Donald Trump: Master of the demolition derby

Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images

Donald Trump always threatened to turn the race for the Republican presidential nomination into even more of a reality television show.

And lately it has come to resemble a gruesome episode of Big Brother, where it becomes near impossible to evict a boorish and abusive housemate because of his popularity with viewers.

Trump, evidently, is more than a guilty pleasure, the political equivalent of a late-night fix of tabloid TV for those returning, drunkenly, from a long night in the pub or bar.

Judging by his poll numbers, a significant proportion of sober-minded voters who will next year select the Republican nominee like both him and his take-no-prisoners message, even though to many it sounds deranged and racist.

The latest poll, conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, shows him with a commanding lead: 24% of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, compared with 13% for the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and 12% for the former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush.

Labelling Mexican immigrants criminals and "rapists", as Trump did in June when he announced his bid for the presidency, sounded like the demagogic rant of a fringe extremist.

To question the military record of Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war tortured so brutally that he is unable still to raise his arms above his shoulders, would ordinarily have been suicidal.

But Trump is operating under rules of his own making that are perfectly suited to the voracious metabolism of the modern media, and the hyperventilated style of modern campaigning.

The more outrageous his remarks, the more coverage and social media comment he generates.

And the more coverage he receives, the better his polling numbers seemingly become (though most of the polling in the latest survey was conducted before the McCain controversy).

Increasingly, notoriety equals popularity amongst a large cohort of Republican voters.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Trump questioned Senator McCain's war record

This was an equation that the Texas Senator Ted Cruz hoped to turn to his advantage, until he was trumped by Trump.

Though easy to lampoon as cartoonish and crazed, the billionaire tycoon has come to personify the dilemma faced by the modern-day GOP.

From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, when it won five out of six elections, the party dominated presidential politics largely by appealing to disgruntled whites unsettled by the pace of racial and social change - a constituency that includes many who agree with Trump's hard-line stance on immigration.

Nowadays, however, party leaders recognise that, after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential contests, the GOP needs to broaden its demographic appeal.

It cannot rely on what was known as "the southern strategy".

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Image caption Jeb Bush and Scott Walker are trailing Trump in the polls

Reaching out to Latino voters - once memorably described by Ronald Reagan as Republicans who didn't yet realise it - has become an urgent priority.

After all, in 2012 Mitt Romney secured just 27% of the Latino vote, proof of what Senator Lindsey Graham has called the party's "demographic death spiral".

The GOP's electoral conundrum has been finding ways of courting new voters without alienating longstanding supporters.

Trump, who obviously runs the risk of erecting a wall between the GOP and Hispanic voters akin to the impregnable barrier that he wants to construct along the Mexican border, is single-handedly demolishing that strategy.

Not only that. His early success suggests that the broad church strategy might be politically unfeasible.

Messenger or message?

If a quarter of Republican voters truly are embracing Trump - many presumably because of his nativistic rants rather than in spite of them - the outreach programme is in serious trouble.

The party's establishment will hope that voters are warming to the messenger rather than the message, but the two are increasingly entwined.

Moreover, voters devouring the red meat being thrown them on a daily basis by Trump will surely look upon inclusive Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as kale-eating vegans.

Now a major problem, a month ago Trump presented an opportunity writ large in the kind of large gold letters affixed to his hotels and office buildings.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mitt Romney failed to secure the Latino vote

Had the other candidates taken him down immediately after his "rapist" comments, they could have helped transform the Republican brand. Instead, figures like Jeb Bush hesitated.

It took the former Florida governor, who is married to a Mexican, two weeks to come up with a strong rebuttal, calling Trump's remarks "extraordinarily ugly".

Corporate America reacted more swiftly, with companies like NBC Universal quickly severing their ties with Trump, even though they know he is a ratings winner.

There is an argument to be made that Trump helps the candidacies of Bush and Walker, the other front-runners, if only because he is eclipsing rivals, like Rubio, who pose a more realistic threat.

But that line of reasoning surely underestimates the damage that he is doing, long-term, to the Republican brand.

Here, the hope will be that Trump is seen as such an outlier, and such an outsider, that he does more damage to his personal standing than the party's reputation.

Early impressions key

But early impressions are hard to shake, as Mitt Romney discovered in 2012 when the Democrats successfully cast him as an economic elitist long before he could define himself.

Latino voters will surely remember the party's rather feeble response to Trump after the media caravan has moved on.

In the Twitter age, media cycles are so momentary that Trump could well turn out to be summer silly season special, much like Michele Bachmann who unexpectedly won the Iowa straw poll in the summer of 2011.

Donald Trump:

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Riding high in the polls

1946: Born in Queens, New York

1959: Goes to New York Military Academy

1968: Graduates from Wharton School of Finance, University of Pennsylvania and starts working for his father's successful real estate development and construction company

1974: Acquires the failing Commodore Hotel on Manhattan's 42nd Street. The development takes nearly six years to complete before opening as the Grand Hyatt.

1982: Ahead of the Trump Tower completion, 266 luxury condos in the building go on sale, bought by Martina Navratilova, Johnny Carson, Steven Spielberg and Sophia Loren

1988: Buys New York's iconic Plaza Hotel for $407m, at the time the highest price ever paid for a single hotel

1991: Completion of Trump Palace, Upper East Side

1992: In a deal with the banks over his business debts, he is forced to give up his yacht, his jet, his stake in Grand Hyatt and the Trump Shuttle

1994: Averts bankruptcy again by getting banks to agree to another three years to pay back his debt

2003: Launch of the first series of the Apprentice

2011: Led "birther" speculation that Barack Obama was not born in the US

2015: Declares his intention to seek the Republican Party nomination in 2016

Certainly, party leaders will be hoping he follows the boom/bust cycle that was the hallmark of the 2012 race.

Remember the Herman Cain surge or the Gingrich spike? But Trump is a seasoned pro, with more staying power and more money.

His business empire has been built on his extraordinary gift for self-publicity - he is a human headline - and an ability to make improbable comebacks.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Richard Nixon struck a deal with Nelson Rockefeller (pictured) to secure liberal Republican support

Back in 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon sought to tie up the Republican nomination, he ended up making a pact with the then New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, to secure the support of liberal Republicans.

Because the two men met in Rockefeller's luxury Manhattan apartment, it was dubbed the Treaty of Fifth Avenue.

Arguably, the Republican Party needs a new Treaty of Fifth Avenue, the home of the famed Trump Tower, this time aimed at disembowelling "The Donald."

Next month, he looks certain to appear on stage in the first televised debate of the campaign, qualifying as one of the ten most popular candidates.

That, surely, will be car crash television, and Trump has already proved himself the master of the demolition derby.

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