Donald Trump: Critics called him a circus act. One year on from running, he has proven them wrong. Or has he?
One year and one day ago a man with an exclamation mark after his name delivered the barely shocking news he was running for president, promising to wage war on establishment Washington.
“We are not going to clean up the mess in Washington by electing the people who either helped create it or have proven incapable of fixing it,” Jeb Bush, the former Florida Governor, declared. But as he spoke, an email was popping up in our phones. The next day Donald Trump would be holding a press conference in New York.
No one was in much doubt that Mr Trump would be joining the fray also, a prospect we greeted with vague amusement. How long could he last, we wondered? Today on the first anniversary of his campaign, The Independent is still on the trail with Mr Trump, in Dallas, Texas. Jeb! and all the other 16 Republicans who vied with him through the primaries are gone; the nomination is his.
Mr Trump prevailed partly because no one among those other candidates was any good. That it could only muster such a thin and untalented field – including a dreamy ex-surgeon and other dregs who had tried for the nomination before and failed miserably – should have told us something about the parlous state of the Republican Party right there. A hostile takeover was waiting to happen.
The first anniversary of candidate Trump falls in a week of particular tumult for American politics and his campaign. And arguably more risk to the Trump candidacy than we have seen up to this point. His response to the Orlando atrocity, principally one of further enflaming anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, led Barack Obama on Tuesday to declare him a danger to national security, an extraordinary attack by a sitting president against a presidential candidate.
But that he has got even this far is a testament to his most potent quality: bull-headed consistency.
Yes, he is a walking cauldron of contradictions. He wants America to rule the world, yet is to the left of Hillary Clinton when it comes to actually projecting its power. He has said the Orlando night club massacre wouldn’t have happened if enough of the patrons had had guns “strapped to their ankle or strapped to their waist”, but is suddenly interested in supporting legislation to keep those on terror watch lists from buying guns. He berates China on trade and sells Chinese-made ties.
The consistency is in the political branding. The main elements of it were on vivid display the moment he descended that escalator to the lobby of his own Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue – a retail sarcophagus in kingly marble and gold – and started to speak. He, not Bush, would be the one to rip up the rules of party and campaigning and be the politically incorrect boy in the room. He would be the one not just to identify precisely what it was that was making so many Americans angry about their lives but to drive in the surgical drain and tap what flowed out as political fuel.
He started with immigration and his statement that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Before he was done he had railed against America’s trade policies and its impact on jobs, about national security and also about terror, all things that large swathes of voters worry about as they at the same time despair of the political leaders they currently have.
The exclamation mark didn’t do the trick (Getty)
That his campaign was essentially a one-man show – and chaotic – was in evidence during his first visit to Texas last July. In spite of great danger to himself, he averred, he was visiting the US-Mexican border near Laredo. Those of us there to witness it had been helpfully supplied with GPS coordinates so we wouldn’t get lost. Sadly, they were for a tiny hamlet on the China-Tibet border.
He was back in the Lone Star state in February for a debate memorable for its special viciousness. So upset was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida after being repeatedly dismissed as ‘Lidd’l Marco’, he later implied Mr Trump had peed his pants while on the stage.
Since dispatching the last of his rivals six weeks ago, Mr Trump has had the opportunity to shift gears – to moderate that brand, consistency be damned. Republican leaders like House speaker Paul Ryan beseeched him to do so. Stop this nonsense about building the wall, barring Muslim migrants. The time had surely come to begin uniting the Party, they suggested.
To many it seemed he had an additional golden opportunity – just as he was safely home in the nomination race, Ms Clinton would for several more weeks be distracted by Senator Bernie Sanders. More than that, she faced mounting questions about her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Instead, Mr Trump veered off into public attacks against a judge presiding over a case against his defunct Trump University, suggesting his Mexican heritage made him unfit.
His assailing of the judge drew opprobrium up and down the party. His response to the killings in Orlando have deepened the despair. In return, Mr Trump at a rally in Atlanta on Wednesday essentially told his Republican critics to shut up. “Don’t talk. Please, be quiet,” he said. “Just be quiet.” And he told them if he has to carry on without their help, he is happy to do so.
But consistency – his firm belief that what has brought him electoral success so far will continue to work in his favour – may now be causing him damage. Mr Trump may eventually discover that the primary period of a presidential run is not the same as the general election. This is when playing only to his already well consolidated base won’t be enough. He has to win more people over and he in fact needs the party, and the money it can raise, to make that happen.
But those still willing to help are dwindling in numbers. It is showing up in small ways and big. His rally on Thursday in Texas almost didn’t happen because two cities, Irving and Grand Praire, turned the campaign down when it asked to use their venues. The fear was violence. Or maybe they declined out of mere distaste for the candidate.
On Thursday, a former deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, Richard Armitage, declared his intention to vote for Ms Clinton over Mr Trump, a remarkable indicator that the top echelons of the Republican foreign policy establishment can’t find the stomach to support him.
One who was not in Texas to welcome him, meanwhile, was John Cornyn, the state’s senior US Senator and the second most powerful Republican in Washington. After days of being badgered to say what he thought about Mr Trump’s most recent pronouncements he declared a sort of Trump purdah; he will not talk about him between now and the election in November. At all.
After one year of Mr Trump on the loose, this is the pass we have got to. He is the Party’s almost certain nominee and yet its top-most lieutenants can’t even bring themselves to utter his name.