Maybe you missed it, the latest episode of “Make America Great Again” just the night before last. It was a good one, a reminder of what’s giving Donald Trump a unique edge in the race to be the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. He made his money putting his name on buildings. But he also made it being a TV entertainer.
For his first proper outing since he proposed his “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, Mr Trump is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (An interesting choice as it calls itself “The Open Door City”.) The occasion would surely have been a snooze were it any of his rivals up there on the stage. Actually, two stages.
He is here to accept a big endorsement from the New England Police Benevolent Association, the union for police officers and prison guards. Yes, New England, a place we tend to think of as largely liberal.
With no ado, a union official steps to the podium in a ballroom of the Sheraton hotel, a stars and stripes to one side and the colours of the Association on a backcloth behind, and booms: “It is my honour and distinction to welcome Donald J Trump.” And out bounds the man of the hour. For a moment you think you hear, “Nice to see you, to see you…” (Apologies, hastily, to Bruce Forsyth.)
Nothing ruffles Mr Trump’s locks. Not the more than 200 folk who booed until hoarse at the hotel entrance as he swept by in his big, black SUV, all of them appalled that the man they call a fascist and a bigot should even set foot in their city. Nor the extraordinary, international brouhaha that his no-more-Muslims entreaty has unleashed.
Rather, he wants us to focus. We are to believe believe there is suspense to this night. Suspense is the fuel of game-show TV, after all, whether it’s Strictly Come Dancing or Mr Trump’s own old gig, The Apprentice. The union official has vanished, apparently to join the rest of the executive board in a separate room to vote, there and then, on whether to endorse him as its candidate for president – or not.
He is left on the stage to fill time. He uses it in part to lavish praise on the officers still in the room. (The press are confined behind a rope at the back.) “The level of talent! It’s the beauty of just some of the greatest people I know,” he gushes, flashing his crazed-chipmunk, yet somehow warming, grin. He vows the death penalty for anyone killing a police officer, to inevitable applause.
The rest is devoted to why it won’t be long before the world stops getting its knickers in a twist over what he said on Monday about Muslims, and will instead see how smart his idea really is. We will get to that later because first there is a game show to finish. Suspense, remember? It’s time for the big reveal.
“I’ll come back in a couple of minutes,” Mr Trump cries. “Can you imagine if they don’t vote positively? Look at the press! There would be the headlines, ‘Trump Rejected!’ I feel confident, I don’t know, but I feel confident. So we’ll be back in a few minutes.” And the crowd hollers as he steps out to discover his fate. Roll the commercials.
This is when you know this is like no other political event you’ve been to. Minions scramble to remove the scenery – the podium, flag and union banner. Next the stage itself is gone and the back wall of the ballroom that you thought was a wall is being folded away to reveal… a speedboat? A new car? A holiday for two in Tenerife? No, it’s the secret chamber where the executive board has just voted “yes”.
The end of the show is swift. Mr Trump is overcome. He calls the endorsement an award, which it is in a way. “This is a lifetime improvement award,” he offers. “I’m improving with this award.”
He is on a different, bigger stage now and suddenly he invites anyone who is a police officer or prison guard to join him. He glances around at the stage, as if wondering how many of his supporters it will bear without collapsing. Then he relaxes. “If this goes down we are not going very far,” he says, reassuringly, before someone hands him a handsome union jacket with full-length zipper. His grin is now super-glued on.
It is now that journalists surge forward to question him about his Muslim plan and the criticism that has followed, not least the petition in Britain, America’s oldest ally, now topping 500,000, to banish him. But he was gone, out of the building. He had given his only answer when he spoke earlier.
It offered no apology. Just as the furore over his calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” in June had subsided, so would the fuss over this. America, he had insisted, was coming around. “Within two weeks, all of a sudden people started saying: ‘Wow, you know what, he’s right!’” he said of his Mexican comments. As for now: “What I talked about, what I said the other day … all of a sudden watching the [TV] shows this morning and I am watching the shows tonight and it’s, you know, ‘Trump has a point.’”
He may be half right. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 57 per cent of all Americans reject shutting out Muslims. But among Republicans expected to vote in the primaries next year, the picture is far more mixed: 39 per cent opposed the plan, but 38 per cent said they approved. There is nothing in those numbers to suggest this latest burst of outrage will hurt him any more than any of the others have.
Mr Trump gets timing, and more than just in the game show sense. It has been 10 days since the shooting in San Bernardino and as Americans have learned more about that plot – that, far from being spontaneous, it was in the planning for two years and inspired by the jihadist doctrine of Isis – so their alarm has grown. A New York Times poll yesterday found them to be more afraid of terrorism now than at any time since the days after 9/11. One in five now say terror is the biggest issue facing the land. Mr Trump knows it.
“The system (of screening at the borders) is broken and Mr Trump is ahead of the curve,” said Stephen Stepanek, a member of the New Hampshire legislature and co-chair of the Trump campaign in the state. “He is always one step ahead of the other politicians. Everyone is outraged, then they start analysing what he said and all of a sudden they release, ‘Oh my God, he is right.’”
It may be the hope of a deeply panicked Republican establishment that the appeal of Trump as Entertainer will eventually fade as voters think more seriously about who they want as president. Or that his penchant for the incendiary will finally sink him, and the voices of the protesters across the street from the hotel with their signs reading “Love > Hate” will finally break through.
But if enough Republican primary voters and caucus goers actually do see sense in his what he proposes, he will win the nomination. And then we will be into another game show altogether. Stay tuned.
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