Although few analysts believe the celebrity property magnate will stay the course, he insists his campaign is not a publicity stunt.
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For the time being, Grand Old Party voters seem prepared to take him at face value. In the latest CNN poll of registered Republicans, Trump tied for the lead, on 19%, with Fox News presenter Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas. Sarah Palin was third on 12%, followed by ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney on 11%. Of these, only Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, has declared his candidacy, highlighting the party’s desperate need for a charismatic, unifying figure to take on Barack Obama next year.
Trump says he can emulate Ronald Reagan, whose rise to power confounded sceptics who thought a Hollywood actor could never be president, let alone one of the most influential, revered presidents of modern times. The Donald, as he is known, says he will run as an independent candidate if the party looks elsewhere. “I hate what’s happening to this country,” he said. “I don’t need to do this for ratings on The Apprentice. This is too important, our country is in trouble, our country is not being properly led. It needs help.”
The additional exposure has done his ratings no harm, though. Four days after he quarrelled with Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on their daytime talk show, The View, his own programme, Celebrity Apprentice, drew an audience of 8.6 million people, up from 8 million for the same episode last season.
Goldberg was outraged when Trump suggested Obama may have been born outside the United States, reviving a favourite Tea Party talking point. Only a US citizen born in America can become president under the constitution. “I was a really good student at the best school. I’m, like, a smart guy,” Trump said. “They make these ‘birthers’ out to be the worst idiots. Why doesn’t he show his certificate? There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.”
This has long been dismissed by the mainstream media as a conspiracy theory. In 1961, the Honolulu Advertiser printed a birth announcement on behalf Mr and Mrs Barack H Obama. In 2007, Obama requested a copy of his certification of live birth from the state of Hawaii and posted it online. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly dispatched a team of investigators to Hawaii but only uncovered more evidence that Obama was born there.
None of this deters Trump. Polls consistently show that around one in four Republican voters, including many of the most motivated activists, think Obama was born in Kenya. “Our current president came out of nowhere,” Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference. “The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”
Trump has revealed little in terms of policy, although he did say US troops should stay in Iraq to “take the oil” and that if elected, he would “tell China that you’re either going to shape up, or I’m going to tax you at 25% for all the products you send into this country”.
His run has attracted widespread ridicule. The New York Daily News printed a front-page photograph of Trump in clown make-up. Comedian Bill Cosby told him “you run, or you shut up” on NBC’s Today show, and Vanity Fair and the New York Times printed his letters to the editor in full, so his ramblings could speak for themselves. One comment had it that “there’s at least a good chance that Barack Hussein Obama has made mincemeat out of our great and cherished Constitution”.
The flak bounces off Trump’s ego without a scratch. He is a formidable competitor, not prone to self-doubt. The walls of his office in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York are covered with his image, on framed magazine covers. When his catchphrase – “you’re fired” – came third in an online poll of the greatest lines ever, he complained it should have been placed higher.
Trump has flirted with a presidential run twice before. In 1987, he took out newspaper advertisements (“there’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defence Policy that a little backbone can’t cure”) and spoke at the Rotary Club in New Hampshire – the first state to hold a primary. Afterwards, he told reporters: “I think if I ran, I’d win.” His book, Trump: The Art Of The Deal, was published soon afterwards, becoming an immediate bestseller, at which point his presidential aspirations evaporated.
TRUMP suggested in 1999 that he would run as the Reform Party candidate. He went on a tour to meet voters, and attacked Al Gore and George W Bush, only to pull out abruptly. Party chairman Pat Choate complained that he “came in, promoted his hotels, he promoted his book, he promoted himself at our expense”.
There is reason to believe the pattern will be repeated. Trump would have to file financial disclosure forms, laying out the extent of his wealth, something he is notoriously reluctant to do. Forbes magazine puts his net worth at $2.7 billion. Trump himself routinely suggests the true figure is double that. When he sued his unofficial biographer, Tim O’Brien, for alleging that his true worth was around $250 million, obscured by projects bearing his name he does not actually own, the lawsuit was dismissed.
Trump has supported a woman’s right to have an abortion and spoken out in favour of gay unions. He has since reversed these positions, but both of them would hamper him in Republican presidential debates. He has been married three times, a turn-off for social conservatives. His fear of germs means he dislikes shaking hands. As Steve Kornacki of the US cultural website Salon has observed, Trump is “spectacularly ill-suited for an actual campaign, one in which all of his dirty laundry, all of his past ideological apostasies and all of his moral shortcomings are exposed and amplified, relentlessly”.
His friend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, told ABC News he doubts Trump will follow through. “I wouldn’t call it a stunt,” Christie said, but he added: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
That GOP voters are prepared to consider Trump exposes both a scarcity of attractive candidates and an ideological rift within the party. On one hand, there are establishment choices like Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Most analysts agree that, with his huge fortune, Romney is the man to beat, but he has never convinced social conservatives, and the healthcare law he passed in Massachusetts is remarkably similar to “Obamacare” – a massive liability with the party base. Pawlenty and Daniels are generally considered policy wonks lacking the necessary charisma to win nationwide support.
On the other hand, there are Tea Party favourites Sarah Palin and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, both of whom have limited appeal to moderates. Palin, in any case, has given no indication she is serious about trading her lucrative media career for a long slog on the campaign trail. Newt Gingrich, like Trump, has been married three times, and is a famously polarising figure. Huckabee, the bass-playing former clergyman, although popular, has never attracted much establishment backing, and may also be reluctant to give up a well-paid gig on Fox News.
“If it’s going to be a search for a problem-solving pragmatist communicating kind of guy, that’s one thing,” Huckabee told New York magazine. “But if it’s going to be a purity contest of who’s the most gun-loving, the most anti-immigrant, the most pro-life, it gets ridiculous.”
There is still time for an outsider candidate to emerge. Some Republicans hope General David Petraeus can be persuaded, while others pine for charismatic young Florida Senator Marco Rubio. For the time being, Trump leads the field.