There is a reason most presidential candidates stump through diners and living rooms this time of year. They can’t fill a bigger room.
And then there is Donald J. Trump.
On the second day of January, in the Gulf Coast town of Biloxi, Miss., at least 13,000 stood for hours in a stinging chill to pack an entire sports arena for Trump, and when that venue was full, the overflow spilled into a second megaspace nearby. Trump called it the biggest crowd in Mississippi political history, which is exactly what you’d expect him to say, and also entirely plausible.
A few days earlier, Trump had packed a convention hall in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Two days later, he filled the 8,000-seat Paul Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass., with people who waited on line in subfreezing cold. The next night, after standing for two hours in single-digit temperatures, locals filled the equivalent of two high school gymnasia on the Vermont–New Hampshire border to catch Trump’s revival show.
Given these crowds, the unprecedented Trump-driven television ratings for GOP debates and his unsinkable run at the top of the national polls–a streak of more than five months and counting–even the most mainstream Republicans are coming to grips with an idea they have resisted since last summer. This could be their nominee. And they are asking themselves, could they stop worrying and, perhaps, learn to love the Donald?
Leading Republicans unhappily find themselves deep in “probing” conversation, asking, “perhaps he wouldn’t be so bad,” says veteran strategist and lobbyist Ed Rogers. True, Trump is a wild card, a flamethrower, a man with no known party loyalties and no coherent political principles, a thrice-married casino mogul and reality-TV star, a narcissist and even a demagogue. On the other hand: Biloxi.
At a time when the crown princes of Republican politics can’t mount so much as a two-car parade, Trump is drawing the biggest crowds by far. He has the largest social-media footprint–again, by far–and lodges the sharpest attacks on Hillary Clinton while attracting the greatest number of potential recruits to Republican ranks. As a result, Washington insiders from both parties are now calling around to GOP heavies, asking, “Do you know anybody on Trump’s campaign? Who is on his foreign-policy team? I need to get to know them fast.” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who entertained a discussion of Stop Trump strategies at a meeting late last year, now consults regularly with the front runner by phone. Even if the GOP could resist, should it? “He’s got the mo, he’s got the masses,” says Rick Hohlt, a GOP strategist. “He’s attracting a new class of voters.” Efforts to stop him have failed miserably; meanwhile, Trump may be getting smarter as a candidate, adds Hohlt. “He knows when to push and when to back off.”
The man is moving people, and politics does not get more basic than that. Trump is a bonfire in a field of damp kindling—an overcrowded field of governors and former governors and junior Senators still trying to strike a spark. His nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has traction in Iowa among the evangelical bloc and—in contrast to Trump—is a tried-and-true conservative. But with little more than half the support Trump boasts in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Cruz has a long way to go to show that he can move masses.
Cruz staffers, tellingly, have been studying a 1967 tome titled Suite 3505 as a playbook for their campaign. This F. Clifton White memoir, long out of print, tells the story of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. That was the last successful populist rebellion inside the Republican Party, propelling a rock-ribbed conservative past the Establishment insiders–just as Cruz hopes to do. But this triumph of intramural knife fighting proved a disaster at general-election time. Goldwater suffered one of the worst defeats in American political history. It’s no wonder that GOP leaders are every bit as wary of Cruz as they are of Trump.
In short, the GOP has awakened less than a month from the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to find itself in bed between a bombshell and a kamikaze. It’s a sobering dawn for a political party that seemed, not long ago, just a tweak or two away from glory. Republicans dominate America’s state legislatures and governors’ mansions. They control both houses of Congress. So why is their electorate leaning toward the outstretched grip of such a man as Trump?
And could Trump be a sign of something bigger even than himself?
Read More: Donald Trump Shifts Focus to Hillary Clinton
Traditional GOP power brokers have long since lost count of the indignities Trump has inflicted on their rites and rituals. Since entering the race in June with a fantastical promise to wall off America’s southern border and send the bill to Mexico, Trump has shredded the political rule book, scattering the pieces from his private helicopter. Have mouth, will travel. Policies that would be preposterous coming from anyone else–like barring all Muslims from entering the country or hiking U.S. tariffs while somehow erasing trade barriers erected by other nations–sound magical to his supporters when served up by their hero. Outrages that would sink an ordinary candidate, like mocking a person who has a congenital disease or giving a pass to Vladimir Putin for the murder of Russian journalists, lifted Trump atop the polls and then helped keep him there. What Flubber was to physics, Trump is to politics: an antidote to gravity, cooked up by a quirky but prodigious amateur.
