Donald Trump is a walking political science course. His meteoric rise is lesson No. 1 on leadership: Most voters do not listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs.
If a leader can connect with them on a gut level, their response is: “Don’t bother me with the details. I trust your instincts.” If a leader can’t connect on a gut level, he or she can’t show them enough particulars. They'll just keep asking, “Can you show me the details one more time?”
Trump’s Republican rivals keep thinking that if they just point out a few more details about him, voters will drop The Donald and turn to one of them instead. But you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into.
Many have come to Trump out of a gut feeling that this is a guy who knows their pain, even if he really doesn’t. Many of his supporters are from the #middleagewhitemalesmatter movement, for whom the current age of acceleration has not been kind and for whom Trump’s rallies are their way of saying “Can you hear me now?” and of sticking it to all the people who exploited their pain but left them behind, particularly traditional Republican elites. They are not interested in Trump’s details. They like his gut.
And no wonder. Those Republican elites sold their own souls and their party so many times to charlatans and plutocrats that you wonder when it’s going to show up on closeout on eBay: “For sale: The GOP soul. Almost empty. This soul was previously sold to Sarah Palin, the Tea Party anarchists, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, the gun lobby, the oil industry, the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Fox News. Will bargain. No offer too low.”
Normally smart people, like Mitt Romney, discarded all their best instincts to suck up to this ragtag assortment of self-appointed Republican commissars, each representing a different slice of what came to be Republican orthodoxy – climate change is a hoax; abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, is impermissible; even common-sense gun laws must be opposed, no matter how many kids get murdered; taxes must always be cut and safety nets shrunk, no matter what the economic context; Obamacare must be destroyed, even though it was based on a Republican idea; and Iraq was a success even though it was a mess.
The Republican Party became an accretion of ideas that ossified over the years without the party ever stopping to ask afresh: What world are we living in now? What are the dominant trends? And how does America best exploit them by applying conservative values and market-based solutions?
The cynicism of today’s GOP could not have been more vividly displayed than when Marco Rubio, John Kasich (a decent guy) and Ted Cruz all declared that they would support the party’s nominee, even if it was Trump, right after telling voters he was a con man.
No wonder so many Republicans are voting for Trump on the basis of what they think is in his guts. All the other Republican candidates have none.
But even if his support is weakening, Democrats take Trump lightly at their peril. He is still sitting with three aces that he hasn’t played yet. They could all come out in the general election.
One ace is that if he wins the nomination he will have no problem moving to the center to appeal to independents and minorities. He will have no problem playing the moderate unifier – and plenty of people will buy it, saying: “Why not give him a chance? He says he can make us winners.”
Sure, Mexico will have to pay for that wall, Trump will say, but it will be in “installments.”
Deport 11 million illegal immigrants? C’mon, don’t you know an opening bid on an immigration bill when you hear one?
Ban all Muslims? Well of course we can’t ban a whole faith community, but Trump will vow to be much harder on visas from certain countries. Have you never read “The Art of the Deal”?
His second ace is that given the position he staked out on terrorism, if, God forbid, there is a major terrorist attack on our soil between now and Election Day, Trump will reap enormous political benefits. Watch out. I’ve seen how one well-timed terrorist attack tilted an Israeli election.
His third ace is that he will indeed go after Hillary Clinton in ways you never heard before and that will delight and bring back a lot of disaffected Republicans, whose hatred of Hillary knows no bounds.
“Did you hear what Trump said about Hillary last night? That she was ‘Bill’s enabler!' Finally! I will vote for him just for that.” Again, beware.
But Trump is also holding two jokers with those aces. One of the lessons I learned covering the Middle East is that the only good thing about extremists is that they don’t know when to stop – and in the end, they often do themselves in. See: Saddam Hussein.
Trump has already gone places no candidate ever has, even telling us he has a big penis. One day he may go too far (if he hasn’t already) and sever his gut connection with voters.
Trump’s other joker is that among those attracted to his gut are racists and fascists with a taste for violence at his rallies. One day they may go too far and do something so ugly, so brownshirt, it will also turn people off to his gut.
In short, only Trump can trump Trump. Don’t count on it, but don’t count it out.