For months, the number crunchers have been insisting that Donald Trump can never win. Not the Republican nomination. And certainly not the presidency of a country founded by religious outliers fleeing persecution and whose census takers cannot even track faith affiliation.
The U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for those seeking public office. It says nothing about the ability to ban entire groups of foreigners from entering the country. But the idea is so repugnant to most Americans, so antithetical to their foundational myth, that the rare politician to suggest it has remained on the fringes, mercifully far from the levers of power.
That sounded about right until Mr. Trump reminded everyone this week that his plan for a moratorium on all Muslims entering the United States is "no different" than what Franklin Roosevelt did to Japanese, German and Italian immigrants during the Second World War.
"This was a president highly respected by all, he did the same thing," Mr. Trump said, amending that comment to add that FDR's internment of thousands of "enemy aliens" was "actually far worse" than his own plan to keep out "people that want to blow up our buildings, our cities."
While the historians debate whether Mr. Trump is a bona fide fascist or just an opportunistic rabble-rouser, the pundits have already decided that he is crazy – like a fox. His endless disregard for the boundaries of acceptable political discourse only serves to ensure that he dominates the news cycle – to the detriment of rivals struggling to gain basic name recognition – and to consolidate his support among a slice of the electorate that is hopping mad and sick of slick career politicians.
Mr. Trump's support is still limited to a subsection of GOP voters – lower-middle-class whites, without college degrees and with weak ties to any religion. He is not winning the evangelical Christians or establishment business types who most often play GOP kingmakers. Polls showing him with a big lead among potential GOP voters tend to omit the fact that far more people say they would never vote for him. Sooner or later, another candidate has to consolidate that anti-Trump vote.
Or not. Americans are weary of Barack Obama and don't think he has the resolve to destroy the Islamic State. After an IS-inspired attack in California last week, the President failed to reassure an increasingly fearful population. To just then call, as he did, for stricter gun control was to demonstrate a profound disconnect with average folks who will never see terrorism through his detached, analytical lens.
Mr. Obama's Sunday-night address to the nation outlining his stay-the-course plan for battling the Islamic State might have dominated the news on Monday had Mr. Trump not once again steamrolled his way to the top of the country's social media feed with his immodest proposal. That he chose this moment to go where no candidate had gone before was hardly surprising. It came as a new poll showed Mr. Trump losing his lead in Iowa to Senator Ted Cruz for the first time.
Mr. Trump's unique ability hijack any debate – without paid advertising or other traditional tactics used by political campaigns – forces his rivals to play his game or fade into the background. Mr. Cruz, who is arguably even more of a demagogue than Mr. Trump, refused to condemn a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and "commended" his rival for "standing up and focusing America's attention on the need to secure our borders."
The Texas senator's appeal among evangelicals and Tea Party voters has led data cruncher Nate Silver to suggest that Mr. Cruz is most likely to emerge as the favourite to win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. But even Mr. Silver remains cautious: "If Trump gets a lot of people to turn up for him and vote in Iowa, that's an epistemological game-changer."
The Republican National Committee is equally horrified at the thought of Mr. Cruz winning the nomination. The GOP establishment is praying moderates coalesce pronto around an acceptable candidate – likely Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Otherwise, GOP candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives could face a drubbing with a Cruz or Trump atop the ticket in 2016.
Expect Mr. Trump, who keeps threatening to run as an independent if the GOP bigwigs try to screw him, to drop a bombshell just before Iowans vote. It will be "huge."