Donald Trump knows his audience. He is astoundingly talented when it comes to this one thing.
He knew his audience in the Manhattan business community when he rose to become an enormously successful real estate developer. He knew his audience when he gave NBC one of its biggest hits, The Apprentice, knowing exactly what people wanted, and delivering in droves. And now, in the Republican nomination race, he is the only candidate who has recognized, very honestly, the kind of audience he's dealing with. And the bigoted, xenophobic rhetoric he is giving them is exactly what they want.
This deterioration of the GOP base is something the other candidates, and even media pundits, are still in denial about. That is why they're losing. Trump is the only one who has recognized it, and he's right. The proof is in the numbers. He has had a substantial lead in the polls for five straight months now, plus in every single state (although Cruz is now inching up in Iowa). Today, Trump's lead is higher than ever.
But it isn't Trump that is the issue. It's his audience. And every time we or the media attack Trump, it emboldens and strengthens his schtick: "See? These clueless liberals and the mainstream media hate me! Are you with them? Or do you want to make America great again?" And inevitably, the crowd goes wild. This is his badge of honor.
Watch him in debates versus his stump speeches -- he's remarkably less combative and much more restrained. It's the same when he's on Meet the Press, or anything else with a national, bipartisan audience. He retains his brand, but appears much more measured about it.
Remember, this is a man who until recently was pro-choice, pro-single payer healthcare, and whose daughter is close friends with Hillary Clinton's daughter. Watch how he effusively praised -- praised -- Hillary Clinton as recently as 2012, here.
Trump is an astute opportunist who is incredibly smart, recognizes his audiences, and plays to their ignorance -- capitalizing on their anger, fears, and sense of victimization to further his political stature. It's classic, dictionary-definition demagoguery. (There's no comparison, of course, but this is exactly the kind of thing leaders like Hitler were so good at.) His victimhood-peddling allows him to disguise hate and prejudice as hope and justice for poor, anxious Americans.
What's more concerning is that I've come across several liberals in the last few weeks who don't like Trump, but support him because they feel the Democrats are in denial about Islamic terrorism, refusing to even name it. Sadly, this is true, and the Democratic leadership is largely to blame. The ex-radical Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz calls "The Voldemort Effect": failing to name the problem makes it harder to fight it, and worse -- this is key -- fails to differentiate peaceful American moderate Muslims from radical jihadists. This is dangerous. If liberals had taken on this problem honestly and channeled the anxiety of the post-Paris/San Bernardino public from a position of moral strength, Trump would've been less able to jump in and channel it from a position of xenophobic bigotry.
Here's what Trump wrote in his book, The Art of the Deal, back in 1987:
"The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular."
"One thing I've learned about the press is they're always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational, the better. It's in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you."
(More Trumpian wisdom from his book that you'll undoubtedly recognize is collected here.)
The electorate for the general election will be completely different. Trump knows, and has proven time and time again, that people today don't seem to care when politicians blatantly switch positions, as long as they do it with a lot of confidence and bravado. So, even in the general election, you will see people fall for it. If Trump gets the nomination, which is now more likely than ever, watch him completely change course and adjust to his new audience.
There is a slightly positive side to this for liberals: Trump is the only GOP candidate who is likely to move a bit to the left once he's in front of a general election audience. After all, he did hold several liberal positions until a few years ago. This is not something you can expect as reliably from a Cruz, or even a Rubio. Both men seem infinitely more reasoned and well-mannered, but make no mistake: they hold positions that are just as extreme, if not more, than those of Trump; and they're more likely to hold on to them.
It's still very unlikely Trump can win the general election. But how many seriously thought he had any real shot at winning the primary, or even holding such a substantial, steadily increasing lead over fifteen of the GOP's supposedly best and brightest candidates for five straight months -- in both national and state polling across the United States?
Be skeptical, but be cautiously skeptical: the more this man is attacked by liberals and the media, and the more he angers the mainstream with his outlandish statements, the more his lead grows. His audience thrives on the you-and-me-against-the-world rhetoric, and we are giving it to them. We are all Donald Trump's oxygen, and he knows it.