He has been called a racist and a fascist, has no government experience and has insulted everyone from venerated war veterans to women. Yet loathe him or love him, Donald Trump's New Hampshire win and national numbers must make him favorite for the Republican nomination. He has double-digit leads and no one else is getting close. What explains his success in the polls, and what would a President Trump mean?
Conventional wisdom (an oxymoron in any case) tells us Trump is the extreme right-wing flip-side to the anti-establishment anger also responsible for the rise of Bernie Sanders. But the truth is very different, and bodes for continuing victories, even to the general.
Spoiler alert: Trump is actually a moderate who has said some tough-guy things to get the party's right to go along with him. A sheep in wolf's clothing. A conservative in campaign style but a 'wet' in wisdom, an entrepreneur doing what entrepreneurs do best: catering to a huge gap in the market.
In this case it is the vast number of conservatives, independents and even Democrats neglected by the political consulting and lobbying industries who have pushed the parties to either extreme, and approval of Congress to single-digit lows. He is doing what the GOP should have done years ago, and he is making it look easy.
He's been labelled an 'insurgent' Wall Street right-winger but if you look at the issues Trump is as Main Street and moderate as they come. On the most electorally important issue of the economy, the candidate has said things that would be a liability for a Democrat any other year, let alone a Republican. Remarks about the ability of hedge fund managers to legally avoid taxes echo Sanders more than his GOP rivals.
Opposition to 'free trade' turns thirty five years of neo-liberal Republican orthodoxy on its head and gets the union vote. He understands something different is going on within the structure of capitalism. No wonder writers at the Weekly Standard and National Review are choking on their pens.
He's even on record as a supporter of single-payer healthcare (Republican kryptonite) and in the first debate praised the way national healthcare has worked out in the UK. His offer to repeal and replace Obamacare with something that includes all actually puts him to the left of the president; the Affordable Care Act is a measure for the working poor and excludes those making $12,000 a year or less as many Republican Governors have not allowed Medicaid to take up the slack. Yet he has been let off the hook, probably because everyone is looking for a way to decrease healthcare's ever increasing cost.
It's the same with international relations, where Trump's bombast actually defies labels of 'hawk' and 'dove'. Because the last two presidents were drawn from the ideological reaches of their parties, foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere has zig-zagged like a jack-knifing eighteen-wheeler and nobody likes the result.
Even proposals from moderates like Bush and Fiorina to mirror Russia's wargames would take us back to a Cold War situation which hindsight tells us nearly turned very hot, more than we were ever told at the time. Maybe, like Reagan, it is time for a leader who can deal on a personal level with the Russian leader. If Trump can do this, he could de-escalate tensions in the Gulf and Europe and kill two birds with one stone.
The one issue of immigration where Trump has aimed to 'out-conservative' the likes of Cruz and Rubio is now a priority for governments of every political stripe. Then take into account America's unusual situation of a huge land border with a second-world economy, overseen by a federal government designed not to act even when a clear majority wants it to. As a builder, he must have witnessed first-hand the effects of illegal labour on wages. In any case, his most controversial proposals to deport twelve million people and ban Muslims will be frustrated by the timeless wisdom of the US Constitution. Trump must know this. And after events in Cologne and elsewhere, maybe his most incendiary comments don't seem so far-fetched after all.
Yes, this Trump campaign is a third-party juggernaut in all but name, and it is driving right between both parties; not just their 'elites' but busybody ward captains too. It isn't an 'establishment' lane or an 'insurgent' lane, just the road traveled by many right-thinking people. So far this century voters for president in the general election have been offered a false choice between national security and economic security; false because neither has been delivered and false because they shouldn't have to choose. Now there is a credible, incredible alternative.
But with all his advantages Trump could have made a good showing in New Hampshire any year, as reform-minded crusaders Pat Buchanan did in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. So what's different this time?
As a businessman Trump should know that timing is more than half of life, and within the last twelve months two important and interrelated trends have come to a head. For the first time in memory fewer Americans now identify with either party than do, which means the 'floating voters' that actually decide the outcome of elections are now in the majority.
Secondly, high earning and low paid Americans now outnumber those in the middle income bracket. This is a shot through the egalitarianism at the heart of the American Dream, which generally excuses leaner welfare provision. Because median income has not increased and inequality has only accelerated sharply under both parties, the pocket-book voter has nowhere to turn. This is his trump card.
As importantly, Trump's personal and patriotic style, his business celebrity, private billions and mastery of mass and social media mean he can overcome the in-built disadvantage of moderate candidates, usually pilloried by outlets like Fox as 'RINOs': Republican in name only. A master marketer knows that people do not buy just because of a mix of positive features, but because a product is a leader in its category. How can he be a Republican in name only when he is the Republican front-runner?
Snooty Europeans may balk at the gold-plated name signs and nouveau-riche heraldry, but Americans warm to a character in a league of their own. Especially if he can use his power to finally upset a two-party system that is currently not even serving itself.