Donald Trump speaks at his event to raise money for veterans organizations in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

Steele: Has the time come to accept Trump as the likely GOP nominee?

In the hours before the voting begins and on the heels of the most recent Republican debate in Iowa, two immediate takeaways come to mind: One, now you know what a GOP debate without Donald Trump looks, feels and sounds like. And two, you also now appreciate just how much Trump has changed the trajectory of the 2016 presidential contest.

In “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” the real estate mogul defined an essential feature of success: “The best thing you do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants.”

And that’s why Trump is poised to become the Republican nominee for president.

From the moment he descended down those escalator stairs in Trump Tower more than eight months ago, Trump has not only been in control, he has had leverage over the media, the Washington political establishment, and his rivals for the nomination. When you stop and recount the myriad bromides, slams, put-downs, factual inaccuracies and policy side-steps —and that’s just during the first 30 days of his campaign — The Donald emerges as a political leader unlike any we’ve seen in American politics: He is the anti-politician politician.

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Sure we’ve seen others grab the public’s imagination and ride the wave of “being the outsider” only to crash in spectacular irrelevance. But none have demonstrated the capacity to use the system against itself as well as Trump. He has effectively picked up the tools of politics — media (he dominates it), fundraising (he doesn’t do it), and organization (underestimate it at your peril) — and used them against the very political professionals who pride themselves on how good and smart they are.

“When it comes to Trump, the central questions remain for me: Who stops him and when do they do it?”

Yeah, I know Washington’s political class is still nervously convincing themselves that “this cannot last” with each inappropriate word uttered by Trump (even as these same political insiders begin to concede the possibility of supporting Trump because there is no way they’re going to support Ted Cruz). But as voters begin to head to caucus, the reality remains that they have lifted the Trump campaign above the others because it has been his campaign that has most closely reflected their mood. And they believe he, more than the others, will do something about the Washington establishment — on both sides. We’ll see.

When it comes to Trump, the central questions remain for me: Who stops him and when do they do it? Cruz? Rubio? Some other candidate to be named later? Or perhaps it’s none of the above and, in fact, it will be the voters of Iowa. But if Trump wins Iowa, then he is set up perfectly to take New Hampshire and South Carolina. The dominoes then fall precipitously into place as March unfolds into April. He may not have the majority to take the nomination on the first ballot, but going into the national convention with a significant number of delegates and the rules in his favor (changing the rules to block Ron Paul in 2012 is coming back to haunt the party) sets him to control the convention floor and put pressure on the establishment to deal with him on his terms. And we’ve already seen how that has played out. 

As the weeks and months have now turned to hours before the voting begins, Trump still has what the other guy wants: leverage. And he has, despite what you may think or feel about him or his campaign, used that leverage in ways that has transformed this presidential contest and positioned him to start a credible run for the nomination in Iowa.

A friend of mine was lamenting this fact recently in terms I’m certain many of you have heard from colleagues, family and friends: “How the hell did this happen?” and “I just can’t believe this.”

So I’ll tell you what I told him as the voting begins: Just remember denial is one of the 12 steps in grieving. At some point comes acceptance. 

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a political analyst at MSNBC.