So much for that summer fling. With Donald Trump still sitting at the top of the latest national Republican primary polls as Halloween approaches, it’s increasingly clear: Trump may be hanging around at least for Thanksgiving dinner.
But why have so many Republicans stuck with Trump so long after it was assumed they’d tire of his shtick? Isn’t his bubble supposed to have burst now that there have been two Republican primary debates? Why hasn’t his act worn thin?
While no other candidate could possibly get away with the sort of outrageous, offensive, and unbelievable things Trump has said, he stays ahead in the polls precisely because he isn’t treated like a normal politician. He’s an entertainer.
And the only way for an entertainer to fail is to be boring.
In order to understand why Trump remains atop the national polls, it is first important to bear in mind: Trump’s rise is not necessarily about “the base” in an ideological sense. In poll after poll, Trump finds himself in first place among self-identified “moderates” and actually faces his toughest challenge among “very conservative” voters who gravitate toward Ben Carson.
Furthermore, the main—and thus far, failed—line of attack that Trump’s opponents have used against him is that he isn’t a True Conservative. However, half of Republican voters say they support positions held by Democrats when those positions are ascribed to Trump. So it’s safe to say voters who put a high price on ideological purity are not Trump’s main demographic.
While Trump’s statements on issues like immigration have certainly endeared him to a slice of the GOP, it is far from the only or even primary factor behind his success. Instead, we also see his outsider status, willingness to be a “fighter,” and brand as a “winner” win him high marks.
The fighter, the winner, the outsider? It’s an act, of course. But an act put on by a talented entertainer who gets to play by an entirely different set of rules, and who clearly understands that the greatest threat to his candidacy is not that people will be outraged by him, but rather that they will be bored, and no longer see him as a winner.
The great entertainers of our time know the importance of always feeding the audience something new, something fresh, something different. There’s a reason Madonna is constantly in the business of re-inventing herself. Those who constantly feed the beast win the limelight. Trump feeds the beast.
Every time there’s a chance Trump will fade from the headlines, he engineers a way to keep that from happening. Trump visits the border. Trump insults veterans. Trump wages war on Fox News. Trump brings a helicopter to the Iowa State Fair. Trump wages war on Fox News again. Trump insults Carly Fiorina. Trump puts out a tax plan. Trump bashes Bush for September 11. There’s another debate next week. He’s hosting Saturday Night Live Nov. 7. On and on and on it goes. Always another act in the play.
Smart people will say, correctly, there’s still a ways until Iowa. And frankly, Iowa isn’t Trump’s best state. (He—or a “young intern”—insulted Iowans on Twitter in response to a poll showing Carson in the lead, not Trump.) “I’m a winner” is a key component of the Trump message and appeal—perhaps the key component. That’s the part the entertainer is playing. Proving Trump is not invincible instantly brings him back down to earth. It makes him just one of the many people running. It makes him more ordinary.
Yet few of Trump’s opponents have really tried to land a serious punch on him. Carly Fiorina came the closest, and she profited handsomely at the polls for a time for her strong debate performance that demonstrated she too is a fighter. (But what’s Carly’s next act? The latest polls have shown her post-debate bounce begin to evaporate.)
Some of his opponents have tried to push the “Trump Isn’t Conservative” message, fundamentally misunderstanding that ideology is not the core of Trump’s appeal, and that as long as talk radio carries water for him to goose ratings, that charge will fail. And then, of course, there are those like Cruz who have either cuddled up to Trump in hopes of winning his favor and voters or those like Carson who have largely taken a pass on engaging him in any way.
Misunderstanding Trump’s appeal has led too many to fight him ineffectively. For all that he is a buffoon and a clown and often an embarrassment, he is tapping into millions of Americans’ genuine concern that despite their hard work, they’re stuck playing a game that is rigged against them, and that there’s no way for them to win anymore.
Trump comes along and says “I’m a winner and a fighter, and I’ll fight to help you win again too.” And he has everyone’s attention when he says it.
And in the absence of a compelling alternative who is able to credibly make that case too, all Trump has had to do is hold the spotlight. By being a masterful entertainer, he’s had the room to play by an entirely different set of rules, where statements and strategic choices that would have sunk any other political candidate seem to have no effect on him.
The way to destroy Trump will not be by proving he’s not a true conservative. It will be to prove that he’s not really a winner. And that behind the bluster there’s nothing there.
That in reality, he’s not really that special after all.