Billionaire buffoon a distant prospect for presidency – but that he’s a prospect at all is wake-up call for US
Donald Trump, so recently dismissed by one and all as an egocentric buffoon who wouldn't last long in the US presidential race, has repeatedly defied expectations. So it should come as no surprise that, just when it seemed he could no longer shock, he has issued a call for Muslims to be banned from the US and left his own party reeling.
As Trump barrels towards the Republican nomination on a rhetorical cocktail of hatred and fear, America's political establishment is slowly coming to the horrified realisation that a man who blithely calls Mexicans rapists could soon occupy the Oval Office.
To many, Trump remains more of an opportunist than an ardent racist - an irresponsible man who will say anything to win, rather than an ideologue like Hitler.
The words tumble from his mouth, a ramble that moves effortlessly from bombast to bigotry.
But this makes his popularity all the more frightening: his numbers are rising in the polls not in spite of his racism but because of it. It is this which America's established media and political class is only now coming to understand. Trump is the spokesman for a new politics of paranoia that has taken hold of significant parts of his country.
Across Middle America, in rural towns in New Hampshire and Iowa, conservative white voters are furious. Men who benefited from post-Second World War economic booms have now spent years cowed by economic crisis. They have watched steel factories close and production move to China. In a year when the Supreme Court sanctioned gay marriage, religious conservatives have felt that their country is rejecting the social values they hold dear.
Pollster Larry Sabato describes furious Americans who cherish "first and foremost" the notion of an old-time America. It is, he says "an image of America they feel is slipping away from them". They want to pull it back.
That may not be possible. For it is not just social change fuelling their anger. Shifting demographics are playing their part. Last year, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities surpassed non-Hispanic whites as the largest group of American children under five years old. If the trend continues, today's majority white population will be a minority within 30 years.
As Mexican restaurants open in the most rural of hick towns, there is a sense among white communities that their culture is under siege. Mr Trump's speeches prey on this frustration. In Littleton, New Hampshire, I spoke to one Trump supporter who had bought a gun for her 86-year-old grandmother to "protect her" from a Lebanese family. The jihadists of Isil had arrived, the woman said, nodding towards the pharmacy that an immigrant family owned.
The Republican Party is tearing itself apart in its struggle to adapt to these new social fault lines. The result is a fundamental split between those who see support from conservative Hispanic communities as essential to winning the presidency in future, and those who argue that the "Grand Old Party" should work to keep the loyalty of the white base.
Rural conservative communities feel divorced from their leaders in Washington. Politicians are seen as hell-bent on lining their pockets rather than fighting for the beliefs that their constituents hold dear.
Trump gives these angry communities a platform at a time when many feel abandoned by traditional politicians. Attack is his forté, and it fires up a portion of the party base. But it also makes America's moderate conservatives turn away in disgust. Worse, for a potential Republican candidate, he is a social liberal, and does not have the support of the all-important evangelical vote. The reality is that President Trump remains a distant prospect. But the fact that it is a prospect at all should give America pause, and prompt serious debate about what kind of country it wants to be. (© Daily Telegraph London)