Which is exactly what Trump wanted.
Just four hours earlier, the 2016 buzz of the day was all about a new poll that looked very bad for Trump. This poll was the first ever to show Ted Cruz taking the lead in Iowa — a development many political insiders had long been expecting.
So Trump decided to go on the offensive. He released an appalling, hateful proposal that guarantees he'll remain the center of the media's attention — and that he hopes will burnish his reputation as the candidate who will say things that others won't.
Top Democrats will say how appalled they are at him, and most of his GOP rivals will likely pile on and do the same, as will the press. The rolling denunciations will ensure the spotlight remains on Trump, and the Republican condemnations in particular will help him stand out from the rest of the field. Take it from Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner:
. @realDonaldTrump will get days of coverage in which GOP rivals, Obama, Clinton, media, will all sound same. This is bad for him how?— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) December 7, 2015
These are the two strategic objectives that lead Trump to keep stoking offensive controversies.
- First, he ensures his continued dominance of the headlines.
- Second, he proves to the segment of Americans who might secretly agree with him that, once again, he's willing to say the things ordinary politicians of both parties won't.
Trump's campaign needs controversy like oxygen
As John Sides has been writing for months now, there's a remarkable correlation between the amount of media coverage Trump gets and his standing in the polls. Here's how the numbers looked back in late September:
This is a level of coverage far above anything his GOP rivals can manage to get. And since the very day of his announcement, this media coverage has followed Trump's use of offensive rhetoric generally considered beyond the pale of modern political discourse.
In that opening campaign speech, Trump proclaimed that Mexico is "sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and bringing crime, and they're rapists."
Outrage, including boycotts of Trump's businesses, ensued — but he ended up shockingly soaring to first place in the GOP polls. It turned out that a sizable proportion of the electorate actually admired Trump for saying something they believed but that other politicians wouldn't go near because they're too politically correct.
Or take the first debate in August. Trump faced tough questioning from the Fox News hosts, and while the debate wasn't a disaster for him, it couldn't really be viewed as a win.
So Trump decided to change the subject by doing something offensive. He called into a CNN show and insulted debate host Megyn Kelly, saying that "there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her ... wherever." Controversy raged — but it kept Trump, rather than his rivals, in the headlines.
Conversely, when Trump looks like just another politician — releasing tax plans, debating in a subdued manner — the media doesn't give him as much attention, and he fades from voters' minds somewhat. That gives other candidates the opportunity to make gains.
Trump can break the rules of politics and make his rivals look like ordinary politicians
Now, several of Trump's rivals have in fact proposed limiting immigration of Muslims from certain Muslim countries, like Syria.
But none of them have gone so far as to call for all Muslims to be banned from traveling to the US. A position like that is rightly viewed as beyond the pale for anyone seeking a career in American politics.
And that's exactly what will make Trump stand out to part of the electorate that's receptive to bigoted appeals like this. Suddenly, Ted Cruz's condemnations of "radical Islam" and his call for a religious test for Syrian refugees look like half-measures in comparison.
No one else will go as far as Trump in stoking controversy. And by winning media coverage and positioning Trump against all his rivals, these controversies are exactly what keeps his campaign afloat.