Thanks to an orange-haired blowhard, everything that would normally sink a candidate–insulting a war hero, holding positions that are antithetical to conservative orthodoxy, having a personal history better suited to a Real Housewives episode—have only resulted in sky high poll numbers.
At each step along the way, pundits have declared Donald Trump to be political roadkill. Instead, as voting draws near, the reality is that Donald Trump is the man to beat. And it’s not clear who among the rest of the field can overtake him.
Case in point: last night’s Republican candidate debate. Trump decided not to participate because Fox anchor Megyn Kelly once had the temerity to ask the candidate about his attitude toward women, which allowed Trump to prove once and for all that he’s a sexist. So who ended up winning the debate in which Trump did not particpate?
By his very absence, Trump was front and center for the entire debate. Meanwhile, the remaining candidates–particularly Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz–spent the time tearing into each other. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it’s a sad commentary on the rest of the GOP field that it fits that definition.
At the same time, Trump claims to have raised $6 million for veterans at an alternative event and proved to his fans yet again that he’s not beholden to the political establishment. It’s a testament to the forces that Trump has unleashed that Fox News, itself the one-time establishment alternative, is now being swept along as yet another example of an enemy of liberty. That’s a fitting irony, given that Fox almost singlehandedly created the angry, alternate universe over which Trump now reigns.
Once the first votes are cast, we will be able to see if Trump can translate his popularity into a sure path to the nomination. But polls show that he will have a strong showing in Iowa (whether or not it’s the first place). If Cruz doesn’t win Iowa, his campaign will take a hit. If none of the establishment candidates (Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio) emerges soon after as the alternative around which everyone can rally, there’s a good chance that Trump can ride the chaos all the way to the nomination.
Already, the Republican establishment is beginning to make its peace with a Trump nomination, largely because a Cruz nomination fills them with even more dread. As anyone who has studied the stages of dying knows, bargaining is one of the earliest strategies. But at some point, the party will have to learn to accept that it really has come to the end of its current life and figure out what its future looks like.
In the meantime, a Trump presidency may not be quite the far-fetched punchline everyone thought it was just a few weeks ago.