Nate Beeler / Columbus Dispatch

By Peter Funt

Give Donald Trump this much: he knows how to play the media like a violin. If I had half his business brain I’d send him a bill for this column, because every time a serious journalist treats his campaign seriously it feeds his coffers.

Call Trump a bona fide political threat, and he’s laughing all the way to the next campaign appearance. Call him a clown, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Few in media are fooled by Trump — even his admirers at Fox News. They all know he has zero chance to win the Republican nomination let alone be elected president. Yet, the higher he climbs in early, irrelevant polls the more ink he gets.

It can be argued that even those voters who tell pollsters they prefer Trump are playing along — for now. Many are frustrated by the sheer size of the GOP roster, by the tedious length of modern presidential campaigns, and by the seeming inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination on the Democrat’s side. What better way to goose the process than by saying, “I’m for Donald Trump!”

A CNN poll ranked Trump second, behind Jeb Bush, among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationwide.

This happens in high schools when a unpopular kid with few friends inexplicably shows up as a favorite for prom king or queen. It’s the students’ way of pushing back against a process they never really liked.

In Trump’s case, it’s win-win. The other day The New York Times ran not one but two op-ed columns about Trump’s candidacy. In one, GOP veteran Peter Wehner noted, “…the press are only too happy to highlight Mr. Trump’s stream of invective and outrageous utterances…”

And why not? In mid-summer, nothing sizzles more than news of a bombastic billionaire stating flatly that Mexico is intentionally sending drug dealers and rapists our way.

Actually, for comedians like Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon, it’s almost too easy — like shooting elephants in a barrel. But for news reporters and columnists the Trump phenomenon is not so simple to deal with. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post artfully called him “a farce to be reckoned with.” That’s precisely what Trump is counting on.

Here’s the thing about Trump’s campaign. He’s scoring with some ultra-frustrated conservatives at this preliminary stage by appearing to boldly speak his mind without the calculated caution practiced by conventional politicians. In fact, Trump’s boldness comes from knowing he has no chance and therefore can’t be hurt by speaking out irresponsibly.

The Trump campaign is modern, social-media driven political theater.

Maybe this is what the public and its media deserve for allowing presidential campaigns to begin so early. The first GOP “debate” is less than a month away. And thanks to Donald Trump’s presence, the Fox News Channel telecast might actually draw a sizable audience.

Will Trump walk on stage naked? Wearing a Mexican sombrero? Holding a gun? He’ll think of something, because he doesn’t really care. Nor should we.

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Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com. © 2015 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.