Donald Trump has been teasing about running for President for so long that the joke had begun to grow stale, like the uncle who keeps asking you to pull his finger. But the real estate mogul and proto-Kardashian stopped teasing this year and actually entered the race. Now he is discovering that it’s no laughing matter.
Trump’s marathon speech on the streets of Manhattan announcing his candidacy in June contained large dollops of self-flattery (“I will be the greatest jobs President that God ever created”) and his trademark bluster. (Trump not only promised to build “a great, great wall” along the Mexican border, but he also pledged to make Mexico pay the bill.)
Where the riffing demagogue got into trouble was with his characterization of undocumented immigrants. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them],” Trump declared. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!”
For a GOP in need of Latino votes, Trump’s campaign is immensely dispiriting. Marco Rubio called his comments “outrageous.” Jeb Bush went with “extraordinarily ugly.” But in the crowded field of Republican hopefuls, where candidates are scrapping for each incremental percentage point in hopes of climbing into double digits, some were willing to cozy up to the fire. “I salute Donald Trump,” said Senator Ted Cruz.
Trump, whose grandfather was an immigrant–and, we assume, a good person–professed outrage when this sweeping stroke of the tar brush caused a long list of his business partners to drop him like a bad date. NBC Universal booted Trump from The Celebrity Apprentice, Univision axed broadcasts of Trump’s beauty pageants, Macy’s dumped his clothing and fragrance brand, Serta dropped the Trump line of mattresses, NASCAR scratched future visits to Trump properties, and the PGA relocated a golf tournament slated for a Trump course in California. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York promised to find and whack any city arrangements with Trump that could possibly be severed.
Speaking politically, a Republican candidate with three marriages and a cantilevered comb-over probably can’t afford to lose the golf demographic. Nor can any Republican expect to win a nationwide race without the NASCAR vote. But politics has never been Trump’s Job One. He’s in the brand-building business. According to his own back-of-the-envelope calculations of his net worth, Trump’s name alone is worth more than $3 billion. Watching the revenue streams drain away in a flood of lost millions as his golden T turned toxic, Trump may be wondering if there is such a thing as bad publicity after all.
Why does this episode cost him, when so many Trump fiascoes have died like bugs on the windshield of his racing ego? It wasn’t simply his hypocrisy on immigration and trade. That was already known to Trump watchers. This supposed champion of American jobs behind protectionist walls was outed years ago for putting his name on clothing sewn in China, Bangladesh and even Mexico. Perhaps it was Trump’s sheer mean-spiritedness–the fortunate heir to an eight- or nine-figure fortune casually slandering a population that includes busboys at his gilded hotels and workers on his tax-favored construction sites.
Trump pondered the reaction to his initial statement and decided that he was right all along. Adding another splash of gasoline, he opined that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.”
Naturally, Democrats are delighted. Trump is the Republican of their dreams: a grumpy, aging, hateful billionaire. “Feel the Bern” is the slogan of the day at massive rallies for Democratic insurgent Senator Bernie Sanders. But for liberals interested in holding the White House for four more years, there is a more promising alternative: “Run, Donald, run.”
This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.