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Donald Trump is firing with both barrels

Donald Trump
Scott Morgan | Reuters
Donald Trump

After weeks of shrugging off accusations of bigotry and racial intolerance, Donald Trump had an answer for his critics. He would gather 100 African-American pastors at Trump Tower in Manhattan, then hold a press conference where the ministers would declare their backing for his run for the White House.

A private meeting went ahead, though the endorsement was scrapped after some of the pastors said they never intended to back him and the event had been oversold. For most political campaigns, this would be a PR disaster — but not for Mr Trump, who has an uncanny ability to dismiss inconvenient facts by delivering a memorable quote.

He had one at the ready when he met the press after the meeting on Monday.

"Black lives are very important. White lives are very important. And to me all lives are important," he announced. "I saw love in that room. I see love everywhere I go."

Four hours later, Mr Trump was back on the campaign trail in Macon, Georgia, a predominantly African-American city, where he addressed 5,000 enthusiastic supporters — most of whom were white.

On stage at the Macon Coliseum, Mr Trump waved his forefingers in the air like a conductor and led the audience in chants of "U-S-A!" "U-S-A!" When the audience took over, he cocked his head in satisfaction and flashed a $4.5bn smile to an imaginary director stage left.

"We're going to build the wall," he said. "Mexico is going to pay for it." The crowd erupted.

Six months into the billionaire's campaign, Mr Trump's campaign to become the Republican nominee for president is no longer a circus sideshow; it is the main event. Since announcing his candidacy in June — "it was like the Academy Awards," Mr Trump likes to recall — the real estate billionaire has consistently led in the polls, his support fuelled not by detailed policies on tax or foreign affairs, but on promises to build a wall on the US's southern border and kick out undocumented immigrants.

Predictions that his campaign would implode — after he attacked Vietnam war hero and senator John McCain, mocked a female news anchor, or appeared to call for a register of Muslim Americans — have been proved wrong. In fact, the controversies appear to have cemented his support, while Jeb Bush, the presumptive frontrunner, has been left in the dust.

A CNN poll released on Friday ranked Mr Trump's support at 36 per cent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 20 points ahead of his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz. The neurosurgeon Ben Carson, once running close to Mr Trump, is in third place and Mr Bush has fallen five points to just 3 per cent.

The Republican establishment that once dismissed his candidacy as a flash in the pan is starting to worry. Some are even beginning to prepare for the possibility that Mr Trump could secure the nomination, which they say would have longstanding repercussions for the party — and possibly wreck their hold on Congress.

"If Trump were to either get the nomination, or if it even looked like Trump was getting the nomination, he breaks the party," says Tony Fratto, a former official under George W Bush.

Vin Weber, a Republican veteran and retired congressman from Minnesota, says Mr Trump's anti-Hispanic rhetoric damages the party's reputation with a group that is "essential" to its future.

"He is embracing and trying to win through a strategy that most Republicans ultimately believe is dooming us," Mr Weber said. "I call it the last dance on the Titanic."

Indeed Mr Trump's presidential candidacy has swung like a wrecking ball at minorities, women, President Barack Obama, the US media, Republican elites and anything else that happens to get in his way. Along the way, it has drawn cheers from a contingent of the American public that is fed up with Washington and feels alienated by the advance of liberal causes.

This angry populism can be felt at every Trump rally. The more Mr Trump digs into his enemies, the more the crowd cheers. The more he brags about his wealth, the more convinced they become that he can fix the gridlock in Washington and help make them wealthier too. He may be a billionaire from New York, but in Macon his salty language and straight-talking demeanour somehow turns him into one of them.

The panic of the party elite at Mr Trump's rise has served only to galvanise the billionaire's base.

"We're driving the Republican establishment cra-a-zy," Mr Trump told the cheering crowd. "Crazy. Crazy! They don't know what to do."

Other candidates, including Mr Cruz, Mr Carson and Rand Paul, have styled themselves as outsiders, but Mr Trump's bombast has had far more resonance. "He's going to be radical but I think it's time for a shake-up," Walter Moody, a businessman in the audience, said of Mr Trump. "I think it's time to have the conversation," he added.

"We have to start talking about things the way they are and not be scared of being called racists," Andrew Armermann, a home security technician, said at a Trump rally in Virginia.Critics have accused Mr Trump of employing dog-whistle politics to appeal to white voters prejudiced against African-Americans, Hispanics and immigrants.

At the rallies in Macon and Manassas this week, supporters carried signs reading "The Silent Majority Stands with Trump", a phrase some associate with Richard Nixon's strategy to win back the southern states by appealing to white insecurities.

Trump supporters waved the Confederate flag at his rallies in Macon and Manassas. The flag-waver was escorted from the Virginia venue, but allowed to stay in Macon.

In his speeches, Mr Trump repeatedly references the random killing of a young woman in San Francisco by a man who was an undocumented immigrant.

"You see [the illegal immigrants] on TV and you see them coming and coming. If one of us were to shoot one you know who would go to jail? I would," said Keith Warnock, a 49-year-old football and baseball coach in Macon. "When you can't take your wife out to dinner because you are worried about someone pointing a gun on you … " he said, trailing off. "People are scared."

Mr Warnock's father Ira, a 70-year-old retiree, was more blunt. "We've got a small majority of people. Fourteen per cent of people are black in this country, why do they get everything?" the elder Mr Warnock said. "The blacks since 1962 have had every opportunity that whites had. We have to stop giving. We give too much."

Mr Trump is trying to assuage the concern of racism. At events this week, Herman Cain, a 2012 candidate for the Republican nomination who is African American, introduced him, as did two black pastors.

"Donald Trump is not a racist, guys," Bruce LaVelle, one of the pastors, told the sea of white faces in Georgia. "Donald Trump is here for everyone."

Despite his comments calling Mexicans murderers and rapists and promising to build the wall, Mr Trump insists he will carry the Hispanic vote. "I think I'm going to win the Hispanic vote. And I frankly don't think it matters," he declared this week. "The fact is that if the Republicans got up and voted last time you would have had a different president."

Many maintain Mr Trump will lose out on the nomination. "He's got very high negatives even among Republicans," says Charlie Black, a long-time Republican strategist. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, a quarter of Republicans would "definitely not support" him.

Yet Mr Trump appears to have tapped into a potent segment of the American psyche with his celebrity, his blunt talk and his willingness to stick it to the establishment.

"We have a reality show culture," said Priscilla Jones, a Rand Paul supporter who had come to watch the spectacle in Manassas. "They love to see someone with an attitude and they love to see someone get voted off the island. And that is Trump's mentality."

"I think he says the dumbest things all the time," admitted Evan Rozecki, a Trump supporter from Virginia, who said he didn't believe Mr Trump's claims that he would deport all of the country's illegal immigrants or that he had seen thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after September 11. Still, Mr Rozecki said, he would vote for him. "He's smart enough to have smart people around him," he shrugged.

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