Donald Trump stunning achievement: 'The greatest rise in the history of politics'

This College Course is Trying to Decode Donald Trump
This College Course is Trying to Decode Donald Trump

When Donald Trump began his improbable campaign for the White House almost a year ago, it's safe to believe almost no one, including himself, envisioned he'd be where he is today.

The second line of the U.S. News story covering Trump's June 16, 2015, entry into the 2016 contest stated that he began "with unmatched star power, unfiltered rhetorical bravado, gobs of money and little chance of victory." The New York Times characterized Trump as a "remote prospect" for Republicans. The Washington Post assumed he'd face "an uphill battle to be taken seriously by his rivals."

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And then Trump mounted one of the most unorthodox, rule-shattering campaigns in the history of American politics.

With the final five GOP primaries in the books, the 69-year-old New York City real estate mogul is now the de facto Republican Party presidential nominee, having vanquished 16 opponents, won 36 states and collected more than 12 million votes.

"It's the greatest rise in the history of politics," says Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager.

While the feat is easy to take for granted now, given Trump's unceasing presence in the news cycle, the endeavor was always a high-risk gamble – much like many of his business pursuits.

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The final chapter of Trump's 2016 adventure has yet to be written. But even if he falls short of the presidency in November, his candidacy will be remembered as a historic one that reshuffled the GOP and rewrote the conventional political playbook.

Here's a walk-through of the most crucial moments of Trump's unlikely ascent over the last 12 months.

The Announcement

After years of taunts and teases, Trump's audacity to finally pull the trigger on a candidacy was jolting to the system in itself.

What came out of his mouth during his unscripted 45-minute launch at Trump Tower turned out to be a series of tremors that would shake the party to its core.

FLASHBACK: Check out Trump's announcement in June 2015

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He threw a gauntlet down on immigration, alienating Hispanics but endearing himself to hard-line conservatives with a missive against immigrants from Mexico: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

In what was a precursor of the relentlessly emasculating onslaught to come, he took relish in mocking the presumed front-running candidacy of Jeb Bush, who had formally launched his campaign a day earlier.

"I don't see how he can possibly get the nomination. He's weak on immigration. He's in favor of Common Core. How the hell can you vote for this guy?" Trump asked.

And he unfurled his characteristic braggadocio with an over-the-top vow to be "the greatest jobs president that God ever created."

Looking back, that first speech was a remarkably reliable template of what Trump's candidacy ultimately would encompass: extravagant branding, incessant Bush-bashing and a nativist immigration plan.

An NBC poll at the time showed that three-quarters of Republicans said they wouldn't support Trump. But by the time the first primary debate rolled around, he was in first place in the polls. Still, he looked like a flash in the pan, a summer fling, a gift to the late-night comics.

And then he upped the ante again.

The First Debate

Fox News opened the inaugural Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland last August with a question crafted to put Trump on the spot: Would he ultimately support the Republican nominee, even if it was not him?

In the days leading up to the debate, Trump was openly hinting he might not, leaving the door wide open for an independent run that almost certainly would hand Democrats another term in the White House. But with an estimated 24 million viewers tuned in, getting Trump on the record on the question in such a high-profile forum would have a colossal impact.

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His refusal to raise his hand to sign on to party unity was one of his earliest and most brazen gambits. Trump couldn't even restrain a menacing smile as he was roundly booed by the live audience. Even moderator Bret Baier appeared taken aback.

"Mr. Trump, to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage, the place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod. . . . You can't say tonight that you would make that pledge?" Baier pressed.

"I cannot say," Trump replied.

This was one of the litany of supposed offenses Trump committed that pundits figured would doom him. But in reality, it only reinforced his independence from political institutions and his courage to go against the grain.

FLASHBACK: Trump pledges his support to the Republican Party

Donald Trump Pledges His Allegiance to the Republican Party
Donald Trump Pledges His Allegiance to the Republican Party

"Everyone else gave that bull answer," Lewandowski recalls. "Look where we are now. A number of people on that stage still haven't supported the Republican nominee. Because they're politicians: all talk, no action."

Later, Trump was confronted by co-moderator Megyn Kelly with a list of degrading comments he had made about women over the years. Again, his defiant rebuttal led to something no revered Washington consultant would ever recommend in a Republican primary: an ugly personal spat with Fox News' brightest star.

But in taking on Fox, Trump again underlined how radically different his candidacy was from anyone else's. Most commentators underestimated how much Republican voters yearned for a take-no-prisoners fighter, but Trump sensed it and seized it.

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His monthslong feud with Kelly demonstrated his willingness to take great risk and buck convention on a grand stage.

As Lewandowski puts it, "Donald Trump is not afraid to lose this election, but he's not afraid to win."

