Every morning around the country, Republican leaders wake up wondering, “What will Donald Trump do today?”
He’s roiled the 2016 presidential campaign and its 16 other declared candidates, sucking the air out of the political room with his controversial comments and forcing the others to respond rather than devote time to their own messaging.
Some dismiss Mr. Trump’s outbursts and critical observations as antics – all sparkle and flash, minus substance – to be expected from the billionaire developer and star of his own reality TV show who’s never held elective office.
“Trump isn’t and wasn’t going to get the conservative vote,” Joseph McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, wrote in an email to The New York Times. “Conservative Republicans are worried about their party, but it’s still their party. Trump isn’t philosophically a conservative, and that will come out.”
“Trump’s base is more the people who used to have season tickets to the Roman Colosseum,” Mr. McQuaid wrote. “Not sure that they vote in great numbers, but they like blood sport.”
Other conservatives aren’t so dismissive.
“It’s not over. And it’s likely to end badly,” warns Stephen Hayes, senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
Of Trump’s controversial comment about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, widely seen as crude and misogynistic, Mr. Hayes writes: “It’s a comment that might end any other presidential campaign. Trump is different, in part because this isn’t a campaign. It’s an extended media-driven ego ride.”
Pushing the GOP’s so-called “war on women” may be a good political ploy for Democrats, but the gender gap in party identification and voting trends is quite real. And Trump’s history of insulting remarks and troubling episodes with women were sure to be recapped following his dismissive “political correctness” answer to Ms. Kelly’s question during last week’s debate – especially since he’s the party’s presidential front-runner at the moment. (He’s nearly 12 percentage points ahead of second-place Jeb Bush.)
"It taps into a perception that's been around for decades now that the challenges that different groups of women face are not front and center for the GOP and that Democrats will take these concerns more seriously," Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer told the Monitor’s Gail Russell Chaddock. "Republicans need a response to that."
On the Sunday TV news shows, Trump said his comment about Kelly’s critical line of questioning – “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” – was misunderstood.
"I cherish women. I want to help women. I’m going to be able to do things for women that no other candidate would be able to do, and it’s very important to me," Trump told CNN's Jake Tapper.
As a result of Trump’s comment about Kelly, Erick Erickson of RedState.com disinvited Trump from the conservative gathering in Atlanta Saturday.
“There are just real lines of decency a person running for President should not cross,” Mr. Erickson wrote on his website. “It is unfortunate to have to disinvite him. But I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal. It just was wrong.”
Part of the problem for the GOP: Trump is a registered Republican, but there’s never been any indication of party loyalty.
Drawing on New York City Board of Elections records, The Smoking Gun reported that he initially registered as a Republican (in 1987), reenrolled as a member of the Independence Party (1999), became a Democrat (2001), switched back to the GOP (2009), changed his registration to read “I do not wish to enroll in a party” (2011), before registering once again as a Republican (2012).
In the GOP debate on Fox News the other night, he refused to rule out running as an independent or third-party candidate.
While Trump may be roiling the GOP, his own campaign has been shaken as well by the latest flap. Top political advisor Roger Stone quit – or was fired, if you accept Trump’s version of events.
In a letter to Trump, Mr. Stone wrote: “Your initial and still underlying message is a solid conservative message. It catapulted you instantly into a commanding lead in the race…. Unfortunately, the current controversies involving personalities and provocative media fights have reached such a high volume that it has distracted attention from your platform and overwhelmed your core message. With this current direction of the candidacy, I no longer can remain involved in your campaign.”
Where do things go from here?
Trump is his own kind of politician, a rhetorical pugilist unlikely to fold or back down in the face of criticism, a man for whom the normal definition of (and typical response to) a perceived “gaffe” does not apply. (Note: In 2013, he was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.) One does not sense that he really cares if he wins the Republican nomination, that making his points – say, about immigration – is enough to satisfy him.
“While I suspect that the Trump hype is driven by curiosity more than admiration, there is no doubt some segment of the population is properly understood now as ‘Trump supporters.’ That segment is small and will be shrinking in the coming weeks, but it won’t disappear,” writes Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard. “It’s foolish to pretend to know how it all ends. But one thing is certain: It won’t end well.”