Donald Trump recently spoke about American football. No other game more fully embodies his country's character. The sport is about capturing territory, and players need to be tough and fearless to win. A player who is afraid of being tackled by someone from the opposing team while running has already lost the game. "I don't even watch it as much anymore," Trump told a crowd of his supporters in Reno, Nevada. "The whole game is all screwed up."
A growing number of studies point to the devastating consequences of the many tackles in the game, in which players try to stop their opponents by throwing themselves at them head-first: brain trauma, depression, suicide. New rules have been created, and there are now stiffer penalties for the most glaring fouls.
On the stage in Reno, Trump said he missed "what used to be considered a great tackle, a violent head-on tackle." He slammed his fists together and repeated himself, vulgarly pursing his lips as he said the word "violent." "You used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch, right?"
And today? "Bing! Flag!" Trump shouted. "The referees, they want to all throw flags so their wives see them at home."
"Football has become soft," he said, repeating the sentence as if it were a key hypothesis on the state of the nation. "Football has become soft like our country has become soft!" As he held up his index finger, the crowd cheered and people held signs up in the air that read: "The silent majority stands with Trump."
Trump Wants A Ruthless America
"Believe me, I'll change things. And again, we're going to be so respected. I don't want to use the word 'feared,'" he told the audience. But that is precisely what Trump wants: to be feared. His bid for the White House, long ridiculed, is a fight for a ruthless, brutal America. Behind his campaign slogan "Make America great again!" is the vision of a country that no longer cares about international treaties, ethnic minorities or established standards of decency.
Trump wants to attack head-first again. The 69-year-old embodies a new harshness and brutality, and both a physical and emotional crudeness. Trump has launched an uprising of the indecent, one that is now much bigger than he himself, a popular movement of white, conservative America that after eight years under Democratic President Barack Obama, yearns for a leader who will usher in the counter-revolution.
Former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod wrote recently that Trump's success is based on the same principle as the campaign victories of his former boss. In fact, he added, he had explained this recipe for success to Obama himself when he first ran for president: When a president leaves office after eight years, voters tend to prefer a candidate who is as different as possible from the incumbent, in terms of politics, character and habits.
By that logic, Obama the integrator, who fought against discrimination against blacks and gays, would be followed by a President Trump who stirs up hatred against minorities and claims that "political correctness" is the greatest threat to the United States. While Obama sought to explain complex problems, often sounding like an intellectual in the process, studies have shown that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade reading level. Problems, according to Trump, are "totally easy" to solve. And while Obama appealed to the common "we" in his campaign slogan "Yes, we can!" Trump's version reads "Yes, I can!" -- the solution of a strong leader.
Currently, America is running the risk of falling for a self-proclaimed leader with a low opinion of fundamental democratic values. Shortly before the Iowa Caucuses on Monday, all national polls showed Trump as the leading Republican candidate by a wide margin. He is also polling at the top of the Republican field in almost every state in the country. In Iowa itself, with its large religious population, the race could end up being a close contest between Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Christian hardliner.
Desire for a Strong Man at the Top
Trump takes every opportunity in this campaign to portray his country as a down-and-out weakling. According to his strategy, when a nation's feeling of self-worth has hit rock bottom, it experiences a growing desire to overcome the "status quo" -- and for a strong man at the top.
Trump is a unique figure. He is so wealthy that his campaign is almost entirely self-financed. Thanks to his colorful life as a New York real estate mogul and star of the reality TV show "The Apprentice," he enters the presidential race with a celebrity factor like no other candidate before him.
But his most unique characteristic is his lack of scruples. When speaking about his amiable rival Jeb Bush, he has often said that Bush is such a "low-energy person" that no one can even look at him anymore without seeking signs of his lack of energy. Trump has repeatedly said that Marco Rubio, another Republican contender, "sweats a lot," which, according to Trump, would be a little embarrassing for a president who has to negotiate with "strong leaders like Vladimir Putin." He recently began claiming that his strongest rival at the moment, Ted Cruz, lacks the legal qualification to become president because he was born on Canadian soil. And last year he tweeted: "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?" All of this profanity and unscrupulousness would have forced anyone else to resign. But for his millions of supporters, they are further evidence of Trump's boldness and strength.
"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay?," Trump said at a rally in Iowa a week ago Saturday. He mimicked shooting a pistol with his finger and added: "It's like, incredible!"
