Donald Trump changed the tone, if not the substance, of the Republican primary campaign. He's still the uninvited guest at the family dinner, the object of raised eyebrows and whispered snark, but everyone is beginning to be a little more careful returning the insults.
That is, everybody but Jeb! He was quoted Thursday as telling a friend that the Donald is a buffoon, a clown and "an [rectal aperture]." (He denied at the debates Thursday night.) But in the public conversation Donald Trump is no longer the buffoon, the baboon, the clown or the country bumpkin from the corn and hay fields of Manhattan. He's the man in the long, black limousine with the taunting bumpersticker: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you."
A new poll for The Washington Post-ABC News finds that Mr. Trump is ahead of everybody else in the polls, and even running ahead among evangelical Christians, who are reluctant to overlook affronts and slights to the faith. When someone at a Family Leadership Summit in Iowa asked him whether he ever asks G0D for forgiveness, he replied that he was not sure he ever had. "I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. If I do something wrong, I think, I just try to make it right. I don't bring G0D into that picture. I don't."
He takes Holy Communion, or the what many Protestants call the Lord's supper. "When I drink my little wine," he says, "which is about the only wine I drink and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed."
In other remarks in other places, he has described himself as an atheist without cleansing. He has supported abortion rights, and he has opposed them. He has given money to both left-wing and right-wing causes.
But many evangelicals, like others of the angry-conservative persuasion, have given him a pass, so great is the anger over how America the Beautiful has become America the confused, America the perplexed, America the bewildered, and above all America the humiliated, the work of the incompetent leadership that has humbled the exceptional nation before the world. America, in a paraphrase of Paddy Chafesky's famous line in the movie "Network," is "mad as hell, and is not going to take it any more."
This is the rage the Donald taps into so successfully. So far. He recognizes uncontrolled immigration with no serious attempt to get it under control as the incandescent issue this season. The other guys are waiting for it to go away. When he says he's "mad as hell" it takes no leap of imagination to believe him.
He follows other candidates who have tapped into rage and frustration, who set off firecrackers that made a lot of sharp noises but who were ultimately swallowed by the system. They were polite and mannerly in a way that Donald Trump is not. The Donald phenomenon might well fade into an asterisk and a footnote, too. The system has mighty jaws and a large belly.
Voters in an angry mood forgive a lot. He has never held public office, and ordinarily that would prevent almost anyone from taking him seriously. But not always. Wendell Willkie was a Wall Street lawyer, and he won the Republican nomination in 1940 when most of the country was cold and hungry in the depths of the Depression. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a movie actor with bulging biceps and a funny accent, was elected governor of California when voters lapsed into frustration and rage. Jesse Ventura was a rassler not even a wrestler and Minnesota voters took out their anger by electing him governor. Rage can work small miracles.
Mr. Trump's over-the-top putdown of Mexico and the illegal aliens it sends across the American border might have done in a man in a time when the body politic was running a cooler temperature. But over-the-top is where a lot of voters want a president to be this time. Enough with the apologizers and the girly men who are so easily intimidated by weaklings, whiners and the politically incorrect.
It's important to remember that Donald Trump the man is not the phenomenon that has consumed the early months of the campaign. It's what he's saying and how he's saying it that makes him t electric. He would never have left the counting house if even one of his rivals had delivered the message, and sounded as if he meant it.
A lot of Americans have been willing, for now, to embrace the longest of long shots, warts, bluster and all.