The establishment has been right all along that Donald Trump, if he is a Republican at all, is the least Republican of the candidates, but he also has proved something bigger. He knows Republican voters better than anyone else.
Trump nailed down the big Dixiecrat/George Wallace/white-supremacy vote in the old South and its remnants elsewhere by his early attacks on President Obama as "the food stamp and welfare king" and a weak quisling who is bullied by every petty autocrat in the world. By his raging attacks on immigrants and Muslims and, finally, on Pope Francis, he won over the strain of nativist and anti-Catholic voters in the party that stretches back to the Whigs and Know-Nothings. And although he is the embodiment of six of the church's seven cardinal sins — boastfulness, lust, greed, wrath, gluttony and envy (all but laziness) — as the Doonesbury comic strip pointed out, he carved away a giant swath of the evangelical vote from its zealous suitors, Ted Cruz and the rest.
A Public Policy Polling survey in South Carolina showed that 70 percent of Trump voters believed the Confederate battle flag should fly over the state Capitol and that the largest share of his voters on the question of the Civil War wished that the South had won and preserved slavery. Eighty percent of his voters liked his idea of banning Muslims from entering the country and 40 percent agreed that the government should shut all mosques.
Trump is not the first presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, to sound dog whistles on the race issue, but he is the boldest and the best at it. After capturing the Republican nomination in 1980, Ronald Reagan journeyed to the little town of Philadelphia, Miss., famous for the murder of three civil rights workers in the Freedom Summer of 1964, and announced that "I believe in states' rights," the slogan that Southerners associated with segregation.
Mississippi and most of the South had already swung to the Republicans after a Democratic Congress and president enacted civil rights laws in 1964, 1965 and 1968. But Trump swiped those votes from a field of far more conservative candidates, which none of his predecessors with Southern strategies — Nixon, Goldwater and Reagan — needed or tried to do. And he did it without a strategist like Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. (It was Atwater, by then in the Reagan White House, who explained in a taped interview with an academic political scientist in 1981 how times had changed for collaring white Southern voters: "You started out in 1954 by saying 'nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract." By 1980, he said, you promise to cut programs that are supposed to help black people. " 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'nigger, nigger.' ")
With Trump it's a celebrity showman's intuition, not studied calculation. He knows instinctively how to thrill the gallery. Who else could get a crowd to cheer a promise to murder innocent women and children if a relative is a terrorist?
The Donald could win the nomination with fewer than 40 percent of the primary votes. But if you're a business or moderate Republican, a standard conservative or even a liberal Democrat, here's the encouraging thing — or the most discouraging thing — about Trump. Little that he says is conviction. He almost certainly will govern more pragmatically than he campaigns.
That has been the pattern of men who entered politics from the celebrity ranks. Reagan ran for governor of California by denouncing welfare cheats, taxes and big government; as governor he raised taxes and signed a law imposing tough environmental rules and another making it easy for women to get abortions. As president, he cut taxes for the rich and middle incomes and then raised them repeatedly for everyone, sought detente with the hated Russians and secretly bribed Iran with boatloads of missiles to free a few Americans. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie hero turned Republican politician, ran for California governor as a right-winger and pivoted sharply to the left in office, signing the first tough greenhouse-gas emission law in the country. The great wrestler, actor and showman Jesse "The Body" Ventura performed the same act in Minnesota.
Trump has more than hinted at the same. Unlike the other Republican candidates — for president or any office — but like most Republican voters he says rich people should pay more taxes (though his proposal seems to cut them). Alone of the GOP presidential candidates he vows never to cut the great social welfare programs Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. He wants to replace Obamacare with government-guaranteed health care for everyone. Though overshadowed by his blustering, he murmurs that he won't start any wars in the Middle East.
But Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — they really believe all that stuff.