The first thing you notice at Donald Trump's rallies is the confidence. Amateur psychologists have wishfully diagnosed him from afar as insecure, but in person the notion seems absurd.
Donald Trump, insecure? We should all have such problems.
At the Verizon Giganto-Center in Manchester the night before the New Hampshire primary, Trump bounds onstage to raucous applause and the booming riffs of the Lennon-McCartney anthem "Revolution." The song is, hilariously, a cautionary tale about the perils of false prophets peddling mindless revolts, but Trump floats in on its grooves like it means the opposite. When you win as much as he does, who the hell cares what anything means?
He steps to the lectern and does his Mussolini routine, which he's perfected over the past months. It's a nodding wave, a grin, a half-sneer, and a little U.S. Open-style applause back in the direction of the audience, his face the whole time a mask of pure self-satisfaction.
"This is unbelievable, unbelievable!" he says, staring out at a crowd of about 4,000 whooping New Englanders with snow hats, fleece and beer guts. There's a snowstorm outside and cars are flying off the road, but it's a packed house.
He flashes a thumbs-up. "So everybody's talking about the cover of Time magazine last week. They have a picture of me from behind, I was extremely careful with my hair ... "
He strokes his famous flying fuzz-mane. It looks gorgeous, like it's been recently fed. The crowd goes wild. Whoooo! Trump!
It's pure camp, a variety show. He singles out a Trump impersonator in the crowd, tells him he hopes the guy is making a lot of money. "Melania, would you marry that guy?" he says. The future first lady is a Slovenian model who, apart from Trump, was most famous for a TV ad in which she engaged in a Frankenstein-style body transfer with the Aflac duck, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.
She had one line in that ad. Tonight, it's two lines:
"Ve love you, New Hampshire," she says, in a thick vampire accent. "Ve, together, ve vill make America great again!"
As reactionary patriotic theater goes, this scene is bizarre – Melania Knauss didn't even arrive in America until 1996, when she was all of 26 – but the crowd goes nuts anyway. Everything Trump does works these days. He steps to the mic.
"She's beautiful, but she's more beautiful even on the inside," he says, raising a finger to the heavens. "And, boy, is she smart!"
Before the speech, the PA announcer had told us not to "touch or harm" any protesters, but to instead just surround them and chant, "Trump! Trump! Trump!" until security can arrive (and presumably do the touching and/or harming).
I'd seen this ritual several times, and the crowd always loves it. At one event, a dead ringer for John Oliver ripped off his shirt in the middle of a Trump speech to reveal body paint that read "Eminent Domain This!" on his thorax. The man shouted, "Trump is a racist!" and was immediately set upon by Trump supporters, who yelled "Trump! Trump! Trump!" at him until security arrived and dragged him out the door to cheers. The whole Trump run is like a Jerry Springer episode, where even the losers seem in on the gags.
In Manchester, a protester barely even manages to say a word before disappearing under a blanket of angry boos: "Trump! Trump! Trump!" It's a scene straight out of Freaks. In a Trump presidency, there will be free tar and feathers provided at the executive's every public address.
It's a few minutes after that when a woman in the crowd shouts that Ted Cruz is a pussy. She will later tell a journalist she supports Trump because his balls are the size of "watermelons," while his opponents' balls are more like "grapes" or "raisins."
Trump's balls are unaware of this, but he instinctively likes her comment and decides to go into headline-making mode. "I never expect to hear that from you again!" he says, grinning. "She said he's a pussy. That's terrible." Then, theatrically, he turns his back to the crowd. As the 500 or so reporters in attendance scramble to instantly make this the most important piece of news in the world – in less than a year Trump has succeeded in turning the USA into a massive high school – the candidate beams.
What's he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower.
In person, you can't miss it: The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald on the stump can see his future. The pundits don't want to admit it, but it's sitting there in plain view, 12 moves ahead, like a chess game already won:
President Donald Trump.
A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events – an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc. – this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised.
It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.
And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He's way better than average.
