You just don't know what the hell he's going to do next. Maybe he'll go on Fox News and start shooting out light fixtures or ripping the electrical wiring from the walls. Maybe he'll pick Jay Z as his running mate, or simply drop the mic tomorrow and leave the Republican party smoldering. He's a billionaire, his campaign is self-funded, and at 69, he's seven years shy of the average American male life expectancy. The game Donald Trump is playing is a mystery to us, buried behind an impenetrable wall of shtick and braggadocio.
Picking a Republican presidential candidate is supposed to be like picking the most viable lead for an inspirational sports movie. They're supposed to convince America that they can rally a team of underachieving kids to stand up straight and get courageous on a dusty baseball diamond next to a junkyard, not own casinos in Atlantic City and have hair that looks like something out of a Japanese role-playing game. A Republican President is supposed to have a couple polite Bible verses memorized, not say "God is the ultimate" like a Viking warrior king praising Thor before battle. Donald Trump is taking a sledgehammer to our archetypes, and we still haven't figured out how to react.
The Republicans are cutting out the chaff now. Rick Perry and Scott Walker are a bust, and George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, and Rand Paul are rumored to be the next to go. Maybe the cull will consolidate support for Trump's more boring, level-headed opponents and it will be revealed that Trump's frontrunner status was always a fluke, that he'd already peaked. But maybe not. Maybe Trump will surge even higher in the polls and, dejected, the Republican Establishment will be forced to support him because hey, he's better than Deez Nuts. We just don't know.
How do you react to unmitigated chaos? What do you do with a narcissist with years of reality-TV experience who treats every policy issue like a personal beef and campaigns primarily by mugging for the camera like he's emceeing a mobster's birthday party at the Bellagio? Yeah, he's Ric Flair and "The Million Dollar Man" and Biff from Back to the Future in one body, but that's only a punchline once. He's an unacceptable human being, yet he's an unstoppable force. This fleshy personal brand is the honest-to-God Republican frontrunner, and there's no way out of admitting that. How do you deal with the cognitive dissonance of what you thought presidential material was and what Donald Trump is?
If you're National Review editor Rich Lowry, you try to out-Trump Trump on Fox News with a confrontational one-liner. "Part of what's going on here is that last debate. Let's be honest: Carly [Fiorina] cut his balls off with the precision of a surgeon, and he knows it," Lowry told Megyn Kelly, shortly before Trump demanded Lowry be kicked off television.
If you're Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you call as much attention to yourself as possible and fly a couple million miles away from tactfulness. On Wednesday night, 1.5 million people watched as South Park introduced a Donald Trump character, explained with a rhetorical bullhorn that his anti-immigration platform preys on fear and hostility, then promptly showed the character get viciously murdered.
And if you're the newly reasonable Stephen Colbert and scored Trump for a sit-down interview, you try and play the wacky diplomat while politely acknowledging the likelihood that the world is ending. "Who knows, one day I might be able to tell my grandkids I interviewed the last President of the United States," he joked in his monologue on Tuesday before an interview in which Trump immediately took control and never let go. Not even a surprise Charles Manson quote during a game of "Who Said It—Trump or Colbert?" could throw The Donald off his game.
The interview is a good encapsulation of Trump's campaign strategy of unchecked personality politics. While the country is still shell-shocked by the realization that his candidacy is legitimate, not quite done cocking its collective head at the Time magazine cover, Trump has taken the opportunity to light some fireworks (say, for instance, promising to make Mexico pay for his promised border wall). This forces people to notice him, and then he can set the terms of the national discussion with theatrics. He's become the most talked-about candidate by acting like what would happen if David Mamet started writing WWE storylines.
We kept assuming the carnival would pack up and head over to the next town; that this was a fad, a grotesque respite from the status quo, and that Trump would be gone in a few weeks. But he's still the entire discussion. Every move he makes is front-page news. When the political news circuit decided he was slipping, the Politico headline wasn't that Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson or Marco Rubio was winning, it was that Donald Trump was losing.
The numbers don't lie. It works. Trump got Colbert his highest post-debut ratings. He made the second GOP debate the highest-rated event in CNN history even though there are nine—nine!—more debates scheduled. Mentioning him in the media is like pulling page views out of thin air. He's incentivized talking about him, even if what people have to say about him is deeply negative. In this way, he's already won.
Every week that he stays in this campaign, the less his campaign looks like a high-budget novelty and the more it looks like a proof of concept for the future of national campaigning. He's the embodiment of social-media success: a candidate who's not just a news item every day, but a clickable headline. Scott Walker could make news without being someone you talked about, without being a headline, and now he's gone. Trump can make headlines just by calling someone a name or pulling a big, stagey face that can go in a list of GIFs on Buzzfeed. His low-five with Jeb Bush alone got more chatter than John Kasich's entire existence.
All this, and Trump doesn't really have a platform. He stays in the comfortable realm of bombastic generalities and applause-friendly talking points that play well to big crowds. But what he does have is a perfect mechanism for running the conversation regardless of the ideas powering that mechanism. He knows how to call attention to himself in any outlet. He's the only Republican who knows how to get traction on the internet. But his platform is a winner-take-all nationalist nightmare that collapses in on itself without the fog machine and laser light show. So who knows if he'll make it to the White House, if policy can be entirely substituted with publicity, but momentum still says this race is his to lose. Best-case scenario, maybe he'll just force us to reevaluate which candidates we take seriously.
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