Donald Trump: a Winner or a Punk?

Updated April 14, 2016, to reflect that a charge of simple battery against Corey Lewandowski, campaign manager for Donald Trump, has been dropped by the state attorney for Palm Beach County, Fla.

Irrational exuberance has been gushing from the anti-Trumpites since Donald Trump's loss Tuesday to Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary. After months of wishful thinking and unfulfilled predictions of imminent collapse, was this finally the Trump campaign's reversal of fortune?

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ABC News screen grab

Maybe, maybe not, declared The New York Times' Nate Cohn in a dispassionate analysis on Thursday. Trump did just as projected in Wisconsin -- 35.1 percent of the Republican vote -- undercutting the more cinematic storyline that a couple of wretched weeks of bone-headed acts and comments had caught up with him. What did happen was that Cruz did significantly better than expected.

So as tempting as it is to label this is a "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" moment for the Little Caesar of contemporary politics, it's worth remembering what we've learned since Trump announced last June that he was running for president:

1. It is impossible to underestimate Trump's knowledge of or even curiosity about the most basic facts regarding the crucial issues of our time -- from economics to terrorism, social justice, the environment and, terrifyingly enough, nuclear war.

2. It also is demonstrably unwise to underestimate Trump's competitive ferocity and his instincts for inventing diversions and employing tactics -- no matter how ugly, shameful, ignorant, despicable or seemingly self-damaging -- that successfully distract, reframe and refocus the campaign to his advantage.

Yet it is precisely now, with the nomination within his sight but still beyond his grasp, that sticking with what has worked could prove his undoing. If he fails to change and loses, he will have no one to blame but himself. The deeply creepy Cruz notwithstanding, the only things really standing between Trump and the Republican nomination for president are himself, one number and two words.

The number is 1,237, and the words are "women" and "violence."

Trump already has the power to deal with these matters. What we don't know is whether he has enough self-discipline to direct his power effectively and whether he wants the nomination badly enough to try.

1,237

One thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven is the minimum number of delegates constituting a majority of the 2,472 expected at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland starting July 18. Under convention rules known to all candidates well in advance, including Trump, a candidate must acquire a majority to become the party's nominee. Trump has racked up 743 delegates since the primary/caucus season began on February 1 and holds a substantial lead over Cruz's 517.

Trump's job, then, is to arrive in Cleveland on July 18 with at least 1,237 delegates bound to vote for him on the convention's first ballot. If he does his job, he will become the Republican nominee for president. If he doesn't do his job, he will become a coast-to-coast loser.

Theoretically, candidates can come to Cleveland with fewer than 1,237 delegates, lose on the first ballot and, assuming no one else got to 1,237, try to cut deals on subsequent ballots for the votes of delegates allowed to switch their allegiances. Complex rules that vary from state to state define when delegates are obliged to vote in accordance with the outcomes of their state primaries and caucuses and when they become free to vote for anyone they prefer.

Trump, however, cannot realistically succeed in this environment. He has incinerated far too many Republican bridges with his personally insulting campaign tactics, his competitive belligerence and an endless fact-defying litany of assertions that have veered from Republican principles and antagonized and alienated many party members and activists.

In other words, Trump cannot win the Republican nomination by just getting more delegates than any other candidate or just getting closer to a majority than anyone else. To win, he has to show up with 1,237 delegates already sewn up.

WOMEN

To get to 1,237 with the primaries remaining before July 18, Trump somehow must reverse his atrocious standing among women.

In a national survey in December by Quinnipiac University Polls, 50 percent of Americans -- half the country -- said they would feel embarrassed if Trump became president. Among women, the embarrassment factor was a staggering 59 percent.

A Gallup tracking poll done in March found that 70 percent of American women viewed Trump unfavorably, a perspective that has been steadily rising since July 2015. Even among women who identified themselves as Republicans or leaning toward Republicans, 46 percent expressed an unfavorable opinion of Trump.

Why so many women feel this way is not exactly a mystery. The documented record of Trump's degrading, condescending and insulting attitudes and comments about women stretches back across many years and contexts and has continued through the campaign (Google "Trump" and "Megyn Kelly").

In Wisconsin recently, Trump tried to dismiss past comments about women as show business jokes. But less than two weeks ago, Trump made Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, the object of threats and thinly disguised invective based on her appearance. Then he distributed an unflattering picture of her to the 7.5 million followers of his Twitter account.

Trump will lose if he doesn't overcome women's well-grounded unfavorable perceptions of him. It's an enormous challenge, and he'll need to come up with something a lot more heartfelt and substantive than his boast last year that "I'll be the best thing that ever happened to women."

VIOLENCE

Equally grave are Trump's problems with violence. He routinely claims that he doesn't condone it, but his words and tone at rallies reek with winking approval and sometimes worse. At a February rally in Iowa, Trump told the crowd to "beat the crap" out of anyone who seemed to be about to throw a tomato at Trump, and he promised to pay their legal fees.

Such comments have incited numerous incidents of violence perpetrated by Trump supporters who apparently see themselves as doing what their champion -- wink, wink -- really wants them to do:

A North Carolina protester already in the custody of security staff was punched in the face by a Trump supporter; a protester in Tucson, also in security custody, was punched in the face by a Trump supporter and then punched and kicked after he fell to the ground; a protester in Florida was slammed in the head with an elbow punch from a nearby Trump supporter; a reporter covering a Florida rally was seized by the arm from behind and yanked sideways as she was asking Trump a question, leaving bruises on her arm. All these incidents were captured on video.

The person shown grabbing reporter Michelle Fields on March 8 was Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski denied that he touched Fields, and Trump denied that any incident had occurred, claims disproved by video footage that was released subsequently. After campaign officials began trying to smear Field's reputation, she filed a complaint with the Jupiter, Fl., police, which conducted an investigation and, on March 29, arrested Lewandowski and charged him with simple battery. Trump continued to defend him.

On April 14, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced at a press conference in Florida that the charge against Lewandowski had been dropped and he would not be prosecuted. Aronberg said that the available evidence had met the police standard of "probable cause" that a law had been violated and justified the arrest and charge. But Aronberg's investigation determined that the evidence did not meet the higher prosecutorial standard of "a reasonable likelihood of conviction" and that Lewandowski had "a reasonable hypothesis of innocence" based on a claim that he was acting to protect Trump.

Finally, there was Trump's barely veiled threat that there would be violence in the streets of Cleveland if he had more delegates than anyone else but did not get the nomination, even if he fell short of the required 1,237 delegates. "I think you'd have riots," he told CNN's Chris Cuomo in March. "I wouldn't lead it, but I think bad things would happen."

CNN Video

To put an end to this, Trump must address his supporters with deadly seriousness and unambiguously forbid them from doing violence of any kind to anyone for any reason. If he doesn't do this, then the responsibility for violence that occurs is on him, morally if not legally. And if he does not recant his outrageous threat about riots and clearly instruct supporters to do no such thing, and he doesn't get the nomination, then any violence that occurs in Cleveland is on him, too: the people hurt, the businesses damaged, the jobs disrupted, the families thrown into turmoil. On him.

Riots if I don't get my way! Whatever fears may haunt us in the dead of night, in the light of dawn Americans do not want a president who acts like a punk enforcer strong-arming folks for protection money.

A version of this column originally was published in print and online by the St. Louis Jewish Light.