Donald Trump is changing the tone, if not the substance, of the Republican reservations about him. He’s still the uninvited guest at the family dinner, the object of raised eyebrows and whispered snark, but everyone is beginning to be a little more careful with the insults.
That is, everybody but Jeb! He was quoted Thursday as telling a friend that the Donald is a buffoon, a clown and “an [rectal aperture].” But in the public conversation Donald Trump is no longer the buffoon, the baboon, the clown or the country bumpkin from the corn and hay fields of Manhattan. He’s the man in the long, black limousine with the taunting bumper-sticker: “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you.”
A new poll for The Washington Post-ABC News finds that Mr. Trump is ahead of everybody else in the polls, and even running ahead among evangelical Christians, who are always reluctant to overlook affronts and slights to the faith. When someone at a Family Leadership Summit in Iowa asked him whether he ever asks God for forgiveness, he replied that he was not sure he ever had. “I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. If I do something wrong, I think, I just try to make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
He takes Holy Communion, or what many Protestants call the Lord’s supper. “When I drink my little wine,” he says, “which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.”
In other remarks in other places, he has described himself as an atheist without cleansing. He has supported abortion rights, and he has opposed them. He has given money to left-wing causes, and right-wing causes. But many evangelicals, like others of the angry-conservative persuasion, give him a pass, so great is the anger abroad over how America the Beautiful has become America the confused, America the perplexed, America the bewildered, and above all America the humiliated, enraged by the lack of strong leadership that has humbled the exceptional nation before the world. America, in a paraphrase of Paddy Chayefsky’s famous line in the movie “Network,” is “mad as hell, and is not going to take it any more.”
This is the rage that the Donald taps into so successfully. So far. He recognizes uncontrolled immigration — with no serious attempt to get it under control — as the incandescent issue this season. The other guys are waiting for it to go away. When he says he’s “mad as hell” it takes no leap of imagination to believe him.
He follows other candidates who have tapped into rage and frustration, who set off firecrackers that made a lot of sharp noises but who were ultimately swallowed by the system. They were polite and mannerly in a way that Donald Trump is not — John Anderson, George Wallace and Ross Perot in our own time. The Donald phenomenon might well fade into an asterisk and a footnote, too. The system has mighty jaws and a large belly.
Voters in a angry mood forgive a lot. He has never held public office, and ordinarily that would prevent almost anyone from taking him seriously. But not always. Wendell Willkie was a Wall Street lawyer, and he won the Republican nomination in 1940 when most of the country was cold and hungry in the depths of the Depression. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a movie actor with bulging biceps and a funny accent, was elected governor of California when voters lapsed into frustration and rage. Jesse Ventura was a rassler — not even a wrestler — and Minnesota voters took out their anger by electing him governor. Rage can work small miracles.
Mr. Trump’s over-the-top putdown of Mexico and the illegal aliens it sends across the American border might have done in a man in a time of a cooler temperature of the body politic. But over-the-top is where a lot of voters want a president to be. Enough with the apologizers and the girly men so easily intimidated by the weaklings, whiners and the politically correct.
Donald Trump the man is not the phenomenon that is consuming the campaign. It’s what he’s saying and how he’s saying it that makes him the unexpected star. He would never have left the counting house if one of his rivals had delivered the message, and sounded as if he meant it. A lot of Americans are willing, for now, to embrace the longest of long shots, warts, bluster and all.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.