The Trump phenomenon is continuing to maintain its hold on first place in the GOP field while confounding party wise-men because Trump has not been brought low by a series of remarks that would have doomed lesser foes. The New York billionaire regularly adds to his laundry list of taunts and insults that was initiated in June when he went to Trump Tower to launch his campaign. Republicans find themselves facing other outsiders like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, and all three are outpacing insider favorites like Jeb Bush. The commentariat has been left scratching their heads trying to explain the durability of someone Charles Krauthammer once dismissed as a “rodeo clown.” Republicans were supposed to have left behind candidates like Trump and Cruz — Democrats have — but their appeal is no summer fling; it is a confrontation that has been building for years. The voters backing Republican outsiders are among those who gave the party its House majority in 2010. They sent Cruz and Marco Rubio to the Senate and expected to see action on several fronts, like the Affordable Care Act. A Democrat Senate continued to stand in the way while the cause took shape as a signature issue among base voters. The 2012 race came and went, Mitt Romney fumbled his way through the debates, President Obama returned to office and the status quo prevailed. The 2013 shutdown set the stage Trump is standing on and the frustration left in its wake created the vacuum he is filling.
At the time the president spoke of attempts to “extract a ransom,” Democrat minority leader Nancy Pelosi branded opponents “legislative arsonists,” and Senate chief Harry Reid called it an attempt to “appease…tea party anarchists.” The showdown exposed a divide among Republicans between those willing to “stand our ground” as Cruz put it, and party elders like John McCain, who had previously described Cruz as a “wacko bird.” The combination of over-heated rhetoric from Democrats and a mix of passivity and piling on among Republicans helped send Eric Cantor home and remained present through the 2014 campaign. The party’s minority status continued to be an issue; as was Harry Reid’s ability to effectively kill any legislation the House passed by refusing to bring it to the Senate floor, which made a Senate majority a key goal. Then President Obama stepped in. When he put forward his executive order on immigration the GOP house was divided again, this time between supporters of the gang-of-eight reform bill and opponents. The budget agreement struck by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, Republican support for the president’s trade bill, and the budget deal agreed to by former Speaker John Boehner only reinforce the idea among the GOP base that party leaders cannot be trusted. Jeb Bush’s remarks about being willing to “lose the primary to win the general” confirm that mistrust, hence the former Florida governor’s standing in the polls.
The voters Trump is winning over look at Jeb Bush and see his experience in government as a weakness; Trump’s bluster and lack of experience is his strength. It’s how he’s managed to maintain, even build on, his lead through the uproar over a series of remarks about Muslims and terrorism. It doesn’t matter if there were “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the downing of the World Trade Center, it only matters that the media is saying there were not. Trump is defined by his adversaries in a way that draws his supporters closer, so every attempt to bring him down builds him up in a way that defies conventional wisdom. The game begins again with each new outlandish remark that sends reporters in search of answers from Trump and responses from his rivals, which makes it easy to dismiss the concerns sustaining his campaign. The attack in San Bernardino has focused his support because it made the threat local. President Obama’s monotone response and his attempt to change the subject to gun control is feeding a perception that he is at best disinterested in the issue. The president was more animated when discussing opposition to refugee resettlement, more vocal over a potential anti-Muslim backlash to San Bernardino. It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s proposals to close down part of “our” internet and “take out” terrorist’s families, but they echo voter’s fears and are helping him bypass overconfident beltway regulars on both sides of the aisle.