Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Donald Trump has gone too far.
After Trump said immigrants from Mexico were rapists, after he belittled John McCain’s heroism, and after he suggested that Megyn Kelly was angry at him because she was in the midst of her menstrual cycle, the pundits raced to their computers to proclaim Trump finished.
And yet, Trump seems stronger than ever. Post-debate polls show him maintaining or expanding his lead and atop the pack both in New Hampshire and Iowa among likely GOP voters. The other night, CNN ran a caption during their prime time coverage that read “The Day In Trump.” For a guy who has allegedly gone too far, he seems to be . . . well, going pretty far.
Indeed, all the things that make pundits tut-tut about how “Trump has really done it this time” are actually the very utterances and antics that strengthen his appeal. It’s his willingness to say things that are politically incorrect, that are obnoxious, and that are over-the-top that best explains his political rise.
And it’s not just what he says; the way he says things is also a big part of his appeal. After all, most of the 17 GOP candidates are basically singing off the same uber-conservative political hymnal. The problem with a political party that has near-unanimity on every major policy issue is that the person who says things loudest gains the upper hand. It’s dog whistle politics without the dog whistle.
So while everyone in the GOP complains about illegal immigration, Trump is not only going to build a “tremendous” wall to keep them out, he’s going to make Mexico pay for it. All Republicans derisively attack the political establishment; Trump calls them “losers.” Every GOP aspirant complains about the media and the liberals with their speech codes and political correctness; Trump comes right out and says things that are misogynist, racist, and exceptionalist.
It’s reminiscent of what Lurleen Wallace once said of her husband, George Wallace, another effective political demagogue: “When he’s on ‘Meet the Press,’ they can listen to him and think, ‘That’s what I would say if I were up there.’ ” The more that Republicans attack Trump for saying things that politicians shouldn’t say, the more it validates his antiestablishment cred.
However, while such bluntness keeps Trump in the media spotlight and provides oxygen to his campaign, it also has a major downside: It places a hard cap on his support. There may be 20 to 25 percent (and perhaps even more) of Republican voters who find Trump’s message appealing, but the further he pushes the envelope, the harder it will be to expand his support beyond his current group of resentful, angry, and aggrieved supporters. Winning a quarter of the GOP vote looks pretty good when there are 17 candidates in the race, but less so after the field gets winnowed down.
But for now, fanning the flames keeps Trump the center of campaign attention. Far worse for Republicans, it overshadows the other candidates, turning the GOP primary race into a virtual reality show in which a loudmouthed blowhard with virtually no shot of winning the presidency dominates the political news cycle. But what should really disturb Republicans is that Trump, someone with zero political experience, quickly figured out how to use crude political attacks to rise above the rest of the GOP field.
While there will almost certainly come a day when Trump’s star fades among Republicans, those voters enchanted by his rawness may just follow him if he goes one step further and launches a third-party bid.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.