The Trump phenomenon is confounding many people because, on the one hand, it seems impossible to many that the Republican Party would nominate such a weak general election candidate, while it seems impossible to many others that Donald Trump could be such a strong candidate.
So let's be clear about this. Trump is, by every sign available, a historically weak general election candidate.
His unfavorable numbers are off the charts, he is losing to Hillary Clinton in every head-to-head poll, and his policy proposals are going to attract a level of media scrutiny that Republican nominees normally avoid because conservative intellectuals have spent a lot of time dumping on them over the past five months.
At the same time, Republicans aren't going to let these facts stop him from being their nominee.
It turns out that party elites have less sway over the nominating process than many of us thought 12 months ago. In particular, I would say it turns out that the commercial right-of-center mass media — especially Fox News and talk radio but also the Breitbart corner of the internet — is simply not that invested in what party elites think or want. Trump is not liked by a majority of Americans, but he is certainly a compelling television character, and catering to the minority taste for Trumpism has proven to be an effective business strategy.
Given his ability to attract copious quantities of free media and his personal wealth, Trump can overcome the disadvantages of being disliked by the party's professional operative class and leverage his grassroots popularity to victory.
Never before have we seen a candidate so absolutely suited to winning a party primary that could not win the general.
If you want to understand what's going on with Trump, I think you can't do much better than to look at this 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, which reveals a huge partisan gap on a pretty basic question — is racism against white people a bigger problem than racism against racial minority groups?
Republicans said yes; Democrats and independents said no:
This is why Trump's Republican opponents haven't made the obvious criticism of him that he's running a campaign based on racial demagoguery.
To Republican primary voters, it's not obvious that racist demagoguery is a bad thing. Or, at a minimum, it seems like a less pernicious thing than the apparently pervasive discrimination against white people in American society.
The Republicans have become the party of "straight white men are the real victims here!" and the rest of us are just going to vote them into the garbage can.
We still have to actually execute the plan, but it's going to happen.