Donald Trump’s George Costanza Problem

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Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

There’s an episode of Seinfeld in which George lies to his deceased fiancée’s parents about owning a home in the Hamptons. They soon find out the truth, but rather than come clean, George drives them all the way out to the end of Long Island, keeping the deception alive as long as possible.

Speaking of strung-out deceptions, Donald Trump is saying he might run for president, again. The near-universal belief that he won’t actually do so is grounded in two pieces of evidence. (1) Trump has flirted with a White House candidacy before without pulling the trigger. In 1999, he formed an exploratory committee, insisted he was "totally serious" about running, then pulled out. A few years later, a New York Post reporter wrote that Trump had "strongly suggested" he was "interested in entering the national political arena in 2008." Nothing came of it. You can only cry wolf/president so many times before people stop taking you seriously. (2) Donald Trump is Donald Trump, a self-promoter, publicity hound, and egomaniac. Whether he’s hoping to draw more viewers for Celebrity Apprentice or just relishes being talked about, he’ll take any opportunity to attract media attention.

He’s gotten attention, and then some, by latching onto the most hot-button political issue possible — birtherism — and, over the past few weeks, as surely as the sun has risen each morning, he’s appeared on TV making another provocatively ungrounded accusation about Obama’s origins. The exposure has translated into tangible support, and it’s clear why. Polls show that half of Republican voters believe Obama was born abroad, while another fifth aren’t sure. Yet because birtherism is considered a sign of wackiness by moderate voters and the mainstream media, no Republican presumed to be running for president had embraced the conspiracy.

Which is why Trump’s role as birtherism’s new unabashed champion has taken him so far, so fast. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Trump has rocketed into second place in the GOP primary, a mere four points behind Mitt Romney. Among tea partiers only, he’s in first place. Plenty of caveats apply — Trump’s landfill-size collection of political and personal baggage has yet to be scrutinized by his opponents; it’s so early in the race that name recognition alone makes an enormous difference in the polls — but that’s still a shocking result.

Yet Trump’s surprising success in the polls puts him in a Costanza-like pickle. Whatever his motives for nodding toward a run, he now has no excuse for slinking away from a primary battle that polls show he actually could win. Doing so would only reveal him as the charlatan many people accuse him of being and tarnish his self-made image as a bold, decisive executive ready to take on every challenge. Trump may have already strayed so far downmarket that he can’t damage his reputation by lying in the political gutter, but he still presumes to embody success. So unless he wants to damage his most precious creation — his brand —Trump has to keep driving his crazy campaign bus as far as the voters will take him.