Other candidates work to relate their lives to the struggles of ordinary voters. Trump does the opposite, encouraging Americans to savor vicariously his billionaire’s privilege of saying whatever he damn well pleases. “I love Donald Trump because he’s so totally politically incorrect. He’s gone after every group,” says Greg Casady, 61, an Army veteran who joined an immense Trump rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “He’s spending his own bucks–therefore he doesn’t have to play the politically correct game. He says what we wish we could say but we can’t afford to anymore.”
Trump is an anomaly, but not the only one in this 2016 campaign. There is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed socialist who leads the early polls in the New Hampshire Democratic primary–despite the fact that he spent most of his career spurning the Democrats. Though not as shocking or aggressive as Trump, Sanders is no less the darling of a discontented army. He too draws large audiences–but unlike Trump, Sanders faces an even stronger opponent in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Big Money, the supposed superpower of post–Citizens United politics, is a dud so far. Super-PAC bets by various billionaires have done nothing to fire up such candidates as former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush has filled screens in key states with millions of dollars in both positive and negative ads. The result: falling poll numbers. Touted as a front runner a year ago, Bush is mired in single digits and rang in the new year by announcing that he was scrapping a round of ads in favor of more ground troops in early-voting states.
Big Media too has been brought low. The collapse of Trump was predicted so often, so erroneously, in so many outlets that the spectacle was almost comic, like a soap opera that keeps killing off the same deathless character. Televised debates became seminars in media ethics, with candidates delivering stern lectures to their questioners, while offscreen, campaigns threatened to boycott networks and blacklist reporters.
What if all of these groundswells are part of the same tsunami? By coming to grips with Trump, Republicans might begin grasping the future of presidential politics, as the digital forces that have upended commerce and communications in recent years begin to shake the bedrock of civic life.
Disintermediation is a long word for a seemingly simple idea: dumping the middleman. It came into use a half-century ago to describe changes in the banking business. A generation later, the term described a key concept of the Internet age. In one field after another, the power of networked computing swept middlemen out of the picture. Ubiquitous retailers like RadioShack and Waldenbooks have either downsized or vanished as their customers go online to buy directly from manufacturers and warehousers. Netflix shutters the Blockbuster chain by mailing movies directly to viewers–then offers streaming, which cuts out the mailbox as well. Craigslist drains the advertising lifeblood from local newspapers, and local libraries reinvent themselves after the web puts the world in your pocket. It’s a familiar story, one of the megatrends of our era.
Donald Trump is history’s most disintermediated presidential front runner. He has sidestepped the traditional middlemen–party, press, pollsters and pooh-bahs–to sell his candidacy directly to voters, building on a relationship he has nurtured with the public from project to project across decades.
As far back as 1986, Trump began seeding this direct relationship with the public. That was the year he goaded New York City Mayor Ed Koch into handing over the disastrous renovation of the Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park. The decline of New York was an old story by then, and the ice rink was a sorrow symbol. City bureaucrats had turned a routine rehab into a six-year slog with no end in sight. Trump took the reins, and the project took less than six months. He cut the ribbon on a beautifully finished rink, completed ahead of schedule and below budget, with live TV there to cover it.
He followed up with more self-styled rescue missions: the East Coast shuttle operations of dying Eastern Airlines, for example, and the ruined paradise of Atlantic City. Launched with fanfare (if often abandoned in silence), these efforts burnished Trump’s image as a can-do, cut-the-crap businessman–even as he risked his fortune. This is part of the power of owning your image, free of the mediators. You can tell your own story, even if it is not entirely true. Trump’s a fine businessman, with a keen eye for bargains and a knack for leverage. Where he is peerless is as a promoter; he is the Michelangelo of ballyhoo.