It's been well-documented that Trump surged last summer when he openly embraced the ugly race politics that, according to the Beltway custom of 50-plus years, is supposed to stay at the dog-whistle level. No doubt, that's been a huge factor in his rise. But racism isn't the only ugly thing he's dragged out into the open.
Trump is no intellectual. He's not bringing Middlemarch to the toilet. If he had to jail with Stephen Hawking for a year, he wouldn't learn a thing about physics. Hawking would come out on Day 365 talking about models and football.
But, in an insane twist of fate, this bloated billionaire scion has hobbies that have given him insight into the presidential electoral process. He likes women, which got him into beauty pageants. And he likes being famous, which got him into reality TV. He knows show business.
That put him in position to understand that the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show, and the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers of the world seem appalled. How dare he demean the presidency with his antics?
But they've all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line. And every time some pundit or party spokesman tries to deny it, Trump picks up another vote.
The ninth Republican debate, in Greenville, South Carolina, is classic Trump. He turns these things into WWE contests, and since he has actual WWE experience after starring in Wrestlemania in 2007, he knows how to play these moments like a master.
Interestingly, a lot of Trump's political act seems lifted from bully-wrestlers. A clear influence is "Ravishing" Rick Rude, an Eighties champ whose shtick was to insult the audience. He would tell ticket holders they were "fat, ugly sweat hogs," before taking off his robe to show them "what a real sexy man looks like."Watch the similarities between wrestler "Ravishing" Rick Rude and presidential candidate Donald Trump:
In Greenville, Donald "The Front-Runner" Trump started off the debate by jumping on his favorite wrestling foil, Prince Dinkley McBirthright, a.k.a. Jeb Bush. Trump seems to genuinely despise Bush. He never missed a chance to rip him for being a "low-energy," "stiff" and "dumb as a rock" weenie who lets his Mexican wife push him around. But if you watch Trump long enough, it starts to seem gratuitous.
Trump's basic argument is the same one every successful authoritarian movement in recent Western history has made: that the regular guy has been screwed by a conspiracy of incestuous elites. The Bushes are half that conspiratorial picture, fronts for a Republican Party establishment and whose sum total of accomplishments, dating back nearly 30 years, are two failed presidencies, the sweeping loss of manufacturing jobs, and a pair of pitiable Middle Eastern military adventures – the second one achieving nothing but dead American kids and Junior's re-election.
Trump picked on Jeb because Jeb is a symbol. The Bushes are a dissolute monarchy, down to offering their last genetic screw-up to the throne.
Jeb took the high road for most of the past calendar year, but Trump used his gentlemanly dignity against him. What Trump understands better than his opponents is that NASCAR America, WWE America, always loves seeing the preening self-proclaimed good guy get whacked with a chair. In Greenville, Trump went after Jeb this time on the issue of his brother's invasion of Iraq.
"The war in Iraq was a big f ... fat mistake, all right?" he snorted. He nearly said, "A big fucking mistake." He added that the George W. Bush administration lied before the war about Iraq having WMDs and that we spent $2 trillion basically for nothing.
Days earlier, Trump had gleefully tweeted that Bush needed his "mommy" after Jeb appeared with Lady Barbara on a morning show.
Jeb now went straight into character as the Man Whose Good Name Had Been Insulted. He defended his family and took exception to Trump having the "gall" to go after his mother.
"I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago and looked up and I saw my mom," Jeb said proudly and lifted his chin. America loves Moms. How could he not win this exchange? But he was walking into a lawn mower.
"My mom is the strongest woman I know," Jeb continued.
"She should be running," Trump snapped.
The crowd booed, but even that was phony. It later came out that more than 900 of the 1,600 seats were given to local and national GOP officials. (Trump mentioned during the debate that he had only his wife and son there in comparison, but few picked up on what he was saying.) Pundits, meanwhile, lined up to congratulate Jeb for "assailing" Trump – "Bush is finally going for it," The New York Times wrote – but the exchange really highlighted many of the keys to Trump's success.
