Fresh from a series of lopsided Super Tuesday victories, Donald Trump already has his sights set on a general election clash with the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. It’s a once-unthinkable match-up that could result in an electoral calamity of colossal proportions.
Like many of my friends and colleagues, I thought Donald Trump was a total joke when the billionaire real estate mogul announced, with swashbuckling bravado, that he was seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president last June.
I chuckled. I guffawed. I scoffed at the patently absurd notion that a buffoonish reality TV star who once said he'd date his daughter (if she weren't his daughter) could ever have a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected as America's first orange president.
Like you perhaps, I’m not laughing anymore as I behold the tawdry spectacle of a turbo-charged Trump dispatching foes with alarming ease.
In the wake of his Super Tuesday haul, Trump took to the podium of a ballroom in his ornate Palm Beach home to claim that he was a "unifier” and vow that he would consolidate his divided party.
But the conciliatory talk belies much baser instincts.
Trump delivers many of his attacks in staccato bursts of toxic tweets that home in on his victims’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He castigates them as fat, dumb, ugly or losers (or all of the above). These insults are “echoed and amplified”, in the words of one US political reporter, by his fiercely loyal supporters.
The barbs are often so unsparing, so clinically humiliating, that donors and other party bigwigs are said to be reluctant to return Trump's fire lest they, too, incur his public wrath.
Barely an electoral scrape
The conventional wisdom is that Trump has tapped into the seething anger of voters fed up with party elites and machines.
His irreverence towards anything that smacks of paint-by-numbers politics is like gospel to his devoted fans.
The greater the outrage, the more audacious the insult, the higher his poll ratings seem to soar, and the more invincible his aura.
What other mortal politician bound by the laws of physics could, in the span of a single week, praise torture, saying it works, while picking a fight with the Pope – the Pope! – and suffer not a single electoral scrape?
As the Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan points out, a phenomenon like Trump could not have been born in a vacuum. The "most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of US politics" is no fluke, according to Kagan. Trump was incubated, like a plague, in the petri-dish of tainted Republican politics.
"The party searches desperately for the cause and the remedy without realizing that, like Oedipus, it is the party itself that brought on this plague. The party's own crimes are being punished in a bit of cosmic justice fit for a Greek tragedy."
Kagan offers a litany of party crimes in recent years – from repeated threats to shut down the government, to persistent calls for nullification of Supreme Court decisions, insistence that compromise is betrayal and "the party's accommodation to and exploitation of the bigotry in its ranks."
A mutant strain of candidate
As the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof put it, "over the decades they [the Republicans] pried open a Pandora's box, a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animus, and they could never satisfy the unrealistic expectations that they nurtured among supporters."
The result is a virulent, mutant strain of political predator with the power to destroy his own creators.
Which raises the inevitable – some say existential – question that Republican Party bosses and average citizens have been raising with ever greater urgency: Do you bite the bullet and rally around Trump as the party's presumptive nominee, while hoping to figure out a way to “manage” his message?
Or do you resolve to terminate the Trump juggernaut through big-donor scheming and backroom plotting?
Stuart Stevens, a prominent political consultant who worked as a top adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, told New York magazine last September that he saw no viable path for Trump to the White House.
For such a thing to happen, Stevens said, all the rules of politics would have to change. When I asked Stevens during a recent France 24 interview whether he still stuck to that assessment – after all, all the rules of politics have changed – he told me he did.
Trump vs. Clinton
But he seemed suddenly less convinced – as if by repeating his earlier assertion he hoped to exorcise the demons of a Trump presidency.
It's something many of us are thinking as we eye the latest polls.
Real Clear Politics, which aggregates a wide range of political polls, looked at the most likely general election match-up: a race pitting the Democrats' Hillary Clinton against Trump. The average of its polling data from dozens of polls dating back to last July indicates that Clinton would beat Trump by almost three points in a head-to-head match-up. But a number of polls – including a recent one by USA Today, saw a two-point Trump victory.
For some political observers, the only way to prevent a Trump presidency is to ensure that Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee.
Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs magazine, argues that Trump's below-the-belt personal attacks and campaign style focused not on issues, but on personalities, makes Hillary Clinton Trump's "dream opponent".
"She gives him an endless amount to work with,' Robinson wrote in a recent opinion. "The emails, Benghazi, Whitewater, Iraq, the Lewinsky scandal, Chinagate, Travelgate, the listing law firm records, Jeffrey Epstein, Kissinger, Marc Rich, Haiti, Clinton Foundation tax errors, Clinton Foundation conflicts of interest, 'We were broke when we left the White House', Goldman Sachs… There is enough material in Hillary Clinton's background for Trump to run with six times over."
Robinson notes that whether or not any of these allegations or supposed scandals are factual is irrelevant when you are up against Trump. "In the time you spend trying to clear up the basic facts of Whitewater, Trump will have made five more allegations."
Hurling insults, unhinging rivals
Whereas Clinton would constantly be on the defensive against Trump, the argument goes, Sanders, by behaving as if Trump isn't there, "can pull off the only maneuver that is capable of neutralizing Trump: ignoring him and actually keeping the focus on the issues."
But ignoring Trump may be as perilous as openly attacking him.
In the time an opponent is busy focusing on the issues, Trump can hurl enough insults and insinuation to unhinge a candidacy. But going on the attack is hardly a fail-safe strategy, either, as Marco Rubio found out when Trump pulled the Chris Christie endorsement out of thin air at the very moment when Rubio was finally channeling his inner pit bull and laying into the frontrunner).
For The Economist, Trump is so unpredictable that "the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped." Many – including Barack Obama – do not believe that Trump will make it to the White House. The presidency is a serious job, he says, and campaign histrionics aside, when electoral push comes to shove, Americans will make a common-sense choice.
Trump's poses a potent threat to America at a time when the ideals of its Founding Fathers are being subsumed in a miasma of fear, anxiety, resentment and ideological brinkmanship.
After 600 years, the Bubonic plague that once wiped out half of Europe's population is yet to be entirely eradicated. Let's hope America finds a way to eradicate the plague of Donald Trump a lot sooner.
Otherwise we may all, to borrow a Trumpism, be "losers" come November. Big-time losers.