The Muslim Ban

In the wake of the San Bernardino, California, terror attacks on the second day of December, Trump was sitting on his airplane being ferried around the country, stewing that something drastic needed to be done.

The two responsible for massacring 14 people during an office holiday party were Islamic State group sympathizers. Just three weeks prior, the terrorist group coordinated a series of simultaneous attacks in Paris, killing 130 people and unleashing a wave of palpable fear throughout the globe.

SEE ALSO: Muslim woman removed from Trump rally after silently protesting

In South Carolina on Dec. 7 – the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – Trump went onstage and, uncharacteristically, carefully read a statement calling for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

"We have no choice, we have no choice," he said to cheers.

The proposed temporary barring of Muslims was panned by members of both parties, leaders of religious groups and international heads of state.

See Donald Trump through the years

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Party chairs of the first three nominating states condemned Trump's call. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was "not who we are as a party." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described it as "completely inconsistent with American values."

But a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in mid-December found that a majority of GOP voters agreed with Trump. Republicans endorsed the measure by a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent, showing its appeal across large swaths of the GOP electorate.

It wouldn't be until weeks later that exit polls of the primaries showed similar results. In South Carolina, 75 percent of GOP primary voters indicated they agreed with Trump's position. In the five states that voted on March 15 – Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois – about two-thirds of Republicans were on board with the ban.

Trump has since recalibrated his remarks a bit, saying the ban was merely a suggestion. But his willingness to foist the radical idea to the forefront of the debate underscored how far away GOP elites had drifted from the base of their party.

'New York Values'

Even in defeat, Sen. Ted Cruz ran an exemplary campaign that would've likely been successful if only a bigger, more unruly outsider hadn't come along. But perhaps the Texan's most singular strategic mistake came on the night of the sixth GOP debate, less than three weeks before the February caucuses in Iowa.

Feeling the pressure to stave off Trump in evangelical-heavy Iowa, Cruz expounded upon his geographical slight aimed at denigrating The Donald in the eyes of flyover country.

RELATED: See photos from that tense debate

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"Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay marriage, focus[ed] around money and the media," Cruz said at the Fox Business debate. "Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just saying."

Trump was ready, deftly recalling the city's resilience after the Sept. 11 attacks and how its citizens pulled together even as fear and "the smell of death" permeated the air.

"We rebuilt downtown Manhattan and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made," Trump said.

Cruz knew he had been whipsawed: His face dripped of defeat, though he went on to claw it out in Iowa.

What he didn't calculate is how much that statement would come back to haunt him three months later, when the New York primary would matter.

Even after Cruz scored a win against Trump in Wisconsin, lending his campaign a lifeline for a comeback and a shot at denying Trump the necessary delegates, his momentum was quashed in the days running up to New York, where Trump not only had a natural home-field advantage, but a damning statement to deploy against Cruz. This is also the time period when Trump savvily began taking aim at a "rigged system" that rewarded crafty insiders rather than representing the popular will.

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Cruz ended up getting clobbered in the Empire State, sopping away any lift he had gotten from Wisconsin. And Northeastern states surrounding New York were just as hostile to the senator. In a recent radio interview explaining his loss, he lamented that the media ignored his success in April states preceding New York and noted that his poll numbers dropped "through the floor."

"It was devastating for Ted; he really misplayed that," Lewandowski says of the "New York values" remark. "He never thought it was going all the way to New York."

The Rout Through the South

It's difficult for Team Trump to pinpoint the one victory that was most important along the way. Lewandowski says the campaign actually hit its vote goal in Iowa (45,000), even as they finished second.

New Hampshire will always be sentimental because it delivered Trump his first electoral win. Their Granite State vote goal was 100,000; Trump netted 100,406.

But the South is where Trump unexpectedly vanquished Cruz, his most relentless nemesis.

That process began in South Carolina, where the entire establishment was lined up against the front-runner, from Gov. Nikki Haley to Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy.

Here, the Trump campaign actually fell short of its vote goal of 240,000 (Trump got 239,851). But his 10-point victory was the start of a rout through the South that dispatched Bush's wayward candidacy and unlatched Cruz's assumed lock on evangelical voters.

The Southeast turned out to be Trump's strongest region in the primary, as he carried every state there below the Mason-Dixon Line. The area was supposed to be Cruz's firewall, where his hard-line social conservatism would overpower Trump's less ideologically driven populism.

But on March 1 – the day of the so-called SEC primary – it was the South that broke Cruz's back and highlighted Trump's broad appeal, especially among groups with backgrounds nothing like his own: lower-income voters without college degrees.

They connected with Trump on a much more visceral level than biography.

Explained Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina: "He's screaming at people in power, which is what they would like to do."