For years, we've been told that being a Republican is about believing in big ideas.
Republicans hate taxes. They support traditional marriage. They want smaller government, which means cutting social programs. They believe in a muscular foreign policy from the Reagan-Bush(es) era. They want to end entitlements, i.e. Social Security and Medicare.
But Donald Trump's meteoric rise and stubborn refusal to fall has shattered this misconception.
Trump isn't really about ideas. He has them, sure, and many seem ripped out of "The Man in the High Castle." We all know he wants to build a big, beautiful wall with Mexico and ban Muslims from entering the country.
But Trump's magnetic appeal is all in his bluster, his swagger. First off, he's a winner. (You can be a winner, too, especially if you buy one of his stylish "Make America Great Again" caps). Who knows –– you just might end up a billionaire real estate mogul with a model wife. Results aren't guaranteed, of course. But it could happen.
And who doesn't want America to win? Sure, we have the most powerful military in the world, but half the country doesn't believe that. The Obama administration's diplomacy in Syria looks effete to many Republicans. They think brute force is the only way to go –– and boy, does Trump deliver with his bombastic rhetoric.
As much as Trump loves to talk about himself, however, he's really made his campaign about other people –– especially those who feel left behind in a politically correct, technology-driven world where a high school diploma is a one-way ticket to two minimum-wage jobs and mounting debt.
Trump knows people are anxious and angry. And he's figured out how to exploit that better than any American politician in decades. Part of that is pillorying enemies, and there are many in Trumpworld. The obvious ones are immigrants, Muslims, China, Black Lives Matter and the media.
But the frontrunner has also gone where other Republicans don't, bashing hedge-fund managers, George W. Bush over 9/11 and right-wing darling Megyn Kelly. His fans have eaten it up, because they love his fearlessness and viciousness. Besides, why should they be loyal to Wall Street fat cats, while their 401(k)s have tanked? Why should they defend Bush when their family members have died in Iraq? Why should they side with Kelly, a snotty lawyer who wouldn't give them the time of day?
And the former "Apprentice" host knows how to deliver a message. Even when he's not cursing, he looks like he's about to. Critics thought Trump's lack of gentility would hurt him, but people love it. This is a reality-show obsessed country. We love watching rich ladies succumb to snarling catfights and arrogant bros plot how to screw over their friends. Many people have decided that we may as well put a reality TV star in the White House.
Trump's cadence looks somewhat ridiculous in print, with his overuse of superlatives like "terrific" and, of course, "yuuuge." But his his act is made for TV, which is why cable news won't stop showing his events. It works. It's no accident that he declared our first African-American president "schlonged" Hillary Clinton, or that he denounced her bathroom breaks as "disgusting." Trump's insults tap into people's visceral reactions.
Trump is at home in today's GOP because there’s nothing he loves more than inveighing against cultural liberalism. No other candidate does it better and with more panache (sorry, Ted Cruz).
"Democrats" and "liberals" represent all that's wrong with America –– they're smug, weak and traitorous. It's not really about their ideas and policies –– it's negative partisanship. And it's an emotional play for the set who cheered when Sarah Palin sneered back in 2008 that Obama "is not a man who sees America like you and I see America."
Now if you start looking at Trump's ideas, a lot of them don't sound terribly conservative. Much of his platform is a middle finger to GOP orthodoxy, which is why so many conservative pundits hate him. (Before the Iowa caucuses, the National Review spilled thousands of words trying to take down Trump, which probably delighted him to no end).
Sure, his tax proposal stacks the deck for the rich, but establishment heartthrob Marco Rubio's plan is a much bigger love letter to Ayn Rand. Trump also doesn't talk much about taxes on the campaign trail. He rants about plant closings and promises he'll force jobs to come back from overseas. He never says how, of course, but that's not the point.
Angry people in places like Birch Run, Mich., just want to hear that something can be done. And they're thrilled that a Republican is finally paying attention, instead of blathering about how free trade helps everyone and the guest worker program benefits job creators.
Most voters –– even Republicans –– love their Medicare and Social Security. So does Trump. They probably don't care that he's OK with Planned Parenthood and doesn't spend a lot of time hating on gay marriage.
And Trump isn't all talk. He is winning –– he took New Hampshire and then captured every single delegate in South Carolina, the state where the establishment is supposed to dominate. He looks primed to sweep many states on Super Tuesday, and I'd put my money on him winning Michigan on March 8. His poll numbers have defied gravity.
That's deeply frightening for big GOP donors and conservative pundits who do care deeply about lower tax rates and shrinking the size of government.
Trump's flamboyant success shows that many Republican voters don't share their devotion to the party platform. For them, voting Republican is primarily about projecting strength and sticking it to liberals.
And that's why true believers are having a hell of a time trying to stop Trump. At this point, it's looking increasingly likely that they can't.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.