It’s now clear that a big chunk of voters, especially working-class men, are behind Donald Trump, no matter what. These are the kinds of people who work two jobs, if they’re lucky enough to have them, and still can’t afford college or sports gear for their kids.
They like Trump for saying what they’re thinking. And they don’t care if the tycoon is shown to be a fabulist: The nonpartisan site PolitiFact checked 78 of the Donald’s statements and deemed just one to be “true” and five to be “mostly true.” The rest were “half true” (13), “mostly false” (12), “false” (30) or “pants on fire” (17).
This is no flash in the pan, as Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and governor of Mississippi, conceded over the weekend: “The core group of people who are for Trump, you cannot pull them off with a crowbar.”
And Trump loves them right back. He even made the sacrifice of forsaking his palatial Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida to show up three days after Christmas in an overheated gym in a middle school in icy Nashua, N.H. The only other candidate to break the taboo against campaigning over the holiday was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose polling numbers are almost negative.
I may rue this column in a couple of weeks. Like almost everyone else, I’ve had to eat most of the words I wrote last year about Trump’s prospects. But here goes anyway: He could lose in Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz is leading in some polls and is blitzing the state. If Cruz doesn’t win in a place where evangelicals and home schoolers predominate, he'll have a hard time going forward.
It’s no less important for Trump, who has to show he can do more than hold rallies. Iowa could make him one of those losers he trashes. He seems mindful of the possibility lately. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he flew right after New Hampshire, he took a stab at (feigned) humility, suggesting that “I could be setting myself up” by bragging about his “unbelievable” standing. Could Trump be lowering expectations? He’s also started pleading with his audiences to do more than show up at rallies and counteract the prediction that they won’t show up at the polls. There is a school of thought that holds that the crowds turn out to see Trump the celebrity, but they might not be as eager to trudge to a dreary voting site.
In Nashua, it takes about two minutes to see why Trump left the warm ocean breeze of Palm Beach. To Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It,” he bounded onto the podium as the crowd chanted, “Trump, Trump, Trump.” His default pout and raised eyebrow gives way to a look of bliss. He’s sparing with his smile, but it flashes at moments of rapture. When the crowd chants “USA, USA, USA,” he joins in. L'etat, c'est Trump.
The Donald hasn’t had this kind of adoration. Yes, people beg him to build hotels all over the world and his employees bow and scrape, but to have strangers roaring as if he were a rock star or the pope, that’s new. Businessmen, even ones with TV shows, don’t get that. He loves it.
The crowd (predominantly male, no minorities) is so captured by him that he dares to bore. He recites crowd numbers (35,000 in Phoenix! A filled-to-capacity arena in Dallas!) and scrolls through the polls for 15 minutes, naming even obscure ones, beating his chest over how far he’s ahead, calling out the Bloomberg poll as “crazy” because it has him trailing Cruz in Iowa.
He feels the love anew when he gets to the litany of wrongs he plans to redress: He will build the wall along the Mexican border to keep “them” out (in his first ad, which aired Monday, he promises to keep out Mexicans and Muslims, though this vow is illustrated with footage from Morocco), defeat the Islamic State, retake the oil, make deals with Vladimir Putin, put a gun in every hand, and defeat Hillary Clinton (and Bill).
Every appearance has its dedicated villain – or two – and in Nashua, it’s Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, who endorsed the loser Christie and who Trump describes as a “lowlife” and a “sleazebag.” He goes on and on, so, long, in fact, that he risks losing his troops, who have been standing for an hour in this hot, smelly gym. With the instincts of a barker at the circus, Trump pulls them back, holding up that day’s Union Leader as if he’d just scooped up after a dog. He tossed it and people lunged as if trying to lay claim to a sacred relic.
So much of Trump’s appearances is taken up with a substance-free flood of adjectives, adverbs and negative conclusions about lesser mortals. The Council Bluffs event was true to form, except that he brought along a Bible to woo the evangelicals and home schoolers, and there were new losers du jour. Instead of McQuaid and Christie, he curled his lip over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, questioning their evangelical bona fides.
By now, the spectacle of Trump riding high is pretty familiar, even routine. But his lack of graciousness raises the question of how he will act in defeat. He’s shown he'll go after any candidate who dares to criticize him, but he has an even harder edge, according to a front-page article in the New York Times on Sunday. His older brother Fred, an alcoholic who died young, was a loser in Donald parlance. When the brothers’ father died, his $20 million will – that Donald had a hand in drafting – cut out Fred’s children. One of them challenged the will, and in retaliation Donald cut off funds for Fred’s seriously ill infant son. Trump told the Times that at the time “he was angry because they sued.”
Trump’s billions have served as bubble-wrap, softening the edges of his mixed personality, cushioning his setbacks. It’s bought him friends and politicians and an A-list at his wedding. Yes, he’s had four bankruptcies but he brushes them off as smart business decisions, not failures.
Reach Margaret Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org