A masterstroke in 2004 vaulted him free of remaining middlemen; that’s when Trump debuted his television show, The Apprentice. Tens of millions of Americans followed the cameras past the gatekeepers and into a direct relationship with the purse-lipped entrepreneur. That this intimacy is an illusion doesn’t really matter; it has an undeniable power to create loyal followings for even the unlikeliest characters. From the Kardashians of Rodeo Drive to the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty, from the Cake Boss to Honey Boo Boo, the crafted characters of reality TV experience a different kind of stardom from the TV and movie idols of the past. Fans are encouraged to feel that they know these people, not as fictional characters but as flesh and blood.
Something similar goes on in every celebrity Twitter feed or Instagram account. Properly tended, the social network of skilled disintermediators can grow to encompass tens of millions of people, all sharing a joke or commiserating over a disappointment or comparing breakfasts with their famous “friend.” The pop star Taylor Swift’s nearly 70 million Twitter followers recently overheard her share a Christmas memory with her brother Austin and chuckled at a picture of her cute elf costume.
Peggy Lemke, 64, from Dows, Iowa, is one of many voters who see what is going on. “Trump is a reality-show phenomenon,” she says. “His supporters treat this like American Idol. We treat everything like American Idol. I’m having a really hard time taking this seriously.”
Disintermediation is not entirely new. In 1941, the radio personality W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel dealt Lyndon B. Johnson the only defeat of his consummate insider’s career. Johnson had the credibility with middlemen, but O’Daniel had a direct connection to his listeners. Nearly 60 years later, the professional wrestler Jesse Ventura used his direct connection with an audience to win a three-way race for governor of Minnesota. But technology now gives the power of direct relationships to everyone, not just media stars; indeed, the line between being a media star and simply having a big Twitter following is blurring into nothingness. It’s telling that Trump’s rallies often feature appearances by a pair of women who go by the names Diamond and Silk, whose spirited endorsement of Trump on YouTube has been watched by nearly 100,000 people–as many as tune in to some cable news shows.
Trump tends his virtual community with care. Among the candidates, his 5.6 million Twitter followers are matched only by his counterpart at the top of the Democratic polls, Hillary Clinton. Trump has 5.2 million Facebook likes—three times as many as Cruz and 17 times as many as Bush. His 828,000 Instagram followers is nearly a third more than Clinton’s 632,000. For many, if not all, of these individuals, their networked relationships with Trump feel closer and more genuine than the images of the candidate they see filtered through middlemen.
This can explain why Trump is unscathed by apparent gaffes and blunders that would kill an ordinary candidate. His followers feel that they already know him. When outraged middlemen wail in disgust on cable news programs and in op-ed columns, they only highlight their irrelevance to the Trumpiverse.
Indeed, the psychology of disintermediation adds another layer of protection to a figure like Trump. For members of an online network, the death of the middlemen is not some sad side effect of this tidal shift; it is a crusade. Early adopters of Netflix relished the fate of brick-and-mortar video stores, just as Trump voters rejoice in the idea of life without the “lamestream” media. Trump gets this: mocking abuse of his traveling press corps is a staple of his campaign speeches.
The fading power of middlemen is also visible in less garish manifestations than the Trump campaign. For example, voters used to judge candidates in part on their record of government service. Experience was a middleman, a sort of ticket puncher, that stood between the would-be President and the public. Not anymore. A stable of successful GOP governors–Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin–have dropped out, unable to understand the new calculus. As for the three current Senators on the trail–Cruz, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Kentucky’s Rand Paul–experience is the least of their selling points. All are first-term rookies known for defying party leaders, not for passing legislation. Rubio won office by challenging his party’s official choice for the seat. Cruz glories in his reputation as the least popular Senator in the cloakroom: he doesn’t need Washington’s validation. In fact, it’s the last thing he wants.
