The explanation for Donald Trump’s viability is found in his unlikely appeal among some religious conservatives. Mr. Trump came in second in Iowa among evangelical voters. In that state and in the upcoming South Carolina primary, they comprise about two-thirds of the vote.
Years ago, Donald Trump wanted to build a 125-story skyscraper in Los Angeles. His executive vice president countered my proposal to survey Los Angeles voters with a ridiculously low amount. When I declined the project, she immediately accepted my terms. I learned Mr. Trump rejects even a fair offer, because everything is negotiable toward the deal.
One pundit has observed that for Mr. Trump, the Republican primary is one deal and the general election another deal, for which he would “pivot on a dime.” Thus, when Candidate Trump talks about building a wall across the southern border or sending 12 million people back so the “good ones” can return legally, these trial balloons are not public policy but, if he is elected, a negotiating position. Mr. Trump’s recent suggestion that he would appoint Supreme Court justices with an eye toward overturning the same-sex marriage decision could be part of the South Carolina deal.
Last year, Mr. Trump told skeptical evangelicals that he is a Presbyterian, but he dumbs down the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale, his boyhood pastor. Mr. Trump really is a New Age thinker in his own state of happiness. He uses the so-called “Law of Attraction” to visualize, feel and articulate an “affirmation” of where he wants to be (president), and the country (“make America great again”).
Much complex analysis that has been written about Mr. Trump misses the simple point that he is a typical megabillionaire. He is a winner with an outsized ego, not the stuff of Christian humility. Staying focused to win is everything. The key to understanding Mr. Trump is that he may be a showman who does shtick, but he is not a clown who does silly; his emotional outbursts and insults are studied, not impulsive.
Mr. Trump is a decisive risk-taker, like other (much wealthier) multibillionaires. For example, a few years ago when Sheldon Adelson’s net worth declined precipitously from $30 billion to $2 billion, Mr. Adelson leveraged what he had and borrowed more, risking collapse. Today Mr. Adelson is back up there, the 18th richest person in the world (still below Michael Bloomberg’s $38 billion).
Mr. Adelson had no fear: “I started out with zero.” Mr. Trump did not start with zero. But like Mr. Adelson, Mr. Trump never retreats, apologizes or plays it safe. As the predatory early wars between Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs showed, these money warriors were highly competitive, even ruthless in their acquisitive state. Mr. Gates has become philanthropic later in life. Mr. Trump’s good deed, he tells evangelicals, is running for president.
The billionaire leadership style breaks the mold with daring innovation in commerce, and now for Mr. Trump, in politics, and religion. Though the front-runner in his campaign, Donald Trump defies conventional wisdom, flaunts the rules and often takes risks as if he’s far behind and has nothing to lose. That was evident when he gambled with an attack on Fox News and boycotted the Iowa debate. His decision hurt him in Iowa, but he learned from it, and it may have reinforced his brand.
Mr. Trump branded himself in real estate, television and products more than Messrs. Adelson, Gates or even Jobs in their businesses. Mr. Trump had sporadic partners, but unlike them, he never had to report to shareholders. Surely, he thought, he could brand a political movement and candidacy that he defined from the outset. He makes campaign decisions unilaterally and does not look back. He is a deliberative strategist and an intuitive tactician; he coalesces angry populists, defense hawks and religious conservatives.
Mr. Trump is the oldest of the Republican candidates, but projects the most energy. At age 69, he expresses the campaign with the youthful Twitter. He is a quick learner: Without Beltway consultants, he dominates each news cycle. Jeb Bush already has spent much of $120 million and gone almost steadily down. Donald Trump has spent a tiny fraction and gone almost steadily up. Voters see a Trump campaign that works. Can he, even “values voters” conservatives ask rhetorically, do that with the country?
Mr. Trump has morphed seamlessly from disciplined real estate mogul to rebellious candidate. He endures planned chaos. It was painful even for him to watch social conservative Sarah Palin endorse him, but he would grin and bear it. His deal-making in business is, in politics, pragmatism. In Iowa, he ran an ad holding a Bible and said, “I want to thank the evangelicals. I will never let you down.” What did that mean there, or now in South Carolina? Whatever an evangelical wants it to mean.
And before the Iowa caucuses, this presumed New York hedonist triumphantly visited two fundamentalist Christian universities. At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Mr. Trump fumbled a biblical verse but won the endorsement of university president, Jerry Falwell Jr. At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa Okla., Mr. Trump seemed too angry for some, but won support with a pledge to say “Merry Christmas.”
Oral Roberts was a Christian charismatic televangelist who preached the prosperity gospel that faith would increase material wealth. Evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson, who thinks evangelicals are too closely tied to Republican politics, wrote about Mr. Trump: “The inherent appeal of being a ‘winner’ is not far from the hope of being set free from all one’s earthly troubles.” If financial blessing is the will of God, then perhaps Mr. Trump is blessed.
Mr. Trump gets it — a vote for him is a lottery ticket toward reclaiming the American dream. The Bible Belt in South Carolina has lost many jobs, including in textiles and is open to Mr. Trump’s economic populism. “I’m a greedy person, I’ve been greedy all my life,” Mr. Trump told Christian students last month, with this theological leap: “I want to be greedy for you and the United States.”
Norman Vincent Peale, meet Oral Roberts, and the Law of Attraction.
• Arnold Steinberg, a political and media strategist, is the author of two classic graduate texts on political campaigns.