Explaining Donald Trump into South Carolina

Doubtless I'm not the only Republican who has forgiven The Donald several times too often for his indiscretions.  In fact, I once described my overly generous reaction to Trump as "the gift that keeps on forgiving." 

There are plenty of folks who simply can't stand what they perceive as his arrogance.  Or his tendency to rile people up with comments that are insensitively unkind.  (I nearly wrote "nasty, " but he reserves that adjective for Ted Cruz.)  In the aftermath, The Donald often insists that he was misinterpreted or said nothing of the kind.

Still, I have always given Trump the benefit of the doubt, because, after all, he spent his entire working life practicing the art of one-upmanship.  And being the reality show personification of his craft must make it tough to slough off the image.  In essence, he's doing only what wheeler-dealers and risk-takers are expected to do.  Having conducted business with maybe thousands of people in his career as a developer, he's still thriving.  So perhaps he decided that what's good for the enterprising goose is likewise good for taking a gander at politics. 

The irony is that while The Donald is fond of reminding us how he wasn't a politician until a few months ago, he's actually been employing the same set of wheedling tactics all of his adult life: restricted boardrooms then, big rallies now.  He's massaging the electorate in the same manner he did the corporate managers and money mavens of yore: through fear, frankness, boasting, schmoozing, dismissing competitors, etc. 

Judging from the polls at this point, an impressive share of Republican voters have bought into his promise of resurrecting America as the Shining City on the Hill…only including a high wall on the south.  In return, the candidate wants to move out of the Trump Tower and into the White House. 

The Donald has been quixotic and quirky from the start.  So why the shock when he comes out with yet another headline-grabbing accusation or taunt?  Why can't we just roll our eyeballs heavenward, the way it's done with Biden's bloopers, and sigh, "Oh, that's just Trump being Trump"?  Is it because Old Joe reserves his attacks for those outside his party?  Perhaps if he'd jumped into the Democratic presidential fray, he'd be stooping to denigrate Hillary and Bernie by now.  But he missed his chance – maybe.

In the last debate, Trump really got some knickers in a twist by blaming George W. Bush, at least partially, for 9/11, which happened on Bush's watch.  The debate audience booed Trump, who later charged the GOP establishment with admitting viewers on the basis of their support for other candidates.  It's part of Trump's familiar "outsider-insiders" and "them against me" rhetoric. 

That didn't stop panels of political pundits from scratching their eggheads to figure out why Trump said something so inflammatory, and whether it will "hurt" him down the line.  The consensus is that the outburst was foolhardy – and more than that, unnecessary.  After all, the polls had Trump way ahead in South Carolina, many of whose voters are still fond of "W. "  And there's a hefty military presence in the state to boot.  After the debate, Trump's charge gathered a terrifying head of steam and became – at least in the minds of some gurus and hopeful Democrats – the death knell for the GOP's chances in 2016.

They seem to be overlooking one thing: there has always been a method to Trump's madness.  It 's his modus operandi not to let any outrageous muttering escape his lips without malice – and motive – aforethought.  Viewed in that light, here is a possible explanation for the contentious Bush attack, which, by the way, personally disheartened me. 

First, the Donald is sick and tired of "low energy" Jeb and wants him shoved off the campaign trail.  With Jeb's unimpressive showing in the primaries thus far, Trump has reason to conclude there's little love lost between the electorate and the latest Bush.  Yet the deep pockets of Jeb's PACs are being emptied on negative ads against Trump.  One of them depicts him as a menacing ice carving, chipped and dripped away by his own hypocrisy.  It drones on about his "supporting" certain issues – as though he were an "insider" member of Congress voting on them.

By attacking the Bush dynasty, Trump is trumpeting that he is not afraid of them or anyone else.  More importantly, he is already optimistically looking beyond the primaries to the general election.  One of Trump's strengths is that he could presumably sway independents and even some disaffected Democrats to vote for him.  By bringing up the issue of the Iraq war, and signaling both his opposition to it and to the absence of any presumed WMD, Trump could be trying to diffuse what will likely be one of the 2016 campaign arguments of the Democrats: that electing a Republican president means finding a pretext for going to war.

But has Trump gone too far this time?  Perhaps.  Has he made some Republicans see red?  Indeed.  But pushing the envelope is what he does.  And, for whatever reason, it's a maneuver that likely has worked even better than the cocky candidate dreamed possible.