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One quote that perfectly explains Donald Trump's appeal

Donald Trump talks to reporters outside the Capitol at a rally against the nuclear deal with Iran on September 9, 2015.
Donald Trump talks to reporters outside the Capitol at a rally against the nuclear deal with Iran on September 9, 2015.
Jonathan Allen/Vox

It's been frustrating for Donald Trump's rivals to watch him catch fire with the Republican base even though he's not a traditional conservative.

Jeb Bush's campaign put up a web ad called "The Real Donald Trump" to highlight his past support for abortion rights and universal health care.

But as Brian McCormack, a 68-year-old resident of Vienna, Virginia, explained to me at a Wednesday rally against the Iran nuclear deal, Trump's appeal isn't about what or who he stands for — it's about what and who he stands against.

"I'm not convinced that Trump is a true conservative, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I judge him in part by all the people he antagonizes."

The list of Trump targets is long and growing by the day: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, House Speaker John Boehner, Bush, Carly Fiorina's face, the rest of the GOP presidential field, Megyn Kelly, Rosie O'Donnell, political correctness, American decline, hedge fund managers, China, Mexican immigrants, and the Iran deal.

What Trump has been able to do so effectively — and McCormack's remark makes this point succinctly — is paper over his differences with Republican base voters on orthodoxy and policy by galvanizing them around their disdain for anything that smacks of the political establishment. GOP voters can even reward Trump for straying from their own beliefs because it is his very independence from institutions and conventions that they appreciate about him.

For Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the world has been turned on its head. There used to be one central question for Republican primary hopefuls: Can you govern as a conservative? They've spent their careers, and this campaign, trying to prove that they can, and, of course, that Trump has no record to run on and no rightful claim to conservative ideology. But Republican voters don't seem to care about that. In fact, the sought-after endorsements and blessings bestowed on other candidates by one faction of the party or another might actually hurt in this election. As long as no institutions are safe from the ire of the conservative base, Trump will do well by continuing to focus on antagonizing guardians of the establishment.