Could Donald Trump become president? The most recent GOP debate left me wondering. Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in. Now, I have my doubts. Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.
Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious. For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing. Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.
Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But what if that isn’t true? What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead? Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible. Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.
In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people. In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity. Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly. As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.
Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror. Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.
Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy. A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense. Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.
So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president? Like it or not, the answer is yes. Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign. Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?