No Longer the Laughing Stock
Salon.com wrote: "(Trump) embodies that well-worn if still stinging observation about the country he hails from: that 'America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.'"
Trump announced his candidacy just over seven months ago. Since then, much has been written and said about his hairstyle. His plain and sometimes embarrassing statements, his muddled speeches and his incomprehensible narcissism have been a source of amusement. There are lists of the most outrageous statements Trump has made in the past, such as this one about women: "You know, it doesn't really matter what (the media) write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass."
But his candidacy ceased to be amusing long ago. Trump's demands are too extreme for that, and his view of the world and humanity too dangerous. And the chances are too great that he will be named as the Republican presidential candidate. Some polls show that Trump even stands a realistic chance of winning the White House in a possible face-off with Hillary Clinton. The combination of his views and the possibility that he could soon hold the planet's most powerful office make him the most dangerous man in the world at the moment.
For a long time, neither Republican Party officials nor the media recognized the true dimensions of the movement that Trump was forming. They continued to poke fun at him, even as he was creating a revolutionary mood on the right margin of society. Now it could be too late, and Trump could be the one getting the last laugh.
Like it or not, it is time to take Donald John Trump seriously. So what can be said about the character of this man who is determined to capture the White House? And what could America and the rest of the world expect if he truly became the 45th president of the United States?
New Yorker writer George Packer's book "The Unwinding" describes the gradual economic and, more importantly, moral decline of the United States. It is perhaps the most astute book about the country's condition today. Sitting at Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, Packer says that Trump now exhibits several of the characteristics of a fascist.
In the past, as a reality TV star, Trump had to come across as somewhat likeable, says Packer. But now that he is playing the fascist, he suddenly resembles one, with his grim face, his pursed lips and the threatening and intimidating look in his eyes.
It's no accident that Trump expresses great admiration for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who seems to impress him far more than politicians seeking to champion the values of democracy with their painstaking and often vain search for compromises.
"He is a nicer person than I am," Trump said of the Russian president. "In terms of leadership, he's getting an A." The reason, according to Trump, is that Putin is "making mincemeat out of our president."
Putin returned the compliment in December, when he said: "He's a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt. He is the absolute front-runner in the presidential race." Trump, who judges people purely by whether or not they praise him, promptly shot back: "When people call you brilliant, it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia."
Packer says many Europeans are currently looking at Trump's success and thinking: "Those Americans are crazy!" But Trump isn't some strange US mutation, says Packer, who instead sees him as being evocative of European right-wing populists, à la Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
While politicians like Le Pen and Orbán inveigh against "Brussels," Trump rails against "Washington" as the symbol of a degenerate political system "that doesn't get things done anymore." Just like his European counterparts, Trump is calling for isolation in the form of protective tariffs, entry bans and border walls. He inflames tensions against ethnic minorities and offers anxious citizens the authoritarian vision of a strongman who will solve all problems on his own -- while ignoring democratic conventions. Trump is presumably only the shrillest and most prominent embodiment of a trend that is becoming pervasive throughout the Western world.
Packer sees the 2008 financial crisis, which caused parts of the US economy to unravel and deprived millions of Americans of their economic foundation, as the main reason many Americans are receptive to a man like Trump. The economy has been growing again since then, but in absurdly unfair ways, says Packer, as inequality becomes more and more glaring. According to Packer, many Americans feel they have been left alone with their concerns, and they feel disconnected and betrayed.
The current primary race underscores how much this frustration has already changed the country. It has enabled Bernie Sanders, an extreme leftist by American standards, to become a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. And it is preparing the ground for Trump's campaign against all the elites, even though Trump himself has spent his entire life as a member of the country's economic elite.
Many Americans, especially whites and those with relatively little education, are now more receptive than ever to audacious promises and simplistic solutions. But they are also receptive to a form of politics that blames immigrants and minorities for their own fate, and for the race-baiting that has been part of every authoritarian movement to date. Trump offers all of these things, and he offers them more skillfully, professionally and self-confidently than all other candidates.
'It's a Miracle Trump Didn't Invent the Selfie'
Michael D'Antonio is sitting in an Applebee's fast-food restaurant on Long Island, speaking quietly. He's a cheerful, thoughtful man with a white beard, the polar opposite of Trump. D'Antonio has delved a lot deeper than most others into Donald Trump's world.
