DONALD TRUMP is not going to be 
America’s next president. The vagaries of the electoral college notwithstanding, the next occupant of the Oval Office will be someone who wins a lion’s share of the 130m or so ballots cast in November next year. And though Mr Trump has spent weeks leading the field of Republicans with White House ambitions, no survey suggests that 60m Americans, or indeed anything like that number, are willing to vote for him.
The remarkable thing is not that Mr Trump is not going to be president, but that such a thing should even need saying. This spring it would have seemed self-evident. Mr Trump was then just a rich, oft-married businessman, reality-television star and controversialist. His name conjured up associations such as “arrogant” and “blowhard”—still the words that most readily spring to the minds of voters who are asked about him, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
But since he announced in June, after months of speculation, that he was going to seek the Republican nomination, his fortunes have changed (see chart). He has not only gained a lot of support—between a quarter and a third of Republican voters back him in recent polls—but he has also gained it from across the party. It is not just Tea Party folk and whites without a college education who like him; so do a lot of evangelical Christians, who might be expected to look askance, and many self-described moderates. And even those who do not support him see him more favourably than they did. In Iowa, which has an early voice in the process by which a candidate is selected, the number of Republicans who would “never” back Mr Trump fell from 58% in May to 29% in August.
Billionaire with a pitchfork
Outspoken populists often disrupt the early stages of the Republican Party’s search for a candidate. In 1996 “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan nearly won the Iowa caucuses and beat the eventual candidate, Bob Dole, in the New Hampshire primary. In 2012 a series of “anyone-but-Romney” candidates passed through the limelight. But such enthusiasms normally collapse as the party establishment imposes order and the insurgents reveal their flaws. Mr Trump has flaws aplenty, including a thin skin, short temper and a policy platform of bumper-sticker depth and subtlety.
This time, though, things look different. Mr Trump is not fighting a single establishment champion, like Mr Dole or Mitt Romney, but a slate of politicians vying for that position. Because of loosened campaign-finance rules it will be much easier for deep-pocketed backers to keep chosen candidates afloat during this election season than it has been in the past, and this means that the field, which includes big-state governors, serving senators and the establishment’s supposed favourite, Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida and the brother and son of presidents, may be winnowed out only slowly. In the meantime the focus remains on the self-funded Mr Trump. And nothing he says, no matter how outrageous, seems to alienate the voters who see him as a champion.
Party grandees still hope that Mr Trump’s campaign will eventually stall or flame out. But they are beginning to accept that they cannot stop him on their own. He remains a long-shot for the nomination, but it is striking that prominent conservatives in Washington no longer dismiss the idea of a Trump candidacy out of hand. And even if it does not come to that, the Trump insurgency has already reopened wounds that party leaders do not know how to heal. Grassroots Republicans and the politicians they elect may be united in their loathing for Barack Obama and the Democrats. But many rank-and-file Republicans do not share the pro-trade, free-market ideology that dominates the party’s upper echelons and the ranks of those who routinely fund its operations. The grassroots also suspect that party leaders could have done much more to thwart Mr Obama, if they were not so cowardly or inept. Mr Trump did not invent those divisions, but he is exploiting them masterfully. And when he goes—if he goes—they will be wider than ever.
When the race for the Republican presidential nomination first got under way, conventional wisdom held that it would be a purity contest, with challengers facing grassroots wrath if they strayed from conservative orthodoxy. Until Mr Trump leapt into the fray those predictions were proving correct. The rest of the contenders sound like the chorus from a classical tragedy, offering the same account of the country’s woes. The members of the chorus all lament that the American dream of upward mobility is fading; all blame Mr Obama, big-government Democrats and bossy Washington bureaucrats for smothering economic growth. The electorate’s concern about immigration prompts loud rhetoric about the need to secure the border, but waffling about how best to fix a system so broken that 11m or so foreigners live in the shadows without legal status. The candidates waffle because they know that the rank-and-file conservatives who vote in their primaries are a long way to the right of the general population.
