Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

The Donald Trump situation, as anxious Republicans and mystified commentators sometimes call it, only grows more anxiety-producing and mystifying by the week. His performance in the August 6 debate was not considered world-beating. Then, in the wake of it, he was widely perceived as having made reference in a CNN interview to the menstrual cycle of Fox News host and debate moderator Megyn Kelly, which was supposed to finish him off. It was about the fourth such dose of poison but, Rasputin-like, Trump has survived each one.1 After the debate, he maintained his large lead over the field.

Then on August 11, Trump held his first real campaign-style press conference, in a Michigan town just south of Saginaw. It was rich in the usual self-aggrandizing bluster—but he also showed that he can discuss issues and policy about as well as most of the GOP candidates. That is perhaps not the highest of bars, but he cleared it easily.

On August 21, he held a large rally at a college football stadium in Mobile, Alabama. It seems safe to conjecture that for this native of Queens and resident of midtown Manhattan, this was probably virgin territory. He filled less than 30,000 of its 40,000 seats, but the point was made that he could go deep into the bosom of the Bible Belt and draw a crowd that no other Republican could begin to attract. And now, as autumn approaches and the campaign begins to intensify, we have careened our way into a reality in which the question “who is the current front-runner for the GOP nomination?” has only one plausible answer.

On the one hand, it has seemed impossible to believe that Trump’s candidacy would evolve into something the political leaders and commentators would have to take seriously. For weeks after his June 16 announcement, the experts agreed that surely, this would all just collapse at some point. These experts would dig into the polling and find numbers that seemed to foretell Trump’s imminent demise, and indeed nervous GOP leaders continue to seek solace in results showing that most Republicans don’t believe he’ll be the nominee.

On the other hand, however: Is Trump not the logical culmination of where Republican politics have been headed for many years now, going back to the Clinton and Bush presidencies, but especially during the tenure of Barack Obama? Two qualities more than any others have driven conservatism in our time. The first is cultural and racial resentment, felt by the mostly older and very white population the GOP increasingly represents—resentment against a fast-changing, more openly sexual America, as well as against dark-skinned immigrants, and White House occupants, and gay people and political correctness and the “moocher class” and all the rest. The second is what we might call spectacle—the unrelenting push toward a rhetorical style ever more gladiatorial and ever more outraged (and outrageous), driven initially by…

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