WASHINGTON – I know you haven’t heard enough about Donald Trump recently, so here’s more: At this point, anyone who says he can’t win the Republican nomination is in deep denial.
Trump announced his candidacy on June 16 and immediately vaulted into the top tier of candidates. On July 14, a USA Today poll put Trump in the lead by three points – and he has led every survey since. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday said he had the support of 28 percent of GOP voters – which is huge in a field this big.
The new poll gave trump a 16-point lead over his nearest competitor, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Jeb Bush, whom Trump has begun describing as a “low-energy person” – and who campaigns at times as if he were the nominee of destiny – stood at a measly 7 percent. Yikes.
That jolt you felt Thursday morning wasn’t an earthquake, it was the detonation of the Quinnipiac bomb.
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The Republican establishment seems to be slowly going through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, with many politicians and pundits unable to get past the first: denial.
When it became clear that Trump could not be ignored, party leaders and conservative columnists looked hard for evidence that the combed-over mogul’s political ascendancy was bound to fizzle. The establishment didn’t search at all for signs that it might be deeper and more lasting – forgetting an elementary rule of social science, which is that what you look for sets the parameters of what you’ll find.
So the lords of the GOP counted all the ways that Trump was unlike a traditional politician and decided he would soon be toast. He didn’t issue long, turgid position papers that no one would read. His rhetoric was miles over the top. He used to be a Democrat. He picked fights with a venerated senator and, worse, a Fox News anchor. There was no way this guy couldn’t fail.
But Trump’s numbers in the polls have gone steadily up. And if you add his numbers in the Quinnipiac survey to Carson’s, you see that a full 40 percent of Republican voters want their party to nominate for president someone who has never run for office before, let alone held it.
This ought to be enough to shock most of the party establishment into Kubler-Ross’ second stage: anger.
Some of our more perspicacious conservative observers have been in stage two for a while, and it’s producing some terrific prose. My favorite so far is the opening line of my colleague George F. Will’s column this week: “Every sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon injures the chances of a Republican presidency.”
I’m guessing the party establishment doesn’t ever want to get to the next stage of grief – bargaining – because the guy who would be on the other side of the negotiating table wrote “The Art of the Deal.” And I’m sure they never want to experience the final two stages: depression and acceptance.
But Trump is leading in the early-state polls. He can avoid one of the biggest expenses of running for president – buying television ads – since he gets 24/7 media coverage for free. Instead, he can use his cash to build state-level campaign organizations and keep gassing up his 757.
What if he were to win in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina? Who could stop him then? And how?
If the Republican establishment is going to defeat Trump, it first has to understand why he and Carson are doing so well. It is simply political malpractice not to take this outsider phenomenon seriously.
We get it, Jeb Bush, that you think it’s unbelievable these guys are beating you. Now deal with it. I don’t think pointing out the myriad flaws and injustices in Trump’s immigration proposals will get you very far. He’s doing a better job of selling his ridiculous, impossible ideas than you are of selling your sensible, practical solutions. And stop trying to convince voters that you, like Trump, are “tough” on immigration. Say what you believe, not what you think people want to hear. And work on that “low-energy” thing.
At present, Bush does seem to be emerging as the anti-Trump. But you can’t beat somebody with nobody. Much of what Trump says may be appalling, but he’s definitely somebody – and no one else in the field has achieved that distinction.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.