As the Republican-primary race moves into the fall, Donald Trump is exhibiting signs of becoming, if not a conventional candidate, at least a better-organized one. “I have a much more traditional campaign than people think,” he told me on August 18, two days after his campaign released the first in a series of position papers he’s set to unveil.
The bar is low — anything beyond winging it would pass for a signal of a more traditional campaign. Trump knows this. His position paper, which calls for Mexico to pay for a border wall and America to eliminate birthright citizenship, is so extreme that it appears to mock the concept of position papers, which is partially the point. “I don’t think the people care about it, because they believe in me,” he said. Nonetheless, it has been treated with enough seriousness within the GOP that it has dominated the conversation for days, and Republican Establishmentarians who had once expected the Trump surge to peter out by Labor Day are now coming to terms with the candidate’s staying power and looking to the future with dread.
Inside the Trump campaign, the civil war that cleaved advisers into dueling camps is over. The new guard, led by Trump’s 40-year-old campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has successfully sidelined longtime advisers Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg. Lewandowski, a former Koch-brothers operative from New Hampshire, is little known on the national scene but, crucially, is wired into the state’s tea-party network. Trump has thrown his support behind Lewandowski, who in turn has marginalized the veterans. At the beginning of this month, Nunberg was fired. Days later, Stone quit (or was fired, if you believe Trump).
The purge at campaign headquarters also comes as Trump is staffing up in the field. In Iowa, where he’s leading the polls by nearly eight points, his campaign is being run by Chuck Laudner, the canny conservative strategist and tea-party insider who drove Rick Santorum around the state in his pickup to win the 2012 Iowa caucus. Trump snapped up Laudner in February, after he’d kicked the tires on several presidential campaigns, and Laudner’s team now totals ten paid operatives. “They say in Iowa I have the most people working for me,” Trump told me. He’s building similarly robust organizations throughout all the early primary states. “I have a lot of people in New Hampshire and a lot of people in South Carolina.” (He also reminded me that he has a “lot of property in Nevada. Good property.”)
No one — none of the rival candidates, none of their armies of highly paid political consultants, not even Fox News chairman Roger Ailes or his boss, Rupert Murdoch — has engineered a strategy to effectively handle Trump. Just last month, Scott Walker was confidently pitching himself to Manhattan fund-raisers as the candidate best suited to channel the party’s rage. “Walker’s basic theory of the race is that there’s anti-Establishment, anti-elite sentiment out there in the country and we need a candidate who can be the contrast to Jeb Bush both in the primary and the general,” says one fund-raiser who met with him. Now Walker’s Iowa campaign is flailing, and he’s being forced to ape Trump’s extreme talking points on immigration. “Walker is in third!” Trump told me with particular glee. “He was expected to win Iowa, and it’s looking like he’s not going to win it now.”
If Trump’s poll numbers hold, it’s likely that rivals or their associated super-PACs will feel forced to release a barrage of attack ads against the man in front, spending precious resources far earlier than they’d expected. “The next step will be if these groups decide they have to take this guy down,” says the fund-raiser. “They’ll start focusing primary voters on the real Donald Trump with ads that say, ‘This guy is a total fraud.’ That could be highly damaging to him. But, unlike other troublemakers” — Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, for example, both of whom briefly led some 2012 primary polls before collapsing under voter scrutiny — “Trump can say, ‘Screw it, I’m not dropping out.’ ”
Trump’s ability to self-finance his campaign allows him to stay in the race essentially as long as he’s enjoying himself, and he’s very much enjoying himself. “I only want to go all the way,” Trump vowed when I asked him if he’d ever consider withdrawing. “I’ve already done everything.” This may be bluster; he may underestimate the grind of a desperate presidential campaign. But Trump could continue to be dangerous to his rivals and his party long after the mania fades.
Given the way the primary schedule is set up — as many as 20 states will assign delegates proportionally before Florida’s winner-take-all primary on March 15 — there’s a good chance that no candidate will lock up the nomination until May. This means that even if Trump’s poll numbers fall, he can remain a plausible-enough contender to keep the primary conversation around subjects like whether immigrants are rapists and television anchors are menstruating.
It’s also possible that a Trump who is losing would be more erratic than the one who is winning. “His numbers are going to come down, and then he’s going to panic,” a Trump friend told me. “He doesn’t believe it will ever happen. He has not confronted this in his mind,” says another conservative who knows Trump well. So, if you think Trump has been unpredictable now, just wait. “The things that have already come out of his mouth are so much worse than so many things that sunk Herman Cain and the other flavors of the month last time,” another Trump friend says. It’s not hard to imagine Trump launching a kamikaze mission against the candidates left standing.
The candidate most imperiled by Trump’s staying power is Bush, whose campaign had expected that Trump’s childish antics would position the former governor favorably as the party’s resident grown-up. Instead, the opposite has happened: Day after day, Trump is highlighting Bush’s enthusiasm gap and laying bare the emotional distance between the Establishment front-runner and his more radical constituents. Trump’s events, which have featured Aerosmith soundtracks and helicopter rides, make Bush’s campaign stops seem about as exciting as Brookings Institution panels. A few days ago, when both candidates were in New Hampshire, Fox News cut to a commercial during a Bush speech in mid-sentence and teased an empty Trump stage, suggesting that even a vacant Trump lectern is more interesting than Bush talking. “He really lacks energy,” Trump told me.
The Bush campaign and its supporters are now taking the fight to the medium where Trump dominates: television. On August 16, Bush’s super-PAC, Right to Rise, announced it will be dropping $10 million in ads in early-primary states. And yet, this is likely to goad Trump into a counterattack. “If Trump starts doing TV spots, he’d be a huge problem,” says the fund-raiser. Trump told me he’s prepared to counter Bush’s ad buy with “whatever it takes.”
While Trump assured me that he thinks Bush is “a nice person,” he has told friends in private that his animosity is personal. According to one friend, Trump blames Bush and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for Univision’s decision in June to cancel a $13.5 million contract with Trump to televise his Miss USA pageant. Five days later, Slim scrapped a deal with Trump to develop shows in Mexico. Trump responded by filing a $500 million lawsuit against Univision. “Trump believes it all goes back to Jeb,” the friend says. “He thinks Jeb and his wife, Columba, are close with Carlos Slim and Univision got pressure from Slim operatives.” In a move that further confirmed Trump’s suspicions, Univision has hired Miguel Estrada, a Washington lawyer with deep Bush ties.
When — if? — Trump withdraws from the campaign, he will no longer have a ready landing pad on television. (His Apprentice deal with NBC has been canceled, too.) This is a prospect that is likely terrifying for Trump — and should, in turn, be terrifying for Bush. In a recent phone call with a longtime friend who has been acting as an informal adviser, Trump warned: “If I’m going down, then Bush is going down with me. He’s not going to be president of the United States.”
*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.