The first phase was about receiving publicity, allegedly in front of an investment deal. Say some things that resonate with a large number of people that aren't otherwise being said, give attention to what needs attending to while simultaneously raising the personal profile.
Trump entered the second phase sometime after the first Republican presidential debate in early August. He decided he was in it to win and made the requisite ground game acquisitions with celerity.
The fifth debate made clear that he has now entered a third phase, one characterized by his confidence that he is going to win the GOP nomination.
A major tell was his assurance to the GOP that he is committed to running as a Republican:
In standard Trumpian fashion, he's check-mated the GOP establishment. They didn't want him stealing votes as an independent when they naively believed he didn't stand a chance of getting the Republican nomination. Now that he's going to get it, they're desperate for him to run as an independent. It'd be a lot more difficult for him to win the general election that way, and many of the puppet masters would rather see Hillary Clinton elected than see Trump win. The party tried to ambush him, but Trump's ambuscade was already lying in wait for them. Once again he has outmaneuvered the entire party establishment.
Another sure sign is apparent in the way Trump is now extending his hand to potential allies, and not just Cruz (start at 3:39 in the video), but also others farther down the pecking order. He explicitly made it known that he watched the undercard debate (relevant video queued at the link). This isn't in keeping with his generally dismissive attitude towards the ankle biters bumping around at the bottom, but it was quite purposeful here. Trump is sending a clear message that he is watching, and those who are prudent enough to aid him as he consolidates support and wraps the nomination up quickly will find their loyalty rewarded. For those who aren't, well, it's off the dais for them.
Since I'm assuming the role of epigone (though let the record show a Trump/Cruz ticket was predicted here several months ago!), allow me to allay my own fears with the most recent polling data. In early August, when the Trump phenomenon was in its seminal stages, I wrote:
I don't think Trump's going to win the GOP nomination. If he manages to stand against the entire Establishment (really, all the opinion-making organs of society are against him--both political parties, the major media, big business, etc) through multiple debates where traps will continue to be set exclusively for him, what'll end up happening is that as the other ~16 GOP contenders drop out of the race one by one, they'll all start throwing their support behind one of the non-Trump candidates still in, so that it'll eventually just be Trump vs top Establishment candidate and most of the ~75% of Republican voters who are spread out across non-Trump candidates right now will come together against him.Post-debate polling from PPP, I'm happy to report, suggests I had been excessively pessimistic*. The survey asked Republican primary participants how they'd vote in hypothetical head-to-head contests for the GOP nomination. In these sceanrios Trump crushes Bush 58%-34%, crushes Carson 57%-34%, and crushes Rubio 54%-38%. Only Cruz gives Trump a run for his money, with Trump leading the Texas senator by a single point, 45%-44%.
This is yet still more terrible news for the Republican establishment. A solid majority of Republican voters now say they would back Trump over any of the establishment-approved marionettes.
* Parenthetically, to put this thread in context, I was pointing to how successful Trump's early campaign had been up to that point and how I didn't think it was going away anytime soon in the face of a chorus of people who dismissed it as a circus that would be over as quickly as it had started.
The phrase "Trump phenomenon" really is a fitting one. It's easy to forget that mere months ago no one with a megaphone thought Trump had a shot in hell.