Whatever one might think of the politics of Donald Trump, there is no question that he seems to have an unerring knack for gauging the visceral feelings of the small group of Republican supporters who play a disproportionately large role in the Republican primary process. He seems to know exactly what buttons to push so while the pundit class takes each outrageous statement of his as the sign that this time he really has gone too far and that people will now abandon him, in reality his popularity remains undiminished or even increases.
Take his most recent call for a resumption of waterboarding. When people pointed out that not only is it torture and thus illegal let alone inhumane but that it does not even work, he did not back down. Instead he said that “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us”.
This is of course barbaric. But Trump is appealing to those people for whom the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, and torture and drone killings and the like, have little to do with justice or defeating terrorism or any other of the official reasons. It is purely revenge, the sense that ‘they’ did something to ‘us’ and by golly, ‘we’ are going to show ‘them’ that no one does that to us and gets away with it by lashing out any and everyone who might be even remotely linked to the acts themselves.
As Nate Silver points out, the primary process is such that Trump can be seen as the favorite while appealing to just about 6% of the total electorate.
Right now, he has 25 to 30 percent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Republican. (That’s something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.)
Trump’s peculiar genius is that he knows what button to push to get that small group to voice enthusiastic support for him. This is why it seems like he can say anything, however false, and it does not hurt him.