As Donald Trump continues his pundit-defying dominance of the national polls, with early primaries just days away, the once-unthinkable has become all too thinkable: Could Trump actually pull this off? Could he become president?
I'm going to stake out a firm answer: no. Absent extreme and unlikely circumstances*, Trump will never be president.
Jack Shafer argues that Trump's success so far is a "black swan" event, an unpredictable and unrepeatable concatenation of improbable circumstances. That sounds about right.
But just because some political rules and conventions have been violated doesn't mean they've all vanished. Just because Trump makes no sense doesn't mean common sense has become worthless. One black swan does not foretell a flock of black swans.
Trump might win the GOP nomination, but as we set off down the long and difficult road of a general election, what has been his strength in this election cycle so far will inexorably become his weakness. And there's no reason to think he'll be able to pivot to a different approach.
Trump is like Wile E. Coyote, sprinted off the cliff, hanging in the air. He's hung there longer than anyone expected ... but that doesn't mean he can fly.
Trump has one mode: dominance
One of the best things I've read this year about Trump's appeal is by Josh Marshall. It harks back to his (legendary in some circles) 2004 post about "bitch-slap politics."
Marshall has wisely abandoned that term, but the concept behind it has never been more relevant. It's about dominance displays, about showing, rather than arguing, that one's opponent is weak.
It's done not through critique but through attack — personal attack — demonstrating that the target will not or cannot defend him or herself. The attack doesn't make the point, it is the point.
Marshall's original application was to the Swift Boat attacks in 2004. What made those effective was not their substance, he says, but the optics of John Kerry getting beat up and sitting passively by while it happened. How could he defend America if he wouldn't defend himself?
Now Trump has taken that kind of politics to a new level:
As I've said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It's not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language. And yet somehow for most it is nonetheless a second language. But it's Trump's native language. ... Wherever it comes from, he seems to intuitively get that for this constituency and at this moment just demonstrating that he gets his way, always, is all that really matters. Policy details, protecting the candidate through careful press releases and structured media opportunities ... none of that matters.
Though it makes pundits somewhat uncomfortable to admit it, most voters — especially the politically disengaged working-class white voters Trump is attracting — don't know much about "issues" and don't have well-defined political philosophies.
When they witness political debate, they aren't really analyzing and assessing arguments. They are reading the subtext, attuned to who's aggressive and who's defensive, who's strong and who's weak, who seems like a leader and who doesn't.
Trump instinctively gets this. His innovation, if you can call it that, is to abandon the text altogether, bringing the subtext to the surface. "Toughness" is no longer a side dish; it's the main dish, the only dish. Trump will win because Trump wins. It's a post-truth, post-substance campaign, affect from top to bottom.
That's why the National Review–style "he's a secret liberal" attacks simply bounce off him. His appeal has nothing to do with consistency on policy or fealty to conservative ideology. It is 100 percent about dominance.
And that's why his gambit on Thursday night was so brilliant. It replaced a debate, which is at least formally about positions and plans, with a raw contest of power — his weakness with his strength. (Sure enough, his absence devastated ratings for the debate.)
He's done this again and again throughout the primary, shifting media and public attention to personal power struggles in which policy differences play no role. He jam-packs the news cycle, belittling foes' appearance and personalities, thumbing his nose at the political establishment, and making his lead in the polls the core of his message.
There's no air for anything else.
Marshall sums it up:
Trump doesn't kiss babies. Babies kiss him. He doesn't have a billionaire backer; he is a billionaire. Trump doesn't ask for support. He just tells you that you need to stop being a loser and get on board.
Trump's shtick is a wild success ... among a certain subset of voters
That approach has proven immensely potent in the GOP primary. The angry white people flocking to Trump feel like they're getting snubbed, looked down on, and passed over, that a new culture is rising up around them and it has no place for them.
Two veterans tell me why they believe in Trump. "He's more of a 19th Century President in a 21st Century age." pic.twitter.com/oMzpV6JSWm— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 29, 2016
And now here is one of their own — okay, maybe not struggling like them, but definitely pissed off and politically incorrect like them — expressing their fears and resentments, without apology.
Trump is their avatar. And he is making all the fancypants politicos and journalists bend a knee and kiss his ring. They can't hurt him, and he makes sure they know it. He is a florid middle finger to every one of the cultural elites his followers feel disdained by.
They've been getting crapped on years. Now someone is taking their side and doing some of the crapping.
They love it. They don't necessarily love him, but they love watching him stick it to the elites. And why wouldn't they? They are, through Trump, winning again, like they used to back in the good old days.
But the road to an election is too long to have only one gear
Since 2004, with the debut of Trump's reality show The Apprentice, the US public has only seen the Donald in one mode: in charge, winning, dominating. He was on top in his show, by design. He's been on top of the field for the whole primary. He's come out on top in every dispute with Fox News or the Republican Party.
To people unfamiliar with his pre-Apprentice career in New York, Trump has always and only been a winner.