Trump had said things that were true and that no other Republican would dare to say. And yet the press congratulated the candidate stuffed with more than $100 million in donor cash who really did take five whole days last year to figure out his position on his own brother's invasion of Iraq.
At a time when there couldn't be more at stake, with the Middle East in shambles, a major refugee crisis, and as many as three Supreme Court seats up for grabs (the death of satanic quail-hunter Antonin Scalia underscored this), the Republican Party picked a strange year to turn the presidential race into a potluck affair. The candidates sent forth to take on Trump have been so incompetent they can't even lose properly.
One GOP strategist put it this way: "Maybe 34 [percent] is Trump's ceiling. But 34 in a five-person race wins."
The numbers simply don't work, unless the field unexpectedly narrows before March. Trump has a chokehold on somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the Republican vote, scoring in one poll across every category: young and old, educated and less so, hardcore conservatives and registered Democrats, with men and with women, Megyn Kelly's "wherever" notwithstanding. Trump the Builder of Anti-Rapist Walls even earns an estimated 25 percent of the GOP Latino vote.
Moreover, there's evidence that human polling undercounts Trump's votes, as people support him in larger numbers when they don't have to admit their leanings to a live human being. Like autoerotic asphyxiation, supporting Donald Trump is an activity many people prefer to enjoy in a private setting, like in a shower or a voting booth.
The path to unseating Trump is consolidation of opposition, forcing him into a two- or three-person race. Things seemed headed that way after Iowa, when Ted Cruz won and Marco Rubio came in third.
Rubio's Iowa celebration was a classic. The toothy Floridian leaped onstage and delivered a rollickingly pretentious speech appropriate not for a candidate who just eked out wins in five Iowa counties, but for a man just crowned king of Jupiter.
"For months, they told us because we offered too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance," he thundered. Commentators later noted Rubio's language was remarkably similar to Barack Obama's florid "they said our sights were set too high" 2008 Iowa victory speech.
The national punditry predictably overreacted to Rubio's showing, having been desperate to rally behind a traditional, party-approved GOP candidate.
Why do the media hate Trump? Progressive reporters will say it's because of things like his being crazy and the next Hitler, while the Fox types insist it's because he's "not conservative." But reporters mostly loathe Trump because he regularly craps on other reporters.
He called Fox's Kelly a period-crazed bias monster for asking simple questions about Trump's past comments about women, and launched a weirdly lengthy crusade against little-known New Hampshire Union-Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid for comparing Trump to Back to the Future villain Biff Tannen. He even mocked the neurological condition of Times reporter Serge Kovaleski for failing to ratify Trump's hilariously fictional recollection of "thousands" of Muslims celebrating after 9/11, doing an ad hoc writhing disabled-person impersonation at a South Carolina rally that left puppies and cancer kids as the only groups untargeted by his campaign. (He later denied the clearly undeniable characterization.)
But Trump's thin-skinned dealings with reporters didn't fully explain the media's efforts to prop up his opponents. We've long been engaged in our own version of the high school put-down game, battering nerds and outsiders like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich while elevating "electable," party-approved candidates like John McCain and John Kerry.
Thus it was no surprise that after Iowa, columnists tried to sell the country on the loathsome "Marcomentum" narrative, a paean to the good old days when reporters got to tell the public who was hot and who wasn't – the days of the "Straight Talk Express," "Joementum," etc.
"Marco Rubio Was the Real Winner in Iowa," blared CNN. "Marco Rubio's Iowa Mojo," chimed in Politico. "Forget Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio Is the Real Winner of the Iowa Caucuses," agreed Vanity Fair.
Rubio, we were told, had zoomed to the front of the "establishment lane" in timely enough fashion to stop Trump. Of course, in the real world, nobody cares about what happens in the "establishment lane" except other journalists. But even the other candidates seemed to believe the narrative. Ohio Gov. John Kasich staggered out of Iowa in eighth place and was finishing up his 90th lonely appearance in New Hampshire when Boston-based reporters caught up to him.
