Both president and press corps scratch their heads at Trump's ongoing success
Published 22/12/2015 | 02:30
At the entrance to the White House last Tuesday night, toy snowmen were everywhere on the lawn. Inside, carollers sang. Hot buffets and eggnog were among the refreshments offered.
The White House itself was lit up in Christmas colours sparkling against a clear night sky. It was President Barack Obama's annual media party night, and the great and good of American journalism gathered to meet and greet the president and first lady.
In the entrance hangs a picture of Christmas 1962, with JFK and Jackie Kennedy standing beside their Christmas tree. They looked happy and welcoming. By the end of 1963 he would be dead and she would have lost her son Patrick, just 38 hours' old, to a (now curable) lung infection. It is an indelible image.
Someone asked what JFK would have made of the 2016 race. Would he have been as perplexed as everyone else?
That perplexity extends to journalists too. On Tuesday there were lots of journalists eating crow despite the sumptuous food available.
I include myself in that group. We had all misjudged the Donald Trump phenomenon. From the Washington bureau chief of the 'New York Times' on down, we had dismissed Trump's candidacy as fodder for late-night comedians and the peanut gallery. Many believed he would be laughed out of the race by Thanksgiving, but we know better now.
Trump has revealed a carnival barker's ability to draw attention. Any time the media focus moves away, he lures it back with something outrageous. "Mexican rapists", "Ban Muslims", "Build 2,000-mile border walls", he wails - and the media comes running.
They know Trump spells ratings. And he knows he needs them to spread his message.
Trump has created a wave of anger and dissonance across America with hate speech delivered live through his enablers.
He has formulated "leave it to me" answers to every problem, revealing no details. Most of his policy pronouncements, such as sending 11 million undocumented immigrants home, are unenforceable. It is as if the Republican voters, tired of wars and tough economic times, have handed the keys to the biggest bully around to deliver their fantasies for them.
The more outrage Trump mouths, the more people want to vote for him, and the more the media predicts his downfall because of racial and ethnic slurs. However, the more he hates, the more he seems to rise.
Trump is a fake populist, a man of the people who just happens to have a $4bn or so fortune, according to 'Forbes Magazine', yet opposes a rise in the minimum wage. Now, with just over a month to go to the Iowa caucuses, Trump leads overall by about 12 points nationwide for the GOP nomination.
It used to be so different. Seven years ago, Mr Obama entered the White House, the first African-American to do so, on a programme of hope and change. It was a wonderful time to be in America.
If Trump wins in 2016 he will enter the White House trailing a cloud of hate, lies and anger.
Republicans have lost their way. A Public Policy poll last week asked whether GOP respondents would support bombing the country of Agrabah, a mythical land from the fable 'Aladdin'. Some 41pc of Trump supporters agreed with the notion of bombing.
That is the surreal terrain into which this presidential race has descended. Senator Ted Cruz offers "carpet bombing" of Isil-held land, killing innocent civilians at will - or even a nuclear attack that would "make the sand glow in the dark". For all his ignorance and war- mongering, he is motoring along in second place and seemingly Trump's only rival.
Obama staffers I spoke with at the White House were similarly amazed. The president is said to be shocked. Certainly, Obama these days up close carries the weight of the office on his face, now lined and drawn, while First Lady Michelle, beautiful as always, looks better than when she entered office.
I'm sure Obama's biggest fear - being succeeded by Trump - contributes to his fatigue. The hope and change of eight years ago has been replaced by fear and loathing.
In a year like no other, the Democratic primary seems over before it ever started. Hillary Clinton has a Trump-size lead, but, interestingly, is seen as much more secure in her prospects than Trump, who experts believe could still be caught by Cruz.
On Saturday night, Clinton and her two opponents, Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O'Malley, debated.
The timing of the debate, the Saturday before Christmas, when shopping and partying keep people away from television, was picked by the pro-Clinton Democratic National Committee, afraid of some Hillary slip-up that would hurt her prospects.
But Clinton does not need to be wrapped in cotton wool. She aced the debate, even if just 8.5 million Americans watched - in contrast to the 25 million who watched the first Republican debate.
Several polls have shown her well clear of either Trump or Cruz in a general election. Another poll shows even Sanders level with Trump and defeating Cruz.
Are the Republicans, lemming-like, commencing a journey that will see them march off the cliff all together? It certainly seems that way right now by their not picking their strongest candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
The road to Armageddon, not the White House, leads through Cruz and Trump.
Amazingly, the biblically knowledgeable Republicans seem ready to embark on that dark road to perdition. Can anything stop them?