D'Antonio recently wrote a biography of Trump, who was enthusiastic about the project and gave his cooperation -- at least initially. Trump granted the author several interviews, which were usually held in his penthouse inside the Trump Tower, behind the kinds of double doors that would normally be used in castles. D'Antonio was granted free access to Trump's family and associates, and spoke with his grown children and all three of his wives. But when Trump realized that D'Antonio was also one of his critics, he immediately canceled the project.
"What I noticed immediately in my first visit was that there were no books," says D'Antonio. "A huge palace and not a single book." He asked Trump whether there was a book that had influenced him. "I would love to read," Trump replied. "I've had many best sellers, as you know, and 'The Art of the Deal' was one of the biggest-selling books of all time." Soon Trump was talking about "The Apprentice." Trump called it "the No. 1 show on television," a reality TV show in which, in 14 seasons, he played himself and humiliated candidates vying for the privilege of a job within his company. In the interview, Trump spent what seemed like an eternity talking about how fabulous and successful he is, but he didn't name a single book that he hadn't written.
"Trump doesn't read," D'Antonio says in the restaurant. "He hasn't absorbed anything serious and profound about American society since his college days. And to be honest, I don't even think he read in college." When Trump was asked who his foreign policy advisers were, he replied: "Well, I watch the shows." He was referring to political talk shows on TV.
In all of the conversations about his life, Trump seemed like a little boy, says D'Antonio. "Like a six-year-old boy who comes home from the playground and can hardly wait to announce that he shot the decisive goal."
According to D'Antonio, American society revolves around two things: ambition and self-promotion. This is why Trump is one of the most appropriate heroes he can imagine for the country, he adds, noting that no one is more ambitious and narcissistic. "It's a miracle Trump didn't invent the selfie."
The Dark Side of Trump's Narcissism
During an appearance two weeks at a Toyota dealership in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a young woman in the crowd said she had two questions for Trump. The first one was about the college financing system. Trump's reply contained the word "college," at any rate. This was her second question: "Can I take a selfie with you?" The owner of the dealership felt that the question was inappropriate and quickly said that perhaps she could do it later. But Trump was already saying "Of course! Of course!" and waved the woman onto the stage.
His biographer talks about the dark sides of Trump's self-absorption. "Trump lacks any self-irony, any form of critical self-perception." The entire family is like that, he explains. When he tried to joke with Trump's children about their father's penchant for gold and glitter in his buildings, none of them understood what he was getting at. "They don't notice when something is ridiculous," says D'Antonio. "This is the most telling characteristic of the entire Trump clan: the persistent denial of reflection."
But what worried him the most, says D'Antonio, is Trump's belief that he is genetically superior to most people in the world. In all of their conversations, he notes, Trump kept returning to the notion that by virtue of his birth, he is simply better than other people in many areas -- from playing golf to being a businessman. "I'm a big believer in natural ability," Trump said.
His son, Donald Trump Jr., shares his father's conviction. He said he was a firm believer in the concept of breeding, in "race-horse theory." Then he pointed at the ceiling with his finger, in the direction of his father's office. "He's an incredibly accomplished guy, my mother's incredibly accomplished, she's an Olympian, so I'd like to believe genetically I'm predisposed to (be) better than average."
Apparently this sort of belief also helps Trump portray himself to voters as a strong man, as the person who will save the country.
A Core Element of Racism
In early January, the stadium at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, was filled with 6,500 Trump supporters. Rose Hamid, a Muslim woman, waited for the right moment to express her opposition to Trump. Hamid and her friends chose a spot in the bleachers, directly behind the lectern. They had planned to stand up when Trump said something hateful. When he began railing against Syrian refugees, Hamid pulled out a yellow Star of David with the word Muslim printed on it and stuck it to her T-shirt. She stood up and folded her hands. Her Jewish friend also rose to her feet, and they both stood there, in silent protest against the stigmatization of religions.
The crowd erupted into indignation within seconds. Trump's fans stuck their fists in the air and drowned out Hamid, as if she were a criminal, shouting "Trump! Trump!" Then Trump signaled to the security guards to remove Hamid from the room. She didn't resist. Since the incident, however, she has known what it feels like to be chased away by Trump and his supporters.
A few days later Hamid, 56, is sitting in a row house in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, talking about the January evening when Trump had her escorted out. Hamid is a proud Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, even while working as a flight attendant, and she has never been criticized for it. She was raised Catholic and converted to Islam in her mid-20s. A copy of the Ten Commandments sits on her bookshelf and a verse from the Koran hangs on the wall. She believes in the diversity of religions. That was what she wanted to say to Trump when she heard he was coming to her area.
