Michael Gerson: Can anyone stop the wave Trump is riding?

COLUMBIA, S.C. – As Donald Trump’s GOP opponents descended on South Carolina after fleeing New Hampshire, they ran smack into a phenomenon. In this state, Trump is riding a wave of adulation more common for rock stars, faith healers or South American dictators. His rallies run into the thousands – some in excess of 10,000 – with cars parked for miles down the side of roads leading to venues. South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who recently endorsed Trump, describes a woman waiting eight hours without eating to keep her place in the front of the crowd and promptly fainting when Trump’s speech began. “Nineteen-year-old girls have him sign things and have tears in their eyes,” says McMaster, tracing lines down his cheeks.

McMaster is what Trump hopes for the future: an establishment figure who has accommodated to his version of political reality. The lieutenant governor, courtly and dressed to the nines, was once South Carolina’s attorney general and the chairman of the state Republican Party. Speaking to me in his office in the state capitol, McMaster described three recent rallies he attended with Trump. “At each stop, Trump asked me, ‘You have been in politics for decades. Have you ever seen anything like it?’ Each time I told him, ‘I have never seen anything like it.'”

What explains this level of enthusiasm? It is not Trump’s political organization in the state, which local pros describe as more of a glorified advance operation. Trump’s South Carolina co-chairman Ed McMullen explained Trump’s appeal to me this way: “He is the alpha male who says exactly what is on his mind.”

A revealing description, more biological than philosophic. Trump is running an exceptionally visceral campaign. His goal is not so much the inspiration of the country as the domination of the other candidates. And it has generally worked. They respond to his attacks, hush when he shushes them, and envy his huge poll numbers.

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Trump appeals fairly broadly in South Carolina – many opponents of Trump I talked with in the state report having some relative who loves him. But there are lots of angry, rural white males at his rallies. They have reason to feel disadvantaged in our economy and overlooked in our politics. This is mixed here (as elsewhere) with baser motives. On racial matters, according to one senior South Carolina Republican, Trump is using “not a dog whistle but a train whistle.” His Muslim immigration ban was announced in Charleston Harbor, aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. His questioning of Ted Cruz’s faith because “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba” was taken as an argument that Cruz is foreign, not one of us. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to associate with Jake Knotts – the former state senator who famously called Gov. Nikki Haley a racial epithet – has been taken as a signal.

In South Carolina, Trump is encouraging elements of the party for which old times there are not forgotten. And this is clearly complicating Haley’s attempt to reform and modernize the GOP here, symbolized by the empty spot on the front lawn of the statehouse where the Confederate battle flag once flew.

Everyone I spoke with in South Carolina who wasn’t paid by one of the candidates (there are a few) believes that Trump will win. And it now seems likely that Trump will be unstoppable in much of the South, the region that dominates the primary calendar through mid-March.

Republicans who remain unreconciled to the Trump dynasty now comfort themselves with one scenario. After the shock of early Trump victories wears off, some candidate in a winnowed field will need to rise and restart the race. “Trump,” this heretofore mythic figure will argue, “has won some early primaries in the South. But he has a ceiling of support – just 35 percent in the GOP – that dooms him with the national electorate. So, here I am, the only candidate who can unite the party and win a majority in November.” At that point, the spigots of Republican money will open and the electoral terrain – in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, and eventually in New York and California – will dramatically improve.

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All of which depends on two questionable assumptions. First, I can remember when Trump’s ceiling was supposedly 25 percent. After a series of victories, it may rise again. Second, this scenario assumes that any of the mainstream candidates are capable of cutting the alpha down to size.

Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.