Here's the big question of the season and maybe of our time: Has Donald Trump, his party, the electorate or the whole American political apparatus changed from the days when Trump was mildly reviled and driven whimpering from politics?
Trump, you may remember, looked seriously at the presidency in 1988 and 2000 and was so intimidated each time that over the three elections after 2000 he gave only wistful hints about his ambition. In 2015 it all changed and we now have the Trump Phenomenon and the greatest offensive by a political party in history to stop one candidate.
The quick answer is that Trump has changed his style not at all and his substance only moderately since he launched himself into national politics in the 1980s, but he has mastered the dark undercurrents of the body politic and of the modern Republican Party and turned a zephyr of discontent into a hurricane.
The new Trump is the Trump of late '80s, when he was publicly begging President Reagan to let him negotiate the nuclear missile treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. He would make a deal that would be great for America and ruin the communists. Reagan signed the treaty with Gorbachev in a love feast at the White House in 1987, perhaps his greatest achievement as president, although he had to endure right-wing critics. Trump went on Oprah Winfrey's show soon afterward and talked about running for president against Vice President Bush. He said he was tired of the rest of the world ripping off America and its weak-kneed leaders. Standing before waving "Trump for President" placards in New Hampshire in 1988 he said he would force countries that were "kicking us around" to pay off the giant national debt, which had tripled under Reagan.
In 1999, The New York Times reported that Trump was wondering whether there was a place in the presidential race for a rogue like him. But he was going to run for the nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party, not the Republican Party. Trump told CNN's Larry King that Oprah would be his vice president. This time, instead of forcing foreign countries to pay off the debt, he would make rich Americans do it by levying a 14.25 percent tax on the net worth of everyone worth at least $10 million. As president he would be his own trade representative and personally negotiate trade agreements. He denounced Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and France as lousy allies. He told Fox News that while he had liked Bill Clinton he would have had more respect for him if he had sex with a supermodel instead of fat Monica Lewinsky. He said the difference between him and other candidates was that "I'm more honest and my women are more beautiful."
Still, Trump was getting ridiculed in the media. One of his ex-wives threatened to expose him if he ran; the other had accused him of raping her and yanking out fistfuls of her blonde hair. The right-wing populist Pat Buchanan, after two failed runs, had left the Republican Party, too, and was making a play for the Reform Party nomination. Buchanan denounced immigrants with better effect than Trump although his promise to tax the rich paled besides Trump's. Buchanan would raise estate and capital-gains taxes.
Trump tanked in the polls as the angry electorate swarmed to Buchanan. He gave up the chase, explaining that he could not abide being in the same political movement with Buchanan, whom he called a Hitler admirer, and David Duke, the KKK leader whom he now pretends not to know about.
By 2015, Trump had absorbed the lessons from his failures. He figured out how to raise his voice above the establishment, the chattering political wise men and the media critics. And the Republican Party gave him the perfect forum, an unending stretch of nationally televised debates that gave him unfiltered access to potential voters, both the angry and the perturbed. He had figured out exactly what they were mad about. While the rest of the conspiracy community had moved on from birtherism, Trump declared that he did not believe President Obama was a Christian, a patriot, even an American citizen who had any legitimate right to hold the office of president or deserving of the respect that people should have for the leader of their country.
Also, deport all the immigrants, banish Muslims, reinstate torture and whack hippie protesters. Within weeks Donald Trump had the undying devotion of millions of angst-ridden white men. Nothing the establishment, the super-PAC ads or the commentariat says about him can alter it. The only question is whether there are enough left in the base to stop him.