At first Hamid, like many others, didn't take Trump seriously. But this changed when Trump, after the attacks in Paris, proposed the establishment of a database of all Muslims in the country. He later called for a "complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." It seems to trouble neither Trump nor his supporters that the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion.
Racism has since become a core element of his campaign, but it has only intensified in recent months. At first, Trump was only talking about the need to stop illegal immigrants. Only when he realized that this was what got him the most applause did he become more radical. In June, he said that Mexico is "bringing drugs, crime and rapists" to the United States, and that he would "build a great, great wall on our southern border," and "I will have Mexico pay for that wall!" He also announced that he would deport all 11 million illegal immigrants within two years. For his fans, Trump's "great, great wall," which he compares with the Great Wall of China, has become a symbol of a well-fortified America.
Goading and Ridicule
Almost every evening, Trump goads his supporters to shout down protestors or throw them out of his rallies. He often ridicules these individuals from the lectern. If one of them happens to be on the heavy side, he pokes fun at "that fat guy," which fans interpret as a signal -- that Trump won't mind if they get a little physical with the protester.
When a TV host recently asked Trump, who was sitting with his back to his fans, whether he was serious when he said that he would also "take out" the wives and children of terrorists, Trump replied: "We have to be more vigilant, and we have to be much tougher." The crowd behind him cheered. At a rally in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, his supporters attacked a black protester, while others shouted "shoot him," "Sieg Heil" and "light the motherfucker on fire!"
These are the moments when it becomes clear how brutal Trump can be. Trump biographer D'Antonio learned that Trump had always sought out bodyguards who looked like hoodlums and thugs -- to put the fear of God in people.
"I tried to look Trump's supporters in the eye, but it was impossible," says Rose Hamid. "There was a strange emptiness there." Trump is changing the country and its people, she adds, and the other candidates, faced with his poll numbers, are revising their own rhetoric. Indeed, this is what worries Hamid. "Trump emboldens people to do things they normally wouldn't dare to do."
A study by pollster Matthew MacWilliams shows that what Trump's supporters have in common, more than anything else, is the desire for authority. MacWilliams asked people whether they preferred a respectful, obedient and well-behaved child or an independent and curious one. Those who tend to favor the former are seen as being authoritarian. Trump was the only candidate strongly favored by the respondents with authoritarian ideas.
This group offers tremendous potential for Trump, says MacWilliams, noting that not only 49 percent of Republicans but also 39 percent of independent voters showed a penchant for the authoritarian. "Trump's support is firmly rooted in American authoritarianism and, once awakened, it is a force to be reckoned with," MacWilliams recently wrote on the website Politico.
It makes sense that Trump doesn't seem to care much about freedom of religion or other cornerstones of democracy. In his rhetoric, he could hardly be more contemptuous of the Congress in Washington. Freedom of the press also seems to annoy him. And before every event, he has his announcer point out that he respects free speech "almost as much" as the right to bear arms.
On some evenings, Trump even has potential audience members questioned about their views. Before his appearance in Burlington, Vermont, a security official dressed in black stood in the lobby and asked every visitor: "Are you a supporter of Mr. Trump?" Those who said no or were undecided were turned away, even if they had tickets to the event. In a democracy, an election campaign is supposed to be an opinion-forming process. But in Trump's case, people are either for him or they are thrown out.
Trump uses the term "the lying press," now famous in Germany, in many of his appearances. "The journalists are miserable people," he says to his supporters, pointing to the corner where the cameras are. At his events, journalists are herded together into a fenced area, under the watchful eyes of zealous guards. The biggest paradox of this campaign is that Trump, while sharply berating the media, is the one who benefits the most from the coverage it provides him. The major TV networks devote more airtime to him to Trump than to all his rivals combined. He is the only Republican candidate who provides the networks with the ratings they crave, and yet he is also the one who mocks them for that very mechanism.
His last-minute refusal to participate in a televised debate hosted by the right-wing Fox News network last week, because he felt unfairly treated by Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators, is not only a first in the history of American election campaigns. It is also the latest climax in the game Trump is playing with the media.