That was not an obvious outcome when he entered the race. But he has an instinct for what pleases and excites his audience (or what enrages those his audience hates, very often the same thing), and he quickly discovered that belligerent xenophobia worked. As Dara Lind argues, there's good reason to believe that he pursued immigration mainly because that's what hit with his initial crowds.
So he entered with maximal bluster and has just kept it up, posturing, bullshitting furiously, expressing the most extreme version of everything that pumps up his audience, extolling his own dominance.
And it's working. It just keeps working!
He's Wile E. Coyote, suspended in the air, floating. He seems, to my eye, as baffled by it as anyone else. That's the significance of the "I could shoot people" comment:
"It's incredible!" That's not what people say when events are unfolding according to their carefully laid plans. He's just as amazed as everyone else by the resilience of his appeal. He can't believe it's working either.
But what happens when he's not on top, not dominating?
Presidential campaigns are long and intense, with many ups and downs along the way. Once he is no longer a phenomenon, a spectacle, but an honest-to-god candidate in a one-on-one race, Trump will not be able to avoid answering questions about policy or substance. He will not be able to belittle and marginalize everyone who challenges him or skip every debate that doesn't agree to his terms.
He will not be able to dictate the terms of the contest, as he has so far.
Sooner or later he'll have to navigate situations where he's on the defensive, where he's being asked to defend himself or apologize or treat an opponent with respect. What then? What will arrogant bluster look like in that context?
Also, Trump's shtick excites a portion of the electorate — resentful, xenophobic, white — that is more robust than most political elites realized, but the shtick also polarizes. Trump has higher unfavorables than any of his opponents. Taken to a national race, his current act will even more sharply divide an already polarized country.
And here's the bedrock obstacle to Trump's success: There are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.
So to win, Trump will have to reach out to moderates or independents or white-collar professionals or Latinos or college-educated women or ... some other demographic.
Endless dominance displays will not do that. He'll have to soften his approach, to show some respect and gravitas, to display some empathy, to demonstrate that he has a grasp of policy. Bush-style "compassionate conservatism" is the only kind capable of building a national majority anymore.
Can Trump do that? Can he modulate his act? Can he appeal to different demographics?
Well, he never has. And nothing in his history or behavior indicates that he's capable of it.
Trump's approach is not an act that he can turn on and off at will
A few commentators — most eloquently Philip Bump — have interpreted Trump as "wanting to be liked," which indicates to them (and to some in the Republican establishment) that Trump will be malleable in a way that a more ideological candidate like Cruz will not. But I don't think that's quite right.
Bill Clinton wants to be liked. That's why he makes everyone he meets feel like the center of the universe, the sole focus of his attention. People like that!
Trump doesn't make people feel that way. Indeed, he has constructed his entire professional life around him being the center of universe, the focus of any room he's in. He doesn't want to be liked, he wants to be respected and feared. He wants to be the top dog; he is obsessed with it.
I think people often misread that as a species of strength, but its true origin is fear — deep, pre-verbal fear, down in the brainstem.
Some scientists have looked into what makes conservatives conservative. One thing they've found is that conservatives are more sensitive to negative features of the environment — to threat, contamination, disorder. At the far right end of the spectrum is the authoritarian, who dreams of total control, freedom from all threat, "peace through strength."
And that's Trump (who, not coincidentally, refuses to shake hands for fear of germs). He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn't, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.
It's pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience.
Trump may "pledge a personality change" as president, but personalities do not change overnight. Narcissistic personality disorder is not a strategy; it's a condition.
And it is not going to wear well over the long course of a presidential election. In a general campaign, Trump will not be surrounded by supplicants like he's accustomed to. He won't be able to skip debates and bully journalists for an entire election. He will be put under intense stress and scrutiny, forced to improvise answers to difficult questions that he doesn't get to choose.
And when he's pushed he'll lash out, again and again, and eventually people will notice that lashing out is all he's capable of. He'll face setbacks, and people will notice that arrogant bluster sounds a little tinny and desperate coming from someone who's down.
People will see his personality on display in circumstances not of his choosing, for the first time. And they'll recoil at the idea of him holding the nuclear codes. Maybe core Republican voters will stay with him no matter what, but he'll repel more than enough non-core voters to foreclose a winning coalition.
Bottom line: The strongman approach is inherently self-limiting. It flourishes in the bizarro environs of a modern Republican primary, but there is no evidence at all, and much to the contrary, that it could be used to assemble a national majority.
Yet it is the only approach in Trump's toolbox. That is why he will never be president.
*I can think of two scenarios that would fit the bill. One, Trump faces Clinton, and late in the race something happens to render Clinton unelectable. Two, Trump faces Sanders, and Bloomberg jumps in, splitting the left vote and throwing the election to Trump.
Both seem highly unlikely to me, the first because Clinton is already the most intensely vetted figure in US politics, the second because Sanders is unlikely to win the primary.