Donald Trump rose to the top of the Republican presidential heap by touting his unwillingness to bend a knee before the scolds of political correctness on the issue of immigration. Unsavory people were flooding into the country illegally. The only way to stop them was to build a massive border wall.
People responded to that idea. It was simple. It made sense. (Walls keep people out, right?) And, most importantly it was the sort of thing that most politicians -- even Republicans -- were too scared to say.
The problem for Trump is that he seems not to understand the difference between battling political correctness and puerile put-downs. To him, speaking out on immigration is the equivalent of running down Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for her allegedly biased questions during Thursday night's debate.
There is, of course, a big difference: His sentiments on immigration represent a real strain of belief within the country; his comments on Kelly -- as well as anyone else who stands in his way -- are pointless, the reflex action of someone who aims to destroy anyone who dares question him.
Witness Trump's answer to Kelly's question during the debate about his past pejorative comments about women.
It actually started off ok -- with Trump on message; "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," Trump said to applause. But, as he kept talking, Trump veered of into the sort of personal insult game that has absolutely nothing to do with speaking truth to power.
"And honestly Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry," said Trump. "I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that."
That answer shows how Trump conflates his battle against political correctness with his seeming willingness to put down anyone or anything that stands in his way. Trump seems to think that name-calling -- because most politicians don't engage in it -- is somehow consistent with his broader anti-politician image.
But, politicians -- and people -- don't engage in name calling because of a little something called basic human decency; treating people the way you would like to be treated. We don't make jokes about womens' menstrual cycles to explain away behavior we don't like not because we are paralyzed by political correctness but because we aren't pre-teen boys.
Saying things in politics that more standard-issue politicians won't say -- whether it's about raising the retirement age, raising taxes, making changes to our entitlement programs, or, yes, solving our immigration problems is of genuine value. People feel as though politics is broken and the men and women who are active players in the game don't get it. They're so afraid of their own shadows -- or of not getting re-elected -- that they try to say as little as possible that could be offensive to anyone.
Trump quite clearly has positioned himself as the opposite of that mentality. The problem is that his message works when he is willing to say things other people can't or won't about policy matters. But, name-calling isn't a message. And, simply trying to be as offensive as possible to the largest number of people isn't a message.
Trump has hit a vein in the American consciousness. But, he doesn't really know why it is people are responding to him. It's because he's willing to break with political protocol on issues that matter to people, not because he's willing to engage in a verbal food fight with everyone who crosses his path.