If history is any guide, he's not going anywhere.
ATLANTA—After months of insults, bombast, and impressively high polling numbers, celebrity businessman Donald Trump's graphic and sexist attack on a well-liked Fox News anchor will finally bring his presidential campaign tumbling down.
Such is the continuing conundrum that Trump creates for Republicans: an egotist with show-biz instincts and a willingness to spend millions of his own money on a campaign, and who thus far has survived unscathed despite a string of statements that might have proved the undoing of anyone else.
Usually when a candidate has a disastrous run of publicity, the candidate's fundraising dries up, which ends with the candidate dropping out of the race. In the case of Trump, though, only a small fraction of his campaign money has come from actual contributors.
What's more, his big lead—heading into Thursday's first GOP debate in Cleveland, Trump had double the support of his closest Republican rival, winning an average 24 percent support in recent polls—has Republicans pulling their punches. Finally, those Trump supporters are angry not just at Democrats but also the Republican establishment for not voicing their fears and frustrations.
In short, his candidacy has generated little but trouble for the Republican Party establishment since it began in June. Top party officials had hoped to downplay its internal divisions on issues like immigration to minimize damage heading into the general election. Instead, Trump used his June announcement speech to call illegal immigrants from Mexico "rapists"—and almost immediately began moving up in the polls.
Some GOP rivals who are similarly campaigning as "outsiders" fighting the party leadership would love to pick up Trump's backers—and anti-establishment street cred—whenever Trump leaves the race. And Republican leaders looking forward to the 2016 general election worry that those who favor Trump now may not vote at all 15 months from now or—worse still—vote instead for a third-party Trump run.
This caution was evident even Saturday, as neither former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee nor Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom fashion themselves as outsiders, would criticize Trump for his comments about Kelly.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, neither of whom is likely to pick up Trump supporters in a GOP primary, were quick to hammer Trump.
"I mean, do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53 percent of all voters? What Donald Trump said was wrong. That is not how we win elections," Bush said during his RedState appearance. "Mr. Trump ought to apologize."
And Graham said: "As a party, we are better to risk losing without Donald Trump than trying to win with him."
The statements go to the heart of Trump's latest remark and why its ending could be dramatically different than Trump's previous controversies.
Friday night, he called into a CNN program and complained of the tough questions Kelly had asked him a night earlier at the first GOP debate: "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
Trump released a statement later claiming that "wherever" referred to Kelly's nose, but by then, the damage had been done. Trump had been scheduled to give the final speech to some 800 attendees at the influential RedState Gathering, but that invitation was rescinded by conference host Erick Erickson.
While his comments about illegal-immigrant rapists were harsh and completely counter to the Latino outreach the party has been working toward since losing the 2012 election, illegal immigrants as a group are decidedly unpopular among conservative Republicans and, in any case, cannot vote. A month later, when Trump declared that Sen. John McCain of Arizona was a war hero only because he was captured and that Trump preferred people who did not get captured, he was again attacking a target deeply unpopular with the Republican base. McCain, despite having been tortured for years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, has earned the enmity of many GOP primary voters due to his support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In attacking Fox News' Megyn Kelly, though, Trump took on one of the most popular personalities at the most influential TV network among Republican primary voters. And in attacking her with a middle-school-level insult, Trump has offered up a touchstone for every woman who ever suffered similar taunts through her teenage years—which is to say, pretty much every woman. And as Bush alluded to, women are not just a large constituency; they are a majority of voters.
All of which means that whatever exceedingly slim possibility Trump had to win the presidency has likely moved even closer to zero—but it does not necessarily mean that the Republican Party's torment is about to end.
The Trump campaign is like nothing else in recent memory. Other than to "make America great again," he has articulated no vision or policy goals. Other than calling his opponents names—"dummy," "loser"—he has done little to contrast himself with other Republican candidates. Even the fact that he has chosen the Republican Party to run in, despite his campaign contributions through the years to Democrats, has little in the way of historical precedent.
"I wanted to give the man a lot of latitude because I know he taps into some anger that even I share," Erickson told the RedState audience Saturday morning before explaining Trump was disinvited.
That anger, and Trump's ability to write his own campaign checks, means he isn't going anywhere. He can continue flying on his personal 757 jet to Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other early states, can continue paying staff to organize supporters and build a get-out-the-vote operation, can even start buying intensive television ads. And, as long his polling support nationally keeps him in the top 10 of the 17 candidates, he is likely to win a spot at the next televised GOP debate next month in California.
How much is Trump willing to spend of his fortune to keep going? Will he lose interest if he starts falling in the polls? Or will he only start lashing out even more aggressively?
The answers to these questions are of enormous import to Republican Party leaders desperate to avoid a repeat of the long, ugly primary season of 2012. Unfortunately for them, the answers are known only to Trump himself—and it's entirely possible that he has given them little or no thought.