There’s no world in which Donald Trump is a serious candidate for president. Republican elites don’t want him, Republican donors don’t want him, and if—through some cosmic fluke—he managed to win a major primary, every strategist and activist in the Republican Party would turn their aim toward him and his candidacy.
But just because Trump is an unqualified vanity candidate doesn’t mean he’s unimportant in the story of the 2016 GOP presidential primary. Unlike Chris Christie or Mike Huckabee—two vastly more legitimate candidates—Trump is popular with Republican voters. A new CNN national poll puts him in second place in the GOP field at 12 percent support—seven points behind the leader, Jeb Bush—while recent polls from Iowa and New Hampshire also show him with a second place spot in those crucial early contests. If Trump holds his position, he’ll be on stage with Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio when official debates start in August (he could even lose some support and still make the cut).
The obvious question is “Why?”—why does Trump have a hold on this thick slice of the members of the Republican base? The answer is, unlike the professional politicians in the race, Trump is—from his views on immigration to the “issue” of Obama’s citizenship—one of them.
That’s not to say that more serious candidates like Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal are insincere. They are reliable conservatives with strong, right-wing beliefs and positions. But they’re also elected officials: They legislate, they build coalitions, and they compromise between what they want and what is possible (though this is more true of Jindal than Cruz). They can appease the Republican base with harsh attacks on the other side, but they can’t endorse every crazy idea, lest they hurt their goals and priorities.
A political free radical, Trump doesn’t have this problem. He doesn’t have to collect endorsements, or persuade reluctant fundraisers (he’s self-financing), or build a team of party professionals. He doesn’t have to do anything other than put himself on a debate stage and get publicity. And so, he says what he thinks.
The last time he entered the fray, in the runup to the 2012 primaries, this meant “birtherism,” the belief that Barack Obama was foreign-born and thus ineligible for the White House. For this round, it means casual xenophobia. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said during his presidential announcement last month. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
He continued: “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”
Appalled, corporate America moved to break bonds with the real estate mogul. NBC ended its relationship with Trump, longtime host of Celebrity Apprentice and co-owner of the Miss USA and Miss Universe franchises. Macy’s dropped him from its stores, and Univision, the Spanish-language network with wide reach in the United States, cut its ties as well. On Wednesday, Trump replied: “Clearly, NBC and Macy’s support illegal immigration, which is totally detrimental to the fabric of our once great country.”
Through all of this, actual Republican voters not only weren’t bothered, they actually seemed supportive, as evidenced by Trump’s rise to near the top of the heap. The reason is clear. While Trump was out-of-bounds of mainstream conversation, he was well in the bounds of Republican Party politics and the kinds of rhetoric used there about Mexican and Latin American immigrants.
His complaints about “drugs,” “crime,” and “rapists,” for example, echo those from influential Iowa Rep. Steve King, the all-but-official leader of the GOP’s anti-immigration wing. In 2013, criticizing the Dream Act, he told conservative website Newsmax that “For every [undocumented immigrant] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that—they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Likewise, in response to the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, conservative journalists and Republican politicians spread fear of immigrant-borne disease. Fox News personality Marc Siegel warned that dengue fever is “emerging in Texas because of the immigration crisis”; radio host Laura Ingraham declared that “The government spreads the illegal immigrants across the country, and the disease is spread across the country”; and, in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then–Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey referenced “Reports of illegal immigrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis.”
Trump also sounds like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who—in the last month of his 2014 campaign against Democrat Mark Pryor—warned that terrorists were working with cartels to send fighters into the United States.
All of these claims—from drugs and disease to ISIS—were insane. But they reflected (and encouraged) a climate of anti-immigrant hostility in the Republican Party, underscored by the huge backlash to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s plan for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. And those beliefs persist. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center asked Americans about the impact of immigrants on the United States. Sixty-two percent of Democrats and 57 percent of self-identified independents said that immigrants “strengthen the country through hard work and talents.” By contrast, 63 percent of Republicans said they “burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care.”
Trump doesn’t just represent the Republican base on immigration. He is the Republican base on immigration. His anxieties are their anxieties. And his rhetoric—a revanchist stew of foreign policy belligerence, small government ideology, anti-elite agitation, and raw bigotry—reflects and appeals to a meaningful part of the Republican electorate.
The good news is that this meaningful part is still a small minority of the Republican Party. The right-wing of American populism might be ugly and angry, but it’s not powerful. The bad news, on the other hand, is that you don’t have to be a majority to be influential. You just have to grab the right influence at the right time. Trump is a distraction, but don’t be surprised if a more credible candidate—like Walker, who can cloak his hard-right politics in suburban blandness—tries to bring Trump’s voters to his side. Alone, these voters won’t bring victory. But in a close fight, they could offer the winning points.