginning when Trump was the only one to raise his hand to a question asking if anyone would refuse to rule out a third-party candidacy. That moment was all about Trump.
So what is going on here? My sense is that Trump is basically saying this (to paraphrase Bob Dole): “this system sucks in every way – you know it, I know it, and the American people know it. The only people who don’t know it is the media and the politicians, because it benefits them. Well, you know what? They suck too. I’m not going to play by their rules. I’m going to say what I want to say, when I want to say it, and the consequences be damned.”
That message is very appealing to some people, particularly those who feel disenfranchised by the existing rules and ignored by more traditional politicians. Furthermore, Trump has been quite adept at boasting about his skill in working within the system, even while he criticizes it. Consider his campaign finance-related answer last night, in which he declared that “our system is broken,” and then, as evidence, bragged that he had given a lot of money to politicians who then did whatever he wanted. That allowed him to say (a) the system sucks because people shouldn’t be able to buy politicians; however, since it’s the system we have, (b) I’m a smart, skillful guy who knows how to work the system; and (c) Hillary Clinton is a tool because she did what I wanted after I gave her money. Similarly, his answer on Atlantic City was very clever. He was able to talk about how laws are set up to benefit wealthy people like him, which taps into anger against the establishment, while also boasting about how good he was at working within those laws, which makes him look like a smart businessman who can get rich even in tough economic times.
Even his answer to Megyn Kelly on sexism, while appalling, was consistent with his damn-the-torpedoes approach. TPM sums it up well:
Foxbots to Trump: Are you not a fraud, a cretin and a scoundrel.
Trump: I’m very rich. F@ck yourself. I have no time for your nonsense.
Between the facts that Trump is playing by rules that don’t seem to apply to anyone else, and that he has enough money that he doesn’t have to fundraise and can stay in the race for quite some time by self-funding, I think he’ll stick around for a while, and I also think that he’ll continue to confound political observers who are having trouble figuring out what is behind his rise. I don’t think he’ll be the Republican nominee. But I do think that, at least for the next couple of months (and maybe longer), he’ll stay in the headlines, and he’ll continue to make the other candidates feel starved for oxygen.