"If we get smoked up there, I'm going back to Ohio," he lamented. Kasich in person puts on a brave face, but he also frequently rolls his eyes in an expression of ostentatious misanthropy that says, "I can't believe I'm losing to these idiots."
But then Rubio went onstage at St. Anselm College in the eighth GOP debate and blew himself up. Within just a few minutes of a vicious exchange with haranguing now-former candidate Chris Christie, he twice delivered the exact same canned 25-second spiel about how Barack Obama "knows exactly what he's doing."
Rubio's face-plant brilliantly reprised Sir Ian Holm's performance in Alien, as a malfunctioning, disembodied robot head stammering, "I admire its purity," while covered in milky android goo. It was everything we hate about scripted mannequin candidates captured in a brief crack in the political façade.
Rubio plummeted in the polls, and Kasich, already mentally checked out, was the surprise second-place finisher in New Hampshire, with 15.8 percent of the vote.
"Something big happened tonight," Kasich said vaguely, not seeming sure what that thing was exactly. Even worse from a Republican point of view, Dinkley McBush somehow finished fourth, above Rubio and in a virtual tie with Iowa winner Ted Cruz.
Now none of the three "establishment lane" candidates could drop out. And the next major contest, South Carolina, was deemed by horse-race experts to have too tiny an "establishment lane" vote to decide which two out of that group should off themselves in time for the third to mount a viable "Stop Trump" campaign.
All of which virtually guarantees Trump will probably enjoy at least a five-horse race through Super Tuesday. So he might have this thing sewn up before the others even figure out in what order they should quit. It's hard to recall a dumber situation in American presidential politics.
"If you're Trump, you're sending flowers to all of them for staying in," the GOP strategist tells me. "The more the merrier. And they're running out of time to figure it out."
The day after Rubio's implosion, Trump is upstate in New Hampshire, addressing what for him is a modest crowd of about 1,500 to 2,000 in the gym at Plymouth State University. The crowd here is more full-blown New England townie than you'll find at his Manchester events: lots of work boots, Pats merch and f-bombs.
Trump's speeches are never scripted, never exactly the same twice. Instead he just riffs and feels his way through crowds. He's no orator – as anyone who's read his books knows, he's not really into words, especially long ones – but he has an undeniable talent for commanding a room.
Today, knowing the debate news is in the air, he makes sure to plunge a finger into Rubio's wound, mocking candidates who need scripts.
"Honestly, I don't have any teleprompters, I don't have a speech I'm reading to you," Trump says. Then he switches into a nasal, weenie-politician voice, and imitates someone reading tiny text from a crib sheet: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's so nice to be here in New Hampshire, please vote for me or I'll never speak to you again ... "
The crowd laughs. Trump also makes sure to point a finger at the omnipresent Giant Media Throng.
"See all those cameras back there?" he says. "They've never driven so far to a location."
The crowd turns to gape and sneer at the hated press contingent, which seems glad to be behind a rope. Earlier, Trump had bragged about how these same reporters had begrudgingly admitted that he'd won the St. Anselm debate. "They hate it, but they gave me very high grades."
It's simple transitive-property rhetoric, and it works. The press went gaga for Rubio after Iowa because – why? Because he's an unthreatening, blow-dried, cliché-spouting, dial-surveying phony of the type campaign journalists always approve of.
And when Rubio gets exposed in the debate as a talking haircut, a political Speak n' Spell, suddenly the throng of journalists who spent the past two weeks trying to sell America on "Marcomentum" and the all-important "establishment lane" looks very guilty indeed. Voters were supposed to take this seriously?
Trump knows the public sees through all of this, grasps the press's role in it and rightly hates us all. When so many Trump supporters point to his stomping of the carpetbagging snobs in the national media as the main reason they're going to vote for him, it should tell us in the press something profound about how much people think we suck.
Jay Matthews, a Plymouth native with a long beard and a Trump sign, cites Trump's press beat-downs as the first reason he's voting Donald.
