Donald Trump hasn’t lost his mind. While his anti-immigrant rhetoric at the start of his presidential campaign is unhinged, his overall strategy for drumming up rabid interest in his atypical campaign is working - at least for the short term.
Trump has soared to the top of at least one Republican primary poll. More than half of GOP voters (57%) have a favorable view of the real-estate magnate, compared with his unfavorable rating of 40%, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Wednesday. Those numbers are the opposite of what they were a month ago.
I know, I know; early polls, especially national polls, are all about name recognition, and Trump has that in spades. But there’s something else at work here. Trump has successfully portrayed himself as an ultra-conservative Bruce Wayne of sorts, using his fame and fortune to fight what he sees as a main source of crime: immigrants.
There’s a long history of whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment in this country for political gain, going back almost as far as the nation’s founding and heating up in the mid-19th century. Trump’s WWE-style soapbox is just a social media age version of that nativism.
There are many legitimate criticisms that can be made about the country’s immigration system, of course, but Trump’s language – "somebody’s doing the raping"– goes well beyond that. Yet there’s no denying that it also has a receptive audience that’s much bigger than most of us would like to admit. It also pays to run against Washington, DC, and Congress in particular, which had an approval rating of 15% in 2014.
Many GOP strategists likely believed that the Trump craze would have fizzled out by now; many probably think it soon will. However, The Donald isn’t Herman Cain or any of the other short-lived frontrunners the Republicans flirted with in 2012. For one, his dirty laundry is well known. Problems in his first marriage? Old news. Temper? That’s why The Apprentice had high ratings. In other words, the normal political rules just don’t apply to Trump; the fact that he’s been on the national stage forever and his personality make him the exception to the rule.
So give up any hope of Trump just fizzling out; that’s just not going to happen. One of his Republican rivals will have to take him on directly and land a flurry of hard punches. The good news for them is that there’s already a blueprint for how to do that – and it actually comes from the person most often at the receiving end of GOP talking points.
Speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, President Barack Obama delivered a number of stinging blows at Trump’s expense. Importantly, they were funny, but the president’s quips about how a decision like whether to fire Gary Busey or Meatloaf would keep him up at night had a point: Presidents make life or death decisions; reality-show stars, not so much. Case and point, Obama made that speech with a straight face just hours before American special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
There’s a lesson in this for frontrunner Jeb Bush and the rest of the GOP field.
The attack line could be a joke about hair, bad ties, or business deals gone bad, or it could be a blistering critique of labor practices at Trump construction sites, but voters – and especially highly coveted Hispanic-American voters – will reward the candidate who knocks Trump off his perch. And he or she will give the GOP a much better chance at winning the general election as well.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.