A funny thing happened to Donald Trump on the way to the first national debate among Republican presidential hopefuls on Fox News. He was transformed from a media-baiting court jester to a legitimate political force. In the process, he cemented his front-runner status among the crowded field of GOP candidates.
This was made possible by the cultural phenomenon that is reality TV. Thanks to the rapid blurring of "real reality" with the "scripted reality" of reality TV, debate viewers had no difficulty fully embracing him as another, over-the-top character in the national reality show that is the presidential race. We have The Bachelor and Bachelorette, The Kardashians and The Real Housewives. Now comes Donald Trump and his (literally) over-the-top hair and exaggerated scowl that would do the Grumpy Old Men from the Muppets proud. And just like the Grumpy Old Men, he revels in heckling the players upon the stage, without ever offering any constructive observations or meaningful insights of his own.
But just like those loosely choreographed reality show performers, the more controversial his behavior, the more popular he becomes.
Rants and Raves
Prior to the Fox News debate, no one was taking Trump seriously -- and that included Trump himself. He was probably just trying to drum up interest for the upcoming broadcast of the Miss USA Pageant, which he owns, by spouting a couple of wacky, over-the-top statements. The strategy had worked well for him in the past. However, after he made that first, incendiary remark about Mexican immigrants, things got complicated. Univision dropped its coverage of Miss America; NBC cancelled his Celebrity Apprentice show; businesses began to distant themselves from him.
But something else happened. The anti-Mexican insult inadvertently struck a chord with the fringe element of America that once embraced the tea party and knighted Sarah Palin's strident vice-presidential run four years ago. Suddenly, he started pulling ahead in the polls, even as the political world shook in alarm -- and suddenly he was a force to be reckoned with among the lethargic group of presidential hopefuls.
Now, like the rabble-rouser in the dockyard, angrily denouncing abusive labor practices as he marches toward the boss' office, an unruly mob of disenfranchised supporters steadily grows behind Trump. Political pundits bristle at his popularity, adamantly maintaining that blowing hot air can't sustain his candidacy aloft forever. He eventually needs to present concrete solutions rather than scattered criticisms.
But experts forget that Sarah Palin never offered concrete solutions for any of her own criticisms of U.S. policies and the ills that plague Washington politics. And that was not a problem with her supporters. It was the same situation with the tea party, which never fully put forward a concrete political platform; yet at its peak, it profoundly impacted the political landscape of America.
Experts are also getting it wrong about Donald Trump because they continue to look in all the wrong places for evidence that proves he can never become president. They refuse to entertain the unnerving possibility that few politicians have ever won an election by putting forth a more intelligent position paper than their rivals. They won by inspiring the voters -- or getting them worked up, depending on your point of view -- much like a general rallies the troops before a big battle.
And Trump knows the deal. He'll play their game. He's promised to issue specific policy plans within several weeks, and who's to doubt that they'll be just as good as any by the other candidates? His money can buy him plenty of politically savvy policy paper writers. It'll be a meaningless gesture to his supporters, since position papers are just as riveting and widely read by voters as the manual of IRS tax codes. But it'll give his critics one less avenue of attack.
The Business End
But Trump critics on every side need not despair. The reality is that Trump's current popularity is probably as high as it'll ever go. As the NBC News/Survey Monkey results showed, his popularity among likely Republican voters climbed just 1% after the Fox News debate - from 23% to 24% - suggesting that he's got as much of the fringe vote as he's going to get. More recently, a CNN/ORC poll finds Trump's popularity heading into the Iowa presidential Republican caucus at 22%, confirming that the numbers aren't pushing higher. Eventually, one or two of his rivals will come up alongside him and finally pull ahead. Inciting controversy for the sake of controversy is also a risky campaign strategy. Like teasing the animals at the zoo, eventually something will bite back.
Trump would also never accept the job of president, as tempting as it might seem. It would mean giving up direct control of his global business empire. He would also have to forfeit the hundreds of millions of dollars he receives in endorsement deals every year. Four years as president, cut off from all business dealings and steady cash flow from endorsements could seriously put his financial empire at risk.
So don't worry, America. Trump will find a reason to pull out of the race - eventually. For now, he'll milk his new-found notoriety and influence for all its worth. If he can carry a sizable enough chunk of Republican supporters to the National Convention, he'll give 'em all a rousing, rambling and bombastic speech, drawing record numbers of viewers for the event, and then earnestly endorse the more serious candidate.
CORRECTION: This post erroneously stated that Donald Trump has an ownership stake in the Miss America pageant, rather than the Miss USA pageant.