“There’s never been a crowd like this,” Trump crowed. He had a point there. While Trump’s modest draw was dwarfed by the hordes that attended the kick-off events for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and most of the dozen other Republicans running, none of those amateur showmen thought, as Trump apparently did, to put their most devoted supporters in the balcony. If nothing else, his priorities are clear: Press in the front, voters in the back. (Except for George Stephanopoulos, that is. The ABC News star arrived too late to get a good view of The Donald and was forced to watch Trump’s announcement on a monitor off to the side.)
After a 15-minute, nativist diatribe in which he declared that the American Dream “is dead” and that the U.S. has become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” Trump finally declared what everyone had come to hear. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “I am officially running for president of the United States.” With that formal announcement, the hearts of a dozen (or perhaps a hundred) GOP operatives sank. As Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins has ably documented, Trump has been toying with a run for public office for the better part of 25 years, but he’s never actually done it—until now.
And really, why not run? The Republican field is a splintered free-for-all, and to the chagrin of the party establishment, Trump could find himself on the 10-person debate stage by dint of his universally recognized name alone, without even setting foot in Iowa and New Hampshire. As of this moment, Trump is polling ahead of Rick Perry, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki—that’s two current governors, two former governors, and a sitting U.S. senator, if you’re counting. He’s 69 years old (so it’s probably now or never), his reputation among the political elite has nowhere to go but up, and he has nothing to lose except money—and he’s done that plenty of times before.
Of course, as others have noted, Trump could be punking us again. He could fade quickly back into reality TV, or he could use the auspices of a campaign to promote himself for a few months and drop out before the voting starts. The banners, t-shirts, and bumper shirts at his Manhattan launch event were paid for by an “exploratory committee,” and he apparently hasn’t yet filed his paperwork with the FEC. But Trump insisted that he would (“without extensions”), and from the Trump Tower he was headed to Iowa and then on to New Hampshire and South Carolina later in the week. For now, he’s a candidate.
There are few people who cause the political establishment more agita than Trump. President Obama famously called him a “carnival barker,” a rare presidential statement with which many Beltway Republicans would agree. They fear he’ll make a mockery of their nominating contest, bringing down an already-damaged party brand in advance of the general election. More cynical observers would say that Trump is the candidate a disengaged, celebrity-obsessed America deserves.