"He's gonna be his own man," he says. "He's proving that now with how he's getting all the media. He's paying nothing and getting all the coverage. He's not paying one dime."
Reporters have focused quite a lot on the crazy/race-baiting/nativist themes in Trump's campaign, but these comprise a very small part of his usual presentation. His speeches increasingly are strikingly populist in their content.
His pitch is: He's rich, he won't owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won't do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people.
He talks, for instance, about the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by insurance companies, an atrocity dating back more than half a century, to the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945. This law, sponsored by one of the most notorious legislators in our history (Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran was thought to be the inspiration for the corrupt Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather II), allows insurance companies to share information and collude to divvy up markets.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats made a serious effort to overturn this indefensible loophole during the debate over the Affordable Care Act.
Trump pounds home this theme in his speeches, explaining things from his perspective as an employer. "The insurance companies," he says, "they'd rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding ... It's so hard for me to make deals ... because I can't get bids."
He goes on to explain that prices would go down if the state-by-state insurance fiefdoms were eliminated, but that's impossible because of the influence of the industry. "I'm the only one that's self-funding ... Everyone else is taking money from, I call them the bloodsuckers."
Trump isn't lying about any of this. Nor is he lying when he mentions that the big-pharma companies have such a stranglehold on both parties that they've managed to get the federal government to bar itself from negotiating Medicare prescription-drug prices in bulk.
"I don't know what the reason is – I do know what the reason is, but I don't know how they can sell it," he says. "We're not allowed to negotiate drug prices. We pay $300 billion more than if we negotiated the price."
It's actually closer to $16 billion a year more, but the rest of it is true enough. Trump then goes on to personalize this story. He claims (and with Trump we always have to use words like "claims") how it was these very big-pharma donors, "fat cats," sitting in the front row of the debate the night before. He steams ahead even more with this tidbit: Woody Johnson, one of the heirs of drug giant Johnson & Johnson (and the laughably incompetent owner of the New York Jets), is the finance chief for the campaign of whipping boy Jeb Bush.
"Now, let's say Jeb won. Which is an impossibility, but let's say ... "
The crowd explodes in laughter.
"Let's say Jeb won," Trump goes on. "How is it possible for Jeb to say, ‘Woody, we're going to go out and fight competitively' ?"
This is, what – not true? Of course it's true.
What's Trump's solution? Himself! He's gonna grab the problem by the throat and fix it by force!
Throughout his campaign, he's been telling a story about a $2.5 billion car factory that a Detroit automaker wants to build in Mexico, and how as president he's going to stop it. Humorously, he tried at one point to say he already had stopped it, via his persistent criticism, citing an article on an obscure website that claimed the operation had moved to Youngstown, Ohio.
That turned out to be untrue, but, hey, what candidate for president hasn't impulse-tweeted the completely unprovable fact or two? (Trump, incidentally, will someday be in the Twitter Hall of Fame. His fortune-cookie mind – restless, confrontational, completely lacking the shame/veracity filter – is perfectly engineered for the medium.)
In any case, Trump says he'll call Detroit carmakers into his office and lay down an ultimatum: Either move the jobs back to America, or eat a 35 percent tax on every car imported back into the U.S. over the Mexican border.
"I'm a free-trader," he says, "but you can only be a free-trader when something's fair."
It's stuff like this that has conservative pundits from places like the National Review bent out of shape. Where, they ask, is the M-F'ing love? What about those conservative principles we've spent decades telling you flyover-country hicks you're supposed to have?
"Trump has also promised to use tariffs to punish companies," wrote David McIntosh in the Review's much-publicized, but not-effective-at-all "Conservatives Against Trump" 22-pundit jihad. "These are not the ideas of a small-government conservative ... They are, instead, the ramblings of a liberal wanna-be strongman."
What these tweedy Buckleyites at places like the Review don't get is that most people don't give a damn about "conservative principles." Yes, millions of people responded to that rhetoric for years. But that wasn't because of the principle itself, but because it was always coupled with the more effective politics of resentment: Big-government liberals are to blame for your problems.
