Donald Trump has spent the last three months blustering and bullying his way to the top of the Republican presidential race. Even after last week’s debate at the Reagan Library, where he was clearly bested by his opponents, he remains on top of the polls by a large margin. But now that several polls have confirmed the first surveys that showed him losing ground to GOP rivals, there’s no denying that the Trump bubble is starting to lose a little air. Never one to simply tread water, the candidate’s response to this situation was both swift and predictable. He lashed out at those rivals who were gaining ground on him and attacked journalists that criticized him while seeking to bludgeon media outlets that hosted unfriendly voices into submission. Since this seemed to work before, the Trump strategy seems to be a case of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what made the Donald the darling of angry populist voters who are fed up with the establishment in the first place may not necessarily prop him up now that his feet of clay are showing.
Since entering the race, Trump has made political history. He made savvy pundits look like dunces as he turned conventional wisdom on its head by benefitting from outrageous and offensive statements rather than be punished by the voters for his excesses. Smarty-pants journalists might have thought branding Mexicans, “rapists,” insulting a war hero, or calling a respected conservative journalist a “bimbo” would hurt him. That made sense because it should have reminded voters that Trump was not all that long ago the nation’s leading birther and liable to say anything, be it liberal or conservative, that came to mind as he lashed out at critics. That he is self-promoting entertainer and a vulgar insult-machine rather than a thoughtful leader was not exactly a secret. But those who thought the normal rules of politics would apply to Trump didn’t understand something important about the politics of this election cycle. A plurality of Republicans were so angry with the state of the nation and so fed up with the failures of their party’s Congressional leaders that they actually saw Trump’s ruthless attacks as a necessary sign of strength, not of unsuitability for high office.
This is part of a general wave of dissatisfaction with the political class that has seen many on the left revolt against Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability as the Democratic presidential nominee. But the infatuation of many liberals with Bernie Sanders’s socialist shtick is about his ideology and their disgust with Hillary Clinton’s lies, cynicism, and ambitions that are not tethered to any principle, not his persona. For many on the right, anger and a capacity to ruthlessly attack any opponent has become a virtue in and of itself. His lack of depth on policy questions is seen by many conservatives as not as important as his ability to attack — the very quality that would have seemed to render him unlikely to be considered a likely president.
That capacity for vitriol earned Trump what may turn out to be a solid base of support that may not shrink as the campaign unfolds. But that assumption may not be any smarter than the ones the pundits had before the summer of Trump began. And that is because of a seminal moment in last week’s debate.
When explaining Carly Fiorina’s rise in the polls, many observers point, with good reason, to her impassioned comments about Planned Parenthood that endeared her to many conservatives. But the key moment came earlier when she cut Trump down to size with her comment about women understanding exactly what the frontrunner meant when he mocked her appearance. It wasn’t so much her steely demeanor that brought to mind Margaret Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” reputation that mattered here so much as Trump’s reaction. Faced with someone who didn’t back down or quiver in the face of his insults, Trump did what most bullies who are challenged tend to do: retreat. His belated attempt to praise Fiorina’s appearance was lame and weak, the very characteristics that angry conservatives associate with the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, not their real estate mogul/reality star hero.
So when Trump reacted to his slipping several points in the polls after the CNN debate with more angry attacks, including a threat to boycott Fox News in the future, his assumption was that what worked before for him would work again. The news that Fox CEO Roger Ailes would have another meeting with Trump to try and smooth things over could be an indication that the frontrunner was correct. If Ailes is perceived as backing down, as it seemed he did after an initial strong stand after Trump insulted Megyn Kelly, then the network would be bolstering the impression that the Donald is still the undefeated heavyweight champion of political warfare.
But the increased willingness of journalists and rivals to take him on may indicate that Trump is not quite as invulnerable as he and his ardent loyalists would like to believe. Trump knows that after Fiorina publicly castrated him (to use the analogy National Review’s Rich Lowry uttered on Fox News that prompted his latest tirade), he has to double down on his tactics, not scale them back, in order to maintain his poll numbers.
But can an endless string of insults, whether directed at Fox, Fiorina, Rubio or anyone who poses a threat to Trump, really prop him up over the course of the next four months until the voting starts? At what point does the Trump bullying act get tired or start losing its pungency?
The assumption that Trump will just fade once voters start wanting substance may be a matter of the wish being father to the thought for many of his critics. But if Trump’s victims don’t back down the vicarious thrill he gives his fans — who, like all of so many of us, fantasize about being able to tell everyone off, starting with President Obama as well as all of those on our personal enemies lists — might not be so great. The bubble Fiorina burst is not so much a matter of poll results as it is the danger that voters may start realizing that even the Donald can’t beat up people with impunity. If that idea ever takes hold — and it may not — Trump will be in big trouble.