Mr Trump ignores the differing demands of the primary- and general-election contests. When it comes to the border he outswaggers and outsnarls the chorus, not just calling for a wall but promising he will force Mexico to pay for it by “impounding” all remittances derived from “illegal wages” and, if needs be, cancelling visas for Mexican CEOs and diplomats. Unlike the chorus, though, he is equally forthright about what comes next. He would deport all 11m foreigners living in America without legal papers (though he would try to let the “really good” ones back in quickly), and would end automatic citizenship for children born on American soil to immigrants without legal papers. This plays well with activists incensed that Mr Obama has used his presidential powers to shield millions of migrants from deportation in what they see as a tyrannical assault on the rule of law. It will do nothing to improve the dismal 27% of the Hispanic vote won by the Republican candidate in 2012.
Often addressed to large crowds (his record to date, set in deeply conservative Alabama, has been put at 30,000), Mr Trump’s swaggering, ad-libbed speeches describe an America beset by simple problems. If working Americans can no longer find jobs for life in a factory, it is not because emerging markets or robots offer unprecedented competition. It is because the country is being betrayed by chump-like politicians who let ruthless foreign governments roll over them. Mexico is accused of sending its worst criminals to America. China only undercuts America because it cheats. Who should sort such things out? Who but the author of “The Art of the Deal”, the business book that he calls his second-favourite of all time. (“Do you know what my first is?” he asked fans in Michigan. “The Bible! Nothing beats the Bible!”)
Mr Trump is not just throwing red meat to the right. He takes a karaoke-club approach to politics, belting out crowd-pleasing hits from across the political field. His attacks on corporate bosses seeking cheap foreign labour at the expense of unemployed Americans would not sound out of place in a rustbelt trade-union hall. He charges hedge-fund bosses with paying too little tax thanks to loopholes that he would scrap, increasing their tax bills to fund tax cuts for middle-earners. “I know hedge-fund guys, they are friends of mine, they pay no tax,” he says. These positions probably explain why a poll by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register, a newspaper, found more Republicans in Iowa classing him as a moderate than as a conservative.
On health care Mr Trump promises to repeal Obamacare, just as the chorus does. But in a televised debate which, on August 6th, delivered Fox News the largest audience in its history, he went on to praise Canada and Scotland for their state-funded health systems—another conservative heresy. Not that he is advocating anything along those lines, or indeed anything specific at all; he just says that he will replace Obamacare with “something terrific”.
Mr Trump shows no sign of caring whether he qualifies as a conservative. He is very clear, though, that he does not want to be thought of as a politician. He says that big businesses and their lobbyists bend both parties to their will through corrupting donations. Those hedge-fund friends who pay no tax, he says, “are all supporting Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton”. Why should he care, though? He does not need their money. In a deft touch, Mr Trump forgoes promises to reform Washington or clean up the corridors of power. Instead he tells the cynical, angry voters that because he is “really rich” he cannot be bought. In interviews with Trump supporters, this insider-outsider status is one of his strongest selling-points. It makes him a man who can both look the hated elites in the eye and kick them in the crotch.
Experience not required
Mr Trump is less interested in the size of government—which the chorus always deplores—than in who runs it: “stupid” politicians who “talk the big game” until they reach Washington. There, in his oddly sexualised telling, politicians are rendered “impotent” by their excitement of wandering the gilded, high-ceilinged halls of power. In a telephone interview with The Economist (see article) he mimics an awestruck elected official calling his wife from the capital and simpering: “Darling, I’ve arrived.”
