TIME Donald Trump

The Limits of Trump’s Bloodsport

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a picture after speaking on February 17, 2016 in Sumter, South Carolina.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a picture after speaking on February 17, 2016 in Sumter, South Carolina.

At MSNBC forum, he leans heavily on his hits

Muscle memory is one of the toughest things to overcome. It, of course, helps elite athletes perform at super-human levels and musicians to shock with virtuosity. Conversely, the ingrained bad habits are often impossible to unlearn and seem almost instinctive after months of repetition.

It’s not clear, at this moment, if it’s the good or the bad side of that coin that audiences are watching when they tune in for Donald Trump’s White House run.

Take, for instance, the questions he got Wednesday night during an MSNBC-organized town hall-style meeting. It broke very little new ground—not because of the questions, but because Trump’s replies are so impressively prepared.

An African-American woman, a self-identified Democrat, praised Trump’s business savvy and wanted to hear his message to others like her. Trump’s instinct was to attack Barack Obama, the nation’s first black President.

Or consider the woman who asked Trump about why the United States foots the bill to protect other nations. Trump’s response? “You know, I order thousands of television sets a year for different projects and they’re all made, all made in South Korea. Other than Sony, which is Japan.” He then promised to bill South Korea, Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia.

Or when asked about the price tag for his economic proposals, which critics say would pile red ink on the nation. “They’re wrong,” Trump said flatly. End of discussion. Trump is right and everyone else is wrong.

The billionaire New Yorker remains atop his competitors in most polls. He rose to the top of the heap based on his bluster and bravado that, early on, voters found endearing. Here was an ultra-rich candidate who was beholden to no donors, eager to challenge the GOP Establishment and brawl with all comers. Trump honed his shtick, and it helped him claim second place in lead-off Iowa and first place in New Hampshire.

Now, he’s heading toward Saturday’s South Carolina primary with a comfortable lead, although rival campaigns are seeing their own polling show others climbing closer to Trump. (One public poll, from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, found Trump and Cruz essentially tied in a national survey, which undercuts Trump’s boasting on polls.)

Trump’s routine has been months in the making, and he has been a diligent apprentice. Asked about government spending, he lays into a fundraiser for rival Jeb Bush. Asked why he’s running for the job, he repeats the campaign slogan he has embroidered on hats for sale on his website: “I want to make America great again,” he said. Asked about Cruz, Trump said he doesn’t have the temperament to be President, plus he’s a nasty guy.

Trump shows little concern for such broadsides. This is what he has been practicing for months, preparing for when voters finally start weighing in on the GOP nomination.

“Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress, had to point out Trump’s aggressions. “You say you’re going to bring people together, but you just attacked Ted Cruz in that question,” Scarborough stammered.

So what? It has become a second nature for Trump, a first-rate performer among candidates who cannot match him. He has his set pieces, which score him big applause lines in cold airplane hangars in Iowa, packed gyms in New Hampshire and, for an hour on Wednesday, a tree farm in South Carolina. The showman fills stadiums when his luxurious 747 ferries him to non-traditional places for rallies, and, for the moment, he seems like the man to beat in this campaign.

Yet there’s also a sense that hours of rehearsal of this skill might have limits, and he might have mastered the wrong skills. It’s like the piano student who arrives at a lesson, proud of all the hours he spent on a particularly tricky passage, only to be told that he trained his fingers to hit wrong keys.

Voters might start hearing those errant chords. Asked by “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski whom he consults for foreign policy advice, Trump told her no answer would be coming Wednesday night. “I would say that I’d rather not because I’m going to be announcing a team in about a week that is really a good team,” Trump said, and that was that. “I know the people but we’re announcing a team in about a week. And I’m going to keep it a little bit secret.”

Or when pushed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he tried to avoid any specifics. “You know, I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to get into it for a different reason.” Or when a voter asked him if he considered some of his appearances to be vulgar, and Trump’s instinct was to blame the network censors for the bleeps interrupting perfectly good TV.

All of this, of course, makes for a tremendous performance to watch, just like an athlete or a musician at the top of his or her game. Trump knows this, and has his moves mastered. It has left even the most friendly of observers to marvel at such a show.

“As a politician I always had a rule: You couldn’t be at war with more than one person at a time. Your rule seems to be: You have to be at war with at least a dozen people at a time,” Scarborough said. Trump’s reply? Obama has no friends.

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