Inside the Ludicrous Donald Trump Primary

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With her poll numbers sagging, her political organization dwindling and prognosticators declaring her moment to have passed, Michele Bachmann called in a big gun Monday night: Donald Trump.

In a bid to bask in the reflected glow of Trump’s spotlight, Bachmann held a tele-town hall billed as an exclusive opportunity for fans to hear a real-estate mogul turned reality-TV star — whose signature phrase is “You’re fired” — hold forth on how to create jobs.

“We’re extremely excited to have Mr. Trump,” Bachmann said, during an effusive introduction in which she thanked him no fewer than four times. “He’s on the call because he’s admired, he’s respected, he’s known all over the world as a man who knows the economy.”

Never mind that the forum was news to Trump. (“I didn’t even know I was doing it until you just told me,” Trump told Fox & Friends a few hours before the conference call.) The invitation, extended by Bachmann during a breakfast meeting last week, underscores the degree to which a confab with the Donald has become an obligatory pit stop on the path to the Republican nomination. Since abandoning the successful publicity gambit of pretending to seek the presidency, Trump has gobbled pizza with Sarah Palin, talked shop at tony Jean-Georges with Rick Perry, and hosted Mitt Romney and Herman Cain on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. Neither Trump’s slim political resume nor his regrettable fling with the birther movement has dissuaded these presidential aspirants from seeking his counsel.

“He’s the godfather of politics. Everybody comes to kiss the ring,” boasts Michael Cohen, a Trump executive and confidante who has steered the mogul’s quest for political clout. “Right now in the GOP there are four recognized kingmakers. Number one, there’s Donald Trump. Number two, there’s Chris Christie. Mike Huckabee. And the fourth – is it Senator or Governor DeMint?”

Beyond the bluster, there’s a kernel of truth to this. Trump’s political platform consists mostly of gassy pronouncements about America’s declining might and the need to assert its dominance over its rivals, but it has struck a chord with a fearful electorate. “I have to give you very high marks,” Barry from Pennsylvania told Trump on the call, “because you were the first and a very profound voice to call out OPEC.”

“They suck the blood out of you every time the economy starts getting good,” Trump agreed.

While Trump’s call for tightening the screws on China may be gaining currency — the Senate passed a bill last week that would punish the Chinese for manipulating theirs — that isn’t why the Republican field is taking turns making the pilgrimage to his Fifth Avenue skyscraper. Trump has a pair of assets far more valuable than any scraps of policy wisdom he might dispense: a thick Rolodex and a significant soapbox.

For candidates struggling to fill their coffers, Trump’s connections could be a valuable ticket into Manhattan’s moneyed elite. “Trump can deliver anything to whoever the GOP nominee would be,” Cohen says. “Many of Trump’s closest friends are the titans of Wall Street, the largest developers in the world. He can raise an inordinate amount of money.”

Maybe so. But what Trump is really selling is his own ubiquity. There are few people with his bold-face cachet, which makes Trump’s endorsement — splashed across his TV show, social media platforms and the headlines he generates — a coveted one. By the same token, his megaphone is loud enough that it’s worth paying obeisance to avoid having it turned against you. Public courtship has its benefits for suitors, each of whom has been the recipient of praise for their efforts. “I have a lot of respect for Michele Bachmann,” Trump announced at the tele-town hall. “We had a wonderful breakfast the other day.”

Trump is hardly the only potential rainmaker on presidential hopefuls’ agendas; he just brags about it more. And his months roaming the fringe questioning Obama’s citizenship have made him a target for political opponents. On the day Romney slipped into Trump’s office a few weeks ago, the DNC released a video linking the two. Jon Huntsman hasn’t participated in what his spokesman has derisively dubbed “Presidential Apprentice,” and taken pains to highlight the fact that Romney has. Establishment Republicans are not going to ask how high when Donald Trump tells them to jump.

Bachmann, on the other hand, is appealing to a segment of the electorate for whom Trump’s dalliance with birtherism or boilerplate about President Obama’s weak leadership is hugely appealing. But in the end, she may be wasting her time. Trump has said he may not endorse until next summer, and that if Republican voters don’t tap a candidate he deems capable enough, he’ll consider an independent bid for the presidency.

This isn’t a credible threat. (Why would a guy who claims he’s committing to ousting Obama make that task tougher by vulturing conservative votes?) But by cracking the door a tad, Trump ensures that he’ll be able to siphon off the political spotlight a while longer. It’s a fitting plot point for a presidential campaign that has become the most sordid reality show of all.

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