The three Senators–and their colleague Sanders in the other party–have used the Senate as a foil. What they accomplished as Senators, which is next to nothing, pales in their telling compared with what they refused to do. They did not sell out. They did not compromise. They did not break faith with their followers–a virtue that has replaced the ideal of service to a constituency. With disintermediation, the power to set the campaign agenda shifts from the middlemen to the online networks, and those networks, this year, are very angry. Here, again, Trump is far outrunning his rivals in seizing the momentum. Americans are unhappy about an economy that punishes workers, according to opinion polls and conversations with voters. They are tired of politicians who don’t deliver on their promises. Trump’s strongest backers are angry about illegal immigration. Cruz channels anger over Obamacare. Sanders mines anger from the opposite end of the spectrum, targeting “Wall Street” and “billionaires” to the seething satisfaction of the Democratic base.
These voters don’t want someone to feel their pain; they want someone to mirror their mood. Woe to the candidate who can’t growl on cue. Perhaps nothing has hurt the Bush campaign–whose money and endorsements, lavished by middlemen, have fizzled on the launchpad–more than Trump’s observation that the former Florida governor is “low energy.” Translation: he’s not ticked off. Voter anger in this sour season is less a data point than table stakes.
At a late-December rally in Council Bluffs, Trump treated his audience to one of his trademark free-form speeches, which are like nothing in the modern campaign repertoire. He sampled alter egos from talk-radio host to insult comic to the fictional Gordon Gekko. (“I’m greedy,” Trump bragged. “Now I’m going to be greedy for the United States.”) When he wrapped up, Teresa Raus of nearby Neola, Iowa, waited another 30 minutes for Trump’s autograph. Why? “I feel real confident that he can make America better. I believe him,” she explained. And yes, she’s angry. Other politicians “are liars,” Raus continued. “They’re all liars. I’m sick of politicians. If he’s not running, then I’m not voting.”
But if Trump voters are angry, that doesn’t mean they’re crazy. You meet more state representatives and business owners at his rallies than tinfoil-hat conspiracy buffs. In ways, they are a vanguard, catching sight of a new style of politics and deciding early to throw out the old rules. Their radical democracy helps account for Trump’s uncanny resilience: the less he honors the conventions of politics, the more his supporters like him. They aren’t buying what the political process is selling. They want to buy direct from the source. “It’s like this,” says Casady, the Army vet. “We’re going to go with this guy sink or swim, and we’re not going to change our views. It doesn’t matter. It’s time for us to do a totally insane thing, because we’ve lost it all. The times demand it, because nothing else is working.”
Some powerful forces inside the GOP will continue to fight Trump to the bitter end. As strong and durable as his support appears to be, the number of Americans who tell pollsters they would not vote for Trump is bigger. Trump’s intemperate remarks have alienated millions of Latino, Muslim and women voters. His rash pronouncements are the antithesis of the moderate approach that many citizens still value. His proposed religious test for foreigners who want to come to this country is as inconsistent with America’s self-image as linoleum floors in a Trump hotel.
The problem is that the party is weak at the national level, deeply divided into hostile camps, while Trump has the strength of a technological epoch at his back. Finding a way to live with Trump might not be a choice for the GOP; those might be the terms of surrender that he dictates at the national convention in Cleveland in July. And in private, even top party officials occasionally admit it.
Unless Cruz can continue to rise through the primaries—aided by members of the congressional Freedom Caucus who share his maximal conservatism—or a candidate like Rubio manages to push aside all mainstream rivals to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, the pot-stirring plutocrat may well steamroll through winter into spring with the lion’s share of the delegates. They won’t stop Trump because they can’t stop Trump.
In that case, party insiders may be forced to decide whether to pull every trick in the rule book to keep Trump from the nomination, with all the havoc that would ensue–including a very real chance that the party could split in two. Faced with that prospect, they may decide instead to swallow hard and follow Trump’s glowing blond nimbus into battle this fall. “The pundits don’t understand it,” Marco Rubio told an audience at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire. “They don’t understand why in this election, why aren’t the things that worked in the past working again? Why is it that the people with the most money, or the most endorsements, or the one that all the experts thought would be in first place–why aren’t they winning?”
Donald Trump will be happy to tell them.
–With reporting by ALEX ALTMAN/CISCO, TEXAS; KAREN BALL/KANSAS CITY; PHILIP ELLIOTT/CLAREMONT, N.H.; ZEKE J. MILLER/COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA; AND MICHAEL DUFFY, SAM FRIZELL AND MICHAEL SCHERER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.