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How Donald Trump Evolved From a Joke to an Almost Serious Candidate

"Specifically,” Matt Lauer demanded of Donald Trump in a New Hampshire town hall broadcast live on Today on Monday morning, following up on a voter’s question about Trump's mass-deportation plan. “Specific actions. For example, just getting 11 million illegal or undocumented immigrants out of the country—transportation, housing them in the process…?” Lauer wanted to know exactly how Trump would pull off the difficult logistics. “Do you have a business plan? Do you have a plan on paper to accomplish it?”

We have exited the joke phase of Trump’s candidacy. We are now taking him at least semi-seriously.


At the first GOP debate, Fox News moderators tried to expose Trump as a woman-hating joke. It failed. At the second one, CNN moderators tried to show he was unserious. It didn't matter. At the next Republican debate on CNBC on Wednesday, Trump will likely be pressed to give real details about what policies he'd seek if he were actually elected. His candidacy is now more than comic relief.


Trump will help the Republican National Committee raise money at a New York dinner in December, Politico reports, calling it "a major step to smooth out the relationship with party brass" that comes "as some GOP establishment figures are growing increasingly worried about his rise in polls." Worry they should: Trump has spent almost 100 days as the Republican frontrunner, according to data from the lobbying firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, meaning he's had more staying power than any fad candidate, which he was long presumed to be. In 2004, Howard Dean led Democrats for 90 days. In 2012, a series of Republican candidates occupied the Not Mitt Romney slot, but at best stayed on top only half as long as Trump has. Back in August, The Washington Post's David Weigel asked Nate Silver whether he and other data journalists should rethink their proclamations that Trump was a fake candidate with little staying power. "Despite the mainstream media’s implications to the contrary, what’s happening with Trump has plenty of precedent," Silver said. "It occurred for Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich (twice), and other GOP candidates in 2011/12."

Trump has lasted longer than any of them, but it's still very early. A Washington Post Twitter account @PastFrontrunner tweets the names of candidates who were leading polls every day in 2004, 2008, and 2012. At this point in those elections, the leaders were Dean in 2004, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and Herman Cain in 2012. So perhaps Trump has already peaked, given that he's fallen into second place in Iowa, according to several recent polls. Yet a deeper look into those polls show at least some people think Trump is the real thing. A new New York Times/ CBS poll finds that 26 percent of Iowa Republican voters support Ben Carson, and 22 percent support Trump. But 55 percent of Trump's voters say their minds are made up, while 80 percent of Carson voters say their votes are not locked in.

Perhaps one of the strongest signs that Trump is now a semi-serious candidate is that he will host Saturday Night Live on November 7. Mainstream presidential candidates usually use the comedy show to seem more fun; Trump is a joke candidate whose appearance is designed to make him seem more mainstream. Given that the network severed ties with Trump, the former star of NBC's The Apprentice, at the start of his campaign, this is a signal NBC thinks he'll last. 

During the Today town hall, Trump did not, despite Lauer's repeated questions, detail a “business plan” for deporting millions of people, though he did correctly note that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had deported almost 1.5 million people. (He did not mention that policy was called “Operation Wetback.") Then, another voter asked for a specific plan for growing the economy. Trump didn’t have that either, though he did express a typically unstated truth about the policies candidates campaign on:

“Let me tell you about specifics. The politicians all want—and the media—they all want a 14-point plan... Bing bing bing bing. It doesn’t work that way. Because point two gets loused up. And now you have to go to a different point two. ... You have to have great flexibility in deal-making. ... No matter what, when I get that plan approved, it’s going to be negotiations back and forth. ... I can give you a 14-plan and it will be so beautiful and you will be so happy. But you know what? It doesn’t mean anything.”

It’s kind of true! Barack Obama did not include the individual mandate in his health care plan in the 2008 election, and attacked Hillary Clinton for having one in hers. The individual mandate is, of course, a critical component of Obamacare, one that the White House has defended all the way to the Supreme Court.

“I’ve resisted the idea that Donald Trump could and would become the Republican nominee,” GOP strategist Alex Castellanos wrote in a recent memo, as reported by Real Clear Politics. “Unhappily, I’ve changed my mind.” Jeb Bush's recent shot at Trump seems to have backfired, Mike Allen reports. Bush said Saturday, "I gotta a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me, and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that." His donors see it as whiny and defeatist. To quote Slavij Zizek, in the middle of certain activities, "all of a sudden one feels stupid. One loses contact with it. As if, 'My God, what am I doing here, doing these stupid repetitive movements?'"

Trump has caused Bush to feel disconnected from the absurd rituals of the election. His criticism of American politics, accidental or not, continues to be fascinating. He is doing many of the things Jeb's family excels at, just with less WASPy good taste. Trump has amplified the macho swagger George W. Bush pioneered to make his little brother Jeb look like a weenie. And while the Bush clan publicly mourns the decline of the family name, Trump proudly campaigns on his brand. "Do you have a plan or should voters just elect you because you’re name’s Trump?" a voter asked in the Today town hall. "Well, I think they should," Trump said.

Despite getting more serious, Trump has not gotten less weird. On Monday, he argued against Western cultural imperialism, saying we shouldn't try to stop women from wearing burqas, because they want to wear them. And then, somehow, he transitioned into an analysis of the pressure on women to look beautiful, saying if he were a woman, he'd want to wear a burqa too, because he wouldn't want to wear makeup. “I tell ya, if I was a woman, I don’t wanna... [waving his hand across his face as if covering it] Bwah! ‘I’m ready, darling, let’s go.’ It’s true!”

Somewhere inside the egomaniac who stamps his name on buildings all over the world is a man who doesn't want to be seen.