What To Expect from a President Trump
What would America look like with a man like this at the helm? And what could the world expect from a President Trump? He has yet to present a comprehensive platform for his presidency. The constant questions about content annoy Trump, and he would prefer it if people would simply trust him. Trump often complains that it's always the journalists who ask questions about his policies. He claims voters don't care very much about that sort of thing. Where others have strategy papers, Trump has his gut feeling. Nevertheless, something resembling an agenda can be deduced from his interviews and speeches.
If we take him at his word, the United States will soon be surrounded by a high wall. The country will only be able to engage in limited trade, because the tariffs will be so high. Eleven million immigrants will have left the United States in cloak-and-dagger operations. The days of the United States as a country of immigrants would be over, once and for all.
Those who have experienced this man's temperament know just how thin-skinned and aggressive Trump can be when criticized or provoked, and how mercilessly and excessively he pursues revenge. One shudders to think what could happen if a man like that had his finger on the button of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. "An ally, let's say from Europe, who didn't follow him into war would be considered a traitor by Trump and would have to expect massive retribution," D'Antonio believes.
If there's a basic idea behind Trump's campaign, it's his own leadership strength. "We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning," Trump has pledged. "I have so much energy, it's almost ridiculous." He seems to want to govern in the same way that he became a billionaire -- despite a few bankruptcies along the way.
Although he previously held liberal positions on some divisive issues, like weapons possession and abortion, he is now presenting himself as a firm opponent of abortion and a huge fan of guns. He's raised other reasonable ideas in the past as well: He once called for a government-financed healthcare system that would be accessible for everyone. He also advocated for a tax on the super rich to reduce US government debt. Indeed, his Republican opponents have been reminding the public of these statements in the form of video clips aimed at damaging the candidate. They include sentences like, "I probably identify more as Democrat." For his part, though, Trump acts as if this past never even existed. He presents his new, ultraconservative positions in the most populist of ways and with even greater determination.
An Odd Worldview
Trump the entrepreneur does business all around the world. Ironically, however, as president he would limit any free trade not conducted according to his own rules. In order to shrink the trade deficit with China, he proposes imposing high punitive tariffs on Chinese exports to the US. He promises to bring back all the American jobs that have been lost to Asia or Mexico as a result of globalization. Voters are expected to trust that Trump will be as effective a diplomatic negotiator as he was a business negotiator. "I will be the greatest jobs president that God has ever created," Trump boasted last summer.
His foreign policy essentially boils down to a bizarre mix of isolationism and a simultaneous show of superiority through a military build-up. "I'm the most militaristic person there is," Trump says.
When it comes to international politics, Trump prefers to rely on his own personal experiences and impulses than on textbooks. For example, he doesn't consider North Korea to be an American problem, but rather one which China must solve. He offers a similar approach for addressing the war in Syria, where he feels the problems should be dealt with locally and that there is no need for intervention.
Trump nevertheless says he wants to "bomb the hell out of" the Islamic State (IS), or as his newly won endorsee Sarah Palin expressed on stage just over a week ago, he would send American "warriors" to "kick ISIS's ass." To accomplish that, Trump claims he wants to give US generals free hand, saying they already know what needs to be done. What Trump hasn't revealed, unfortunately, is how alliances are even supposed to be forged with Muslim countries against the Islamic State by a United States that places Muslims under a state of general suspicions and refuses to allow them to travel into the country as he has proposed doing.
Trump has announced he will take a hardline approach on terrorists, but he also says he doesn't want to be interventionist. His gut feeling is that Americans will reject interventions with uncertain outcomes. During his campaign, he has often repeated the fact that he heavily criticized the Iraq war in 2003. The way things look right now, the world is going to have to brace for a US foreign policy based on gut feelings.
Is There any Stopping Trump?
The question now is whether such a political course, and indeed a President Donald J. Trump, can even still be prevented. And who could stop him? The possibilities include the Republicans themselves, a party Trump seems to work with based on his mood or whim. And then, of course, there are the Democrats, whose probable candidate, Hillary Clinton, Trump will likely have to square off against in the main election. But neither side can be fully trusted to defeat Trump.
Never before has the grand, time-honored Republican Party been as helpless and hapless as it is right now. The party's leadership had sought an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or the younger Marco Rubio. But Trump?
"We are in total chaos," says Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. He says the Republicans are already divided and that a Trump candidacy could spell the end of the Grand Old Party. When Wehner talks about Trump, it sounds as if he's referring to the head of some dictatorship. "Trump is erratic. He is emotionally unstable, has authoritarian tendencies and a certain cruelty. He is a toxic figure, a demagogue. Trump would cause a lot of damage to the Republican Party. If he won the nomination it would be a hostile takeover. We must prevent it."