Elections, like criminal trials, are ultimately always about assigning blame. For a generation, conservative intellectuals have successfully pointed the finger at big-government-loving, whale-hugging liberals as the culprits behind American decline.
But the fact that lots of voters hated the Clintons, Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks and whomever else, did not, ever, mean that they believed in the principle of Detroit carmakers being able to costlessly move American jobs overseas by the thousands.
"We've got to do something to bring jobs back," says one Trump supporter in Plymouth, when asked why tariffs are suddenly a good idea.
Cheryl Donlon says she heard the tariff message loud and clear and she's fine with it, despite the fact that it clashes with traditional conservatism.
"We need someone who is just going to look at what's best for us," she says.
I mention that Trump's plan is virtually identical to Dick Gephardt's idea from way back in the 1988 Democratic presidential race, to fight the Korean Hyundai import wave with retaliatory tariffs.
Donlon says she didn't like that idea then.
"I didn't like him," she says.
Trump, though, she likes. And so do a lot of people. No one should be surprised that he's tearing through the Republican primaries, because everything he's saying about his GOP opponents is true. They really are all stooges on the take, unable to stand up to Trump because they're not even people, but are, like Jeb and Rubio, just robo-babbling representatives of unseen donors.
Back in Manchester, an American Legion hall half-full of bored-looking Republicans nurses beers and knocks billiard balls around, awaiting Iowa winner Ted Cruz. The eely Texan is presumably Trump's most serious threat and would later nudge past Trump in one national poll (dismissed by Trump as conducted by people who "don't like me").
But New Hampshire is a struggle for Cruz. The high point in his entire New England run has been his penchant for reciting scenes from The Princess Bride, including the entire Billy Crystal "your friend here is only mostly dead" speech for local station WMUR. The one human thing about Cruz seems to be that his movie impersonations are troublingly solid, a consistent B-plus to A-minus.
But stepping into the human zone for even a few minutes backfired. The actor Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo Montoya in the film, reacted with horror when he learned Cruz was doing his character's famous line "You killed my father, prepare to die." He accused Cruz of deliberately leaving out the key line in Montoya's speech, after he finally slays the man who killed his father: "I've been in the revenge business for so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life."
Patinkin believed Cruz didn't do that line because Cruz is himself in the revenge business, promising to "carpet-bomb [ISIS] into oblivion" and wondering if "sand can glow."
Patinkin's criticism of Cruz cut deeply, especially after the Iowa caucuses, when Cruz was accused by Trump and others of spreading a false rumor that Ben Carson was dropping out, in order to steal evangelical votes and pad his lead.
The unwelcome attention seemed to scare Cruz back into scripted-bot mode, where he's a less-than-enthralling presence. Cruz in person is almost physically repellent. Psychology Today even ran an article by a neurology professor named Dr. Richard Cytowic about the peculiarly off-putting qualities of Cruz's face.
He used a German term, backpfeifengesicht, literally "a face in need of a good punch," to describe Cruz. This may be overstating things a little. Cruz certainly has an odd face – it looks like someone sewed pieces of a waterlogged Reagan mask together at gunpoint – but it's his tone more than anything that gets you. He speaks slowly and loudly and in the most histrionic language possible, as if he's certain you're too stupid to grasp that he is for freedom.
"The ... Constitution ...," he says, "serves ... as ... chains ... to ... bind ... the ... mischief ... of ... government ... "
Four years ago, a candidate like this would have just continued along this path, serving up piles of euphuistic Tea Party rhetoric for audiences that at the time were still hot for the tricorner-hat explanation of how Comrade Obama ruined the American Eden.
But now, that's not enough. In the age of Trump, the Cruzes of the world also have to be rebels against the "establishment." This requirement makes for some almost unbelievable rhetorical contortions.
"Government," Cruz now ventures, "should not be about redistributing wealth and benefiting the corporations and the special interests."
This absurd Swiss Army cliché perfectly encapsulates the predicament of the modern GOP. In one second, Cruz is against "redistributionism," which in the Obama years was code for "government spending on minorities." In the next second, he's against corporations and special interests, the villains du jour in the age of Bernie Sanders and Trump, respectively.
He's against everything all at once. Welfare! Corporations! Special Interests! Government! The Establishment! He's that escort who'll be into whatever you want, for an hour.
Trump meanwhile wipes out Cruz in his speeches in a single, drop-the-mic line.
"They give Ted $5 million," he says, bringing to mind loans Cruz took from a pair of banks, Goldman Sachs and Citibank.
The total was closer to $1.2 million, but Trump's point, that even the supposed "outsider" GOP candidate is just another mindless payola machine, is impossible to counter.
The unexpectedly thrilling Democratic Party race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, too, is breaking just right for Trump. It's exposing deep fissures in the Democratic strategy that Trump is already exploiting.
Every four years, some Democrat who's been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.
It's called "transactional politics," and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.
This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband's efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders. Pissed, the rank and file in many locals revolted. In New Hampshire, for instance, a Service Employees International Union local backed Sanders despite the national union's endorsement of Clinton, as did an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapter.
Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by "transactional politics." He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches, applying to it his favorite word, "disaster." And he just as regularly drags Hillary Clinton into his hypothetical tales of job-saving, talking about how she could never convince Detroit carmakers out of moving a factory to Mexico.
Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That's true even when it comes from Donald Trump, a man who kicked off the fourth GOP debate saying "wages [are] too high" and who had the guts to tell the Detroit News that Michigan autoworkers make too much money.
You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump's speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry even admitted in January that Trump appeals to members because of the "terrible anxiety" they feel about jobs.
"I know guys, union guys, who talk about Trump," says Rand Wilson, an activist from the Labor for Bernie organization. "I try to tell them about Sanders, and they don't know who he is. Or they've just heard he's a socialist. Trump they've heard of."
This is part of a gigantic subplot to the Trump story, which is that many of his critiques of the process are the same ones being made by Bernie Sanders. The two men, of course, are polar opposites in just about every way – Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat – but both are laser-focused on the corrupting role of money in politics.
Both propose "revolutions" to solve the problem, the difference being that Trump's is an authoritarian revolt, while Sanders proposes a democratic one. If it comes down to a Sanders-Trump general election, the matter will probably be decided by which candidate the national press turns on first: the flatulent narcissist with cattle-car fantasies or the Democrat who gently admires Scandinavia. Would you bet your children on that process playing out sensibly?
In the meantime, Trump is cannily stalking the Sanders vote. While the rest of the GOP clowns just roll their eyes at Sanders, going for cheap groans with bits about socialism, Trump goes a different route. He hammers Hillary and compliments Sanders. "I agree with [Sanders] on two things," he says. "On trade, he said we're being ripped off. He just doesn't know how much."
He goes on. "And he's right with Hillary because, look, she's receiving a fortune from a lot of people."
At a Democratic town hall in Derry, New Hampshire, Hillary's strangely pathetic answer about why she accepted $675,000 from Goldman to give speeches – "That's what they offered" – seemed doomed to become a touchstone for the general-election contest. Trump would go out on Day One of that race and blow $675,000 on a pair of sable underwear, or a solid-gold happy-face necktie. And he'd wear it 24 hours a day, just to remind voters that his opponent sold out for the Trump equivalent of lunch money.
Trump will surely argue that the Clintons are the other half of the dissolute-conspiracy story he's been selling, representing a workers' party that abandoned workers and turned the presidency into a vast cash-for-access enterprise, avoiding scrutiny by making Washington into Hollywood East and turning labor leaders and journalists alike into starstruck courtiers. As with everything else, Trump personalizes this, making his stories of buying Hillary's presence at his wedding a part of his stump speech. A race against Hillary Clinton in the general, if it happens, will be a pitch right in Trump's wheelhouse – and if Bill Clinton is complaining about the "vicious" attacks by the campaign of pathological nice guy Bernie Sanders, it's hard to imagine what will happen once they get hit by the Trumpdozer.
The electoral roadshow, that giant ball of corrupt self-importance, gets bigger and more grandiloquent every four years. This time around, there was so much press at the Manchester Radisson, you could have wiped out the entire cable-news industry by detonating a single Ryder truck full of fertilizer.
Like the actual circus, this is a roving business. Cash flows to campaigns from people and donors; campaigns buy ads; ads pay for journalists; journalists assess candidates. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ever-growing press corps tends in most years to like – or at least deem "most serious" – the candidates who buy the most ads. Nine out of 10 times in America, the candidate who raises the most money wins. And those candidates then owe the most favors.
Meaning that for the pleasure of being able to watch insincere campaign coverage and see manipulative political ads on TV for free, we end up having to pay inflated Medicare drug prices, fund bank bailouts with our taxes, let billionaires pay 17 percent tax rates, and suffer a thousand other indignities. Trump is right: Because Jeb Bush can't afford to make his own commercials, he would go into the White House in the pocket of a drug manufacturer. It really is that stupid.
The triumvirate of big media, big donors and big political parties has until now successfully excluded every challenge to its authority. But like every aristocracy, it eventually got lazy and profligate, too sure it was loved by the people. It's now shocked that voters in depressed ex-factory towns won't keep pulling the lever for "conservative principles," or that union members bitten a dozen times over by a trade deal won't just keep voting Democratic on cue.
Trump isn't the first rich guy to run for office. But he is the first to realize the weakness in the system, which is that the watchdogs in the political media can't resist a car wreck. The more he insults the press, the more they cover him: He's pulling 33 times as much coverage on the major networks as his next-closest GOP competitor, and twice as much as Hillary.
Trump found the flaw in the American Death Star. It doesn't know how to turn the cameras off, even when it's filming its own demise.
The problem, of course, is that Trump is crazy. He's like every other corporate tyrant in that his solution to most things follows the logic of Stalin: no person, no problem. You're fired! Except as president he'd have other people-removing options, all of which he likes: torture, mass deportations, the banning of 23 percent of the Earth's population from entering the United States, etc.
He seems to be coming around to the idea that having an ego smaller than that of, say, an Egyptian Pharaoh would be a sign of weakness. So of late, his already-insane idea to build a "beautiful" wall across the Mexican border has evolved to the point where he also wants the wall to be named after him. He told Maria Bartiromo he wanted to call it the "Great Wall of Trump."
In his mind, it all makes sense. Drugs come from Mexico; the wall will keep out Mexicans; therefore, no more drugs. "We're gonna stop it," he says. "You're not going to have the drugs coming in destroying your children. Your kids are going to look all over the place and they're not going to be able to find them."
Obviously! Because no one's ever tried wide-scale drug prohibition before.
And as bad as our media is, Trump is trying to replace it with a worse model. He excommunicates every reporter who so much as raises an eyebrow at his insanity, leaving him with a small-but-dependable crowd of groveling supplicants who in a Trump presidency would be the royal media. He even waves at them during his speeches.
"Mika and Joe are here!" he chirped at the MSNBC morning hosts at a New Hampshire event. The day after he won the New Hampshire primary, he called in to their show to thank them for being "supporters." To her credit, Mika Brzezinski tried to object to the characterization, interrupting Joe Scarborough, who by then had launched into a minute-long homily about how happy he was to be a bug on the windshield of the Trump phenomenon.
You think the media sucks now? Just wait until reporters have to kiss a brass Trump-sphinx before they enter the White House press room.
"He has all these crazy ideas, and [reporters] are so scared of him, they don't ask him any details," says Michael Pleyte, an Iraq vet who came all the way from Michigan to watch the New Hampshire primary in person. "Forget about A to Z, they don't even ask him to go A to Trump."
King Trump. Brace yourselves, America. It's really happening.Watch Chris Christie uncomfortably stand behind Donald Trump during his Super Tuesday victory speech.