It's too late to stop Donald Trump: The GOP is stuck with the frontrunner from hell — and America could be too

The establishment underestimated Trump for far too long, and now he's their guy

By Heather Digby Parton

Published March 2, 2016 1:01PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Reuters/Mike Carlson)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Mike Carlson)

Super Tuesday was a very good night for Donald Trump. He didn't completely run the table but he cemented his status as the frontrunner. And the GOP establishment is now in full-fledged panic mode. Some of us tried to warn them. And I hate to admit it but one of the foremost purveyors of beltway conventional wisdom had it right as well. As I noted back in June when Trump announced, the only one to take Trump seriously was Bloomberg News’ Mark Halperin, whose first impression was quite a bit less derisive than anyone else’s:

Best moment: Protracted run-up to formal declaration of candidacy was spirited and engaging.

Worst moment: Lost his rhythm a bit whenever cheerful supporters in the crowd tossed out helpful prompts or encouraging chants.

Overall: A madcap production–garrulous, grandiose, and intense—that displayed his abundant strengths and acute weaknesses. For the first time in decades, Trump is a true underdog, but his ability to shape the contours of the nomination fight should not be ignored. On the debate stage, through TV advertising (positive and negative), in earned media, and by drawing crowds, Trump has the potential to be a big 2016 player. He staged an announcement event like no other, and now he will deliver a candidacy the likes of which the country has never seen.

Substance: Made a concerted and admirable effort to laundry-list his presidential plans before the speech was finished, calling for the replacement of Obamacare, cautioning foreign adversaries about messing with the U.S., expressing opposition to the current trade bill, promising to build a southern border wall and sticking Mexico with the bill, terminating Obama’s executive order on immigration, supporting the Second Amendment, ending Common Core, rebuilding infrastructure, resisting cuts in entitlement programs. Still, left open too many questions about the hows and wherefores, given that he has never run for nor held office.

That's still pretty much the Trump agenda, isn't it? So let's give Halperin his due. He couldn't have known at the time how popular Trump's calls for torture, war crimes and summary execution would be, but he had a good sense of the Republican electorate's thirst for what he was offering from the very beginning. And there are very few mainstream media analysts about whom you can say the same thing.

Yesterday, Politico did a rundown on the media's dismissal of Trump as an impossibility or a simple joke over the past few months:

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told his readers last summer that Donald Trump was running for president to promote his own brand and that the “whole con might end well before the first snows in Sioux City and Manchester.”

That was quite measured compared to James Fallows, the national correspondent of more than three decades for The Atlantic, who wrote confidently — and with his own bold for emphasis — “Donald Trump will not be the 45th president of the United States. Nor the 46th, nor any other number you might name. The chance of his winning the nomination and election is exactly zero.”

Those two mandarins weren’t alone in dismissing Trump’s chances.

Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza wrote in July that “Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.” And numbers guru Nate Silver told readers as recently as November to “stop freaking out” about Trump’s poll numbers.

Now all these journalists, and more, are coming to grips with their mistaken assessments.

It's not just the press that's waking up. As the New York Times reported late yesterday, big GOP donors are finally recognizing what's going on as well:

A “super PAC” that was formed by members of the Ricketts family is boosting its staff and planning a full-fledged campaign against Donald J. Trump — and his surrogates — in an effort to thwart his rise, including hiring the former communications director to Jeb Bush and creating an opposition research wing.

Tim Miller, who was Mr. Bush’s top spokesman during his presidential run, will now work for Our Principles PAC, the group founded in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses to try to prevent Mr. Trump from winning the nomination, according to officials with the group.

With additional funding from sources other than Marlene Ricketts, the group is planning to focus on daily opposition research attacks on Mr. Trump, particularly in March 8 and March 15 states, officials with the group said.

Democratic operative Paul Begala quipped on CNN last night that it seems these people are determined to help Trump rather than hurt him. By announcing this project to the world, they are almost guaranteeing that his popularity will grow: His followers loathe the "establishment" and see all attacks by them on their hero to be signs that he is on the right track.

And even under the best of circumstances, this belated recognition of the threat of Trump would likely be too little too late. The process is now well established: Whatever you throw at him only makes his supporters like him more. He's called John McCain's POW status into question; he's acted as if he's not sure if he should disavow the support of the KKK; he's even gotten into a fight with the Pope. And despite all that and much, much more, he could, as he says, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn't lose any voters. By waiting so long to acknowledge the problem, they've created a dynamic in which any critiques or attacks on Trump are dismissed as lies or manipulations by his enemies in the media and the political establishment.

It's unseemly I know, to quote one's own words but this is an occasion that calls for it. Way back in June when he first announced, I observed right here on Salon that Trump was a force to be reckoned with. He was very rich, which meant he could forgot the "invisible primary" that requires candidates to go begging at the feet of privileged plutocrats. But that wasn't his greatest asset:

There is something else he has that may be even more valuable than money: stardom. I don’t think it’s possible to place a political value on the fact that Trump has had a prime-time network TV show for over 10 years with “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

“The Apprentice” averaged 6 to 7 million viewers a show with finales sometimes getting between 10 and 20 million viewers. Last year’s “Celebrity Apprentice” averaged 7.6 million a show. Fox News’ highest rated shows rarely get more than a couple of million viewers and they are all elderly hardcore Republicans. The Donald has a wider reach and might even appeal to the most sought-after people in the land: non-voters.

It’s impossible to know if that’s a serious possibility. But it’s fair to say that many more people in the country know the name of Donald Trump than know anyone else in the race (with the possible exception of Jeb Bush). It’s hard to quantify that kind of name recognition but it’s certainly not worthless in our celebrity-obsessed culture. And remember, Trump would not be the first show business celebrity who everyone assumed was too way out there to ever make a successful run for president. The other guy’s name was Ronald Reagan.

It was obvious from the beginning that no matter how clownish or silly this man seems to the elite, he was someone millions of Americans already knew and loved and whose message reflected the right wing's primary obsessions.

Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere. Almost exactly one year before Donald Trump descended on that elevator, his ascendance as the frontrunner of the Republican presidential race was foreshadowed by another earthquake in the Republican Party which everyone in the media also seemed to misread: the defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor by a political neophyte named David Brat. The beltway political mavens blithely declared this race turned on Cantor's alleged lack of concern for his district's pothole and stop light issues but they were wrong. The race was about undocumented immigrants. Trump, having a well honed sense of the wing-nut zeitgeist, understood this far better than the media and predicated his presidential campaign on that issue as well.

Donald Trump is the undisputed leader in this race and there seems to be little anyone can do to stop him. There is a lot of talk that if worse comes to worst the party elders will try to wrest the nomination from him at the convention in Cleveland this summer through some manipulation of the rules.  One cannot help but wonder if they've ever met any Trump voters. They don't seem like the kind of people who will meekly accept such an outcome.

And they would have a point. This is a democratic process and Trump is winning it fair and square. It's not his voters' fault that the GOP establishment and the mainstream media were too dense to see that his campaign was serious from the start. By being so obtuse, they inadvertently proved the central argument of his campaign: Washington elites are out of touch. And that's yet another example of how Trump always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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