You Can Stump the Trump
The Donald isn't Teflon- we’re just doing it wrong
Just this week a number of major media outlets each pondered the same riddle- how to account for the apparent inability if not outright disinterest among Republicans to hit Donald Trump in a way that might move the needle. Nate Silver of 538 looks at why the campaigns themselves have largely laid off Trump. McKay Coppins at Buzzfeed wonders what happened to the cavalry that never came. Both describe a collective action problem stemming from misaligned incentives. As Silver succinctly puts it:
The campaigns competing against Trump are acting in their own narrow best interests, and not necessarily in the best interest of the Republican Party.
This is absolutely true, to a large degree. But it’s also plain to see the futility if not peril that marked previous attempts to “stump the Trump.” From the beginning, the road the GOP nomination has been paved with the political bones of those bold (or foolhardy) enough to take a swing at Trump’s golden coif.
Rick Perry’s frontal assault ended in a first round knockout. Bobby Jindal playing the court jester was good for a few beltway laughs, but failed to graze The Donald or gain the Louisiana Governor any traction. Those still in the race have not fared much