Some already view Trump as the founder of a new political movement -- "Trumpism" -- that has little in common with the traditional conservatism on the right.
The level of frustration among many Republican officials was on display in mid-January during a speech given at an internal meeting of party leaders in South Carolina by Holland Redfield, a member of the Republican National Committee, who said the GOP was being "almost terrorized" by Trump and that "there is a limit to loyalty."
The question being discussed the most right now within the party is what the GOP's response should be if Trump wins the first primaries. Should he be embraced in order to share in the success? Or should the party take a more hostile approach in the hope that a more reliable candidate may ultimately prevail?
Currently, the faction that views Trump as representing the downfall of conservatism is dominating. Strategy papers are being circulated within the party addressing how officials should counter Trump's arguments. The National Review, a respected conservative political magazine, even published a plea to prominent Republicans under the headline, "Against Trump."
Is the Tide Turning in Trump's Favor?
Within the party base, however, there are a growing number of voices reminding that America is the country of freedom and that politics is an open competition. "If Trump is able to gather the most votes for himself, then he should also be our candidate," says Congressman Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney is a Rand Paul backer, but he considers the will of the party base to be crucial.
Inside the party, there's growing sentiment that Trump might stand a good chance even against Hillary Clinton. "In the same way that Reagan brought renewal to the Republican Party and made it electable for Democrats, I think there are many conservative Democrats who would support Trump," says Jeffrey Lord, a former White House aide to Reagan.
The more influential Republicans are still keeping a low-profile right now, but if you speak to men like Newt Gingrich, it sounds like the Republicans will ultimately fall into line with Trump. During the 1990s, Gingrich led the Republicans in the House of Representatives and launched the "Republican Revolution." In 2012, he also ran as a Republican candidate in the primaries, though his campaign was ultimately a flop. On his way to Iowa, Gingrich took some time to talk to SPIEGEL while he was waiting for his flight.
Gingrich still has a clear recollection of Trump asking to meet with him in January 2015. The two had breakfast together in Des Moines on the sidelines of an event they were attending in the city. Trump spoke for the first time about his idea to run. Gingrich believes people underestimate Trump. He tells a story of the ice skating rink in New York's Central Park in order to illustrate Trump's skills.
In 1980, the city had closed the skating rink for renovations. The work was only supposed to take two years, but by 1986, it still wasn't finished. That's when Trump showed up. He convinced Mayor Ed Koch to let him take over the project, promising that the rink would be up and running within three months. In return, he asked for the concession rights. Exactly three months later, Trump unveiled the new ice skating rink in a nationally televised ceremony. "Donald Trump is a very talented man," says Gingrich.
But does he stand a chance against Hillary Clinton? "Of course," says Gingrich. "America is a huge country. Anything can happen."
This is evident on a bitter cold January evening in Burlington, Vermont. A line has formed in front of a local theater. Mary Loyer, 44, and her son Tim, 28, are hoping to catch a glimpse of Trump. Tim works as a waiter, Mary is unemployed. They're supporters of the left-wing democrat Bernie Sanders, a long-time mayor of Burlington. But Mary says something that one hears over and over again on the campaign trail: "If it came down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I don't know who I'd vote for. But it wouldn't be Clinton."
"Hillary is corrupt," Tim says. "She does what Big Money wants her to do, and she's a flip-flopper." Sanders and Trump have more in common than it seems, he adds: "Both of them are the only politicians who say what they think and do what they say." His mom nods.
For a long time, the Clinton camp fantasized about taking on Trump. The way they saw it, it would be Clinton, an experienced, middle-of-the-road candidate, versus Trump, the radical leader of the old, white guard. Many democratic strategists viewed such a matchup as a unique opportunity. Vice President Joe Biden said if Trump won the Republican nomination, Hillary Clinton would "win in a walk."
In the meantime, it has become apparent that Clinton can't even rely on the unconditional support of her own people. For many, she represents a political system that is symbiotically entwined with Big Business. Trump, the big capitalist, however, bills himself as someone who is not for sale. He doesn't accept big donations and doesn't owe anyone anything. The fact that he, unlike Clinton, has never held a political office is an advantage in this election campaign.
Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg is one of the few in his party who openly addresses how difficult it could be for Clinton to handle a Trump candidacy. The founder of the progressive think tank "New Democratic Network" believes that the widespread frustration about the status quo within the American electorate and his ability to handle the modern media better than anyone else in the race would make Trump a strong opponent in the general election. "Trump would be a lot harder to defeat than most of us think", he says. "There were more than a dozend Republican candidates and he basically destroyed all of them. It is unbelievable what he did."
But many democrats aren't panicking yet. They're betting on Clinton's campaign coming around and gaining momentum once she secures the nomination. At the same time, they are anxious that this could become the dirtiest duel in the history of American presidential campaigns.
If it does, Roger Stone will be the man to blame. The unscrupulousness that has come to define Trump's campaign is largely Stone's doing. He learned the tricks of the trade from Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and later helped Ronald Reagan get into the White House. By the end of the 1980s, Stone was already trying to convince his friend Trump to run for president. Almost everything Trump knows about politics and power, he learned from Stone -- including the art of manipulation. Stone is considered a master of defamatory rumors.
Stone also helped Trump lay the foundations for his campaign last spring. Then in summer, he was abruptly fired. Trump's people cited a disagreement between the two, but observers now believe the split could have been staged, a trick.
"I remain an unabashed Trump supporter and Trump enthusiast," Stone said when reached on the phone last autumn. "I just finally made a decision that I could have a greater impact on the outside. Trump is still a very close friend." As before, the two talk regularly and Stone obviously gives Trump important advice. And just like old times, Stone spends nearly every evening on TV touting Trump and his "movement."
Since he is no longer an official member of Trump's campaign team, Stone has the freedom to be even more ruthless in his derision of Trump's opponents, without the risk of the mud-slinging coming back to haunt the candidate. Trump biographer D'Antonio describes Stone as "pure evil." He is a "deeply disgusting person," someone who doesn't understand anything but "brute force."
Stone's favorite victim is Hillary Clinton. His recently published book, "The Clintons' War on Women," is a nasty piece of work. But it could also be seen as a blueprint for Trump's campaign against Hillary. Without credible proof, Stone claims that Chelsea Clinton is not Bill's biological daughter and that Bill has fathered at least one son with a black prostitute. Stone calls the former president a serial rapist and Hillary his henchwoman. He also suggests that Hillary has the death of a man who knew about Bill's escapades on her conscience.
In television interviews, Stone claims Hillary is the "point person in the terror campaign to intimidate and bully women into silence." That she once waged a "nuts and sluts campaign to discredit Monica Lewinsky to make it her fault that she was seduced by a man three times her age." He has also stated that "Bill rapes women physically and Hillary rapes them psychologically." He claims Hillary Clinton "has no right to call herself an advocate for women and girls." Trump recently released a campaign video with a similar message.
"The Clintons are money-making opportunists and criminals," Stone says. Their foundation is nothing more than a "luxury travel service to augment the lifestyles of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton." People with those kinds of friends and advisers don't leave much to the imagination as to their character, he says.
A Threat to World Peace
If the most powerful office in the world wasn't at stake, all this wouldn't be nearly as dangerous. Germany has been too busy dealing with the supposed threat posed by refugees in recent months to appreciate what's really been going on across the Atlantic. Despite their differences, the US and Germany share an unshakeable faith in democracy and freedom. But nothing would be more harmful to the idea of the West and world peace than if Donald Trump were to be elected president. Compared to that, the America of George W. Bush would seem like a land of logic and reason in retrospect.
Bush, to his credit, never compared migrants to poisonous snakes -- something Trump did recently at a rally in Pensacola, Florida. Later that night, Trump addressed what has been one of his favorite topics lately: Europe's refugee crisis. "Just talk to the folks over in Germany," he said. "Europe is being destroyed."
When he puts on his reading glasses, the audience goes quiet. "Just listen to this," he says, pulling a piece of paper from his pocket. He printed out the lyrics to "The Snake," an old soul hit from Al Wilson. The song is about a snake, half frozen from the cold, that asks a woman to be let inside. The woman takes pity on the animal and holds it to her bosom, upon which the snake bites and poisons her.
Trump reads the lyrics aloud passionately, as if he were auditioning for a role. "Oh, shut up silly woman," he says, imitating the snake: "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in." The crowd cheers. They're over the moon. Trump just stares back at them. "We're gonna get bit."
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2016
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH