US Election 2016: Donald Trump could hold the winning hand in the race for the Republican presidential nomination

Out of America: Although he pays lip-service to Republican orthodoxy, he is connecting with ordinary voters with his outsider’s views

American presidential campaigns may go on for far too long, but boy are they riveting, and none more so than this one. First, it’s terrific entertainment, even if frequently of the schoolyard variety: how often do you hear men who are vying for the most powerful office on earth calling each other liars, chokers and con artists?

Second, it’s scary. “Super Tuesday”, the biggest single day of the primary season when 11 states vote, is at hand. Conceivably, within 72 hours the Republican nomination may have been all but locked up by a man who is a bully, a bigot, a xenophobe and authoritarian, whose policy prescriptions amount to a pile of bumper stickers. 

Third, however, it is genuinely exhilarating. By all means loathe Donald Trump – but he’s performing a vital, long overdue service by ripping down a party establishment that has utterly lost touch with the voters it purports to represent and parroted conservative orthodoxies that manifestly have failed to work.

For a while, Thursday’s candidates’ debate felt like a turning point. Previously, Trump had had it surprisingly easy on such occasions, as his rivals spent most of their time attacking each other. Now his two closest challengers, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, turned their fire on him. For once the master of reality TV looked rattled.

But it didn’t last. Trump might have lost the battle at the University of Houston, but he was still winning the war. Barely 12 hours later he was basking in the stunning endorsement of Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and his erstwhile opponent.

It was a masterstroke that took the wind out of Rubio’s sails. Usually endorsements are no big deal. But this one was. By nature Christie’s a bully like Trump. But until he dropped out of the race after a dismal showing in New Hampshire, he was one of the so-called “mainstream” candidates that establishment Republicans prayed might knock Trump off his pedestal. Now the ramparts are crumbling.

Better still, Christie was the wrecking ball that destroyed Rubio in New Hampshire last month, at the very moment the Florida senator, after a surprisingly good showing in Iowa, might have emerged as the mainstream standard-bearer. It may be too late, but Rubio is once more the establishment’s last best hope. Who better to take him down than Christie, who makes Rubio look like a little boy lost?

Often Trump resembles Mussolini. But boasting, braggadocio and an ability to play on the fears that beset Americans are not the only reason Trump is doing so well. As Christie put it, he’s “rewriting the playbook of American politics” – and that of the Republican Party in particular.

Yes, Trump’s appeal is largely that of the outsider. He’s the voice of countless ordinary Americans who are sick to the back teeth with political correctness, who detest Washington and its dysfunctional ways, who feel the country is going down the drain. “All talk, no action, never gets done,” are Trump’s watchwords.

Forget about facts and the policy papers that enshrine them, he tells audiences. Drive and determination are what matter. He’s a billionaire who, unlike normal politicians, funded by special interests and lobbying groups, is his own man, beholden to no one. Seen through that prism, all the thuggishness, all the crude language, are merely proof for supporters that things really are going to change.

But there’s more to Trump than that. Skilfully, he plays lip-service to canons of Republican orthodoxy. Guns are good, illegal immigrants and abortion are very bad and Obamacare must go. Like every good Republican, he’s put forward a completely unaffordable programme of tax cuts. Look a little more closely, however, and Trump may be the most centrist frontrunner the party has had in decades.

Cruz and Rubio assail him as a Democrat in disguise, pointing to his former praise for a single payer health system, the kind words he once had for that arch-demon Hillary Clinton and his support for many of the activities of the Planned Parenthood organisation, vilified by the party because it helps women get abortions.

Then there’s Trump’s show of evenhandedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – reiterated in Thursday’s debate – and his denunciation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: the world he says, would be a safer place if the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still in power. Cruz and Rubio are spot-on. Trump is in many respects a traitor to his party (assuming of course he truly belonged to it in the first place). Alas for his rivals, apostasy pays off.

The businessman is doing well with almost every section  of the party, from evangelical Christians to blue-collar workers (even, if exit polls from last week’s Nevada caucuses are to be believed, with Latinos, despite his tirades against immigrants and his threats of a wall). Trump’s message is one voters want to hear: not just Republicans, but many disaffected blue-collar Democrats as well. Turnout in Republican primaries is beating records, as he brings to the polls people who have never voted before.

Only in Washington – where a minority Tea Party faction, with its demands for ideological purity and utter refusal to compromise, has held Republican Congressional leadership to ransom – are such truths not self-evident. Trump, who wrote a best seller called The Art of the Deal, promises to change that political scorched-earth culture as well.

And that is what is exhilarating about the current chaos. By moving so far to the right, Republicans are primarily to blame for the breakdown of the American political system. But by dint of its failure to achieve the change it’s been promising for years, the party is no longer able to influence its voters. Trump may be about to haul Republicanism back closer to the middle ground. It had to be done. The pity is, it needs a Donald Trump to do it.