It is a scorn his supporters share. Two-thirds of Republicans in Iowa told a recent Monmouth University poll that the country needs an outsider president, rather than someone with government experience. Add Mr Trump’s support to that of the two other contestants in the Republican field who have not held office, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and Carly Fiorina, a former boss of Hewlett-Packard, a technology firm (see Lexington), and they account for more than 50% of the voters likely to make a choice in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As befits an anti-politician, Mr Trump has poured particular scorn on Mr Bush. On August 31st his campaign released a video showing mugshots of Hispanic migrants accused of murder over a recording of Mr Bush saying that some migrants entered America illegally in an “act of love” for their families. “Forget love. It’s time to get tough,” the ad concluded.
Mr Bush has begun to mount a counter-attack, pounding Mr Trump as a closet liberal whose plans would increase the power of Washington. The tactic rests on a belief that the dominant force in modern American politics is intense partisanship, and that undermining Mr Trump’s credentials as a Republican is thus a lethal blow.
In the past generation, the number of Americans who call themselves consistently conservative or consistently liberal has doubled. Ideology and identity have coalesced, so that partisans do not just think alike about taxes or Iran, but live in the same neighbourhoods and have like-minded friends. Partisanship may yet curb Mr Trump’s rise.
An awareness of this may be why Mr Trump’s tactics are becoming more conventional, and more conventionally right-wing. His campaign has started touching on themes from the late 1960s, another era of bitter politics and widespread disenchantment in Middle America. The businessman points to rising murder rates in some large cities as proof that a recent focus on police killings and abusive arrests has left officers “afraid to talk to anybody”. Most police are “phenomenal people” and law and order is suffering, says Mr Trump, calling some cities “powder kegs ready to explode”. He has begun using the phrase “silent majority” to describe his supporters, four decades after Richard Nixon started using it to rally conservatives.
Mr Buchanan, who as one of Nixon’s speechwriters coined that phrase, hails Mr Trump for tapping into a mood of renewed nationalism. “The country is on fire,” he says. His main advice to Mr Trump is to rule out an independent or third-party candidacy if he fails to secure the Republican nomination—something which Mr Trump refused to do when pressed during the Fox News debate. Mr Buchanan warns that a third-party run instantly loses the support of those whose chief concern is stopping the Democrats. “If I were counselling Trump I’d tell him to stay inside the Republican Party,” he says. “It’s the only avenue that he has to the presidency of the United States.” As The Economist went to press it seemed possible that Mr Trump was about to make a statement on his intentions.
But appeals to partisan purity may be surprisingly ineffective in peeling away those who admire Mr Trump. His fan-base is characterised not by the fidelity of its conservatism, but by the ferocity of its rage. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, says he was shaken by a focus group he held on August 24th for two dozen self-declared Trump supporters. They included folk on the hard right but also ex-Obama voters. Unemployed Americans rubbed shoulders with the affluent. But the group had three things in common, says Mr Luntz. They are “mad as hell” about the state of America. Mr Trump speaks their language. And they do not care what anyone else says about him.
The mad prophet of the airwaves
On August 28th Mr Trump visited the Boston suburb of Norwood for a rally at the home of Ernie Boch, a wealthy car dealer. It was not an obvious stop for a Republican in primary season; Massachusetts last voted for a Republican presidential candidate when Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Several in the throng said that they rarely vote Republican. But they roared at Mr Trump’s jokes, cheered as he condemned Mr Obama’s recent deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and applauded his grumbling about America’s “third world” airports and crumbling roads. Sharon Gannon, an estate agent and Democratic voter, enthused that “He says all the things we’re all thinking.” Doug Obey, a financial adviser, relished the fact that other Republicans and the media “don’t know how to handle him”.
If Republican leaders do not know how to stop Mr Trump it is partly their own fault. Theirs is a smaller-government, pro-business party that wins elections by posing as an anti-government insurgency. Now they are facing the consequences: millions of voters dazzled by a showman who presents the next election as a hostile takeover, offering to turn America around with his dealmaking brilliance as if Congress, the Supreme Court and limits to presidential power are mere details to be negotiated. The Trump fantasy will fade at some point. It has already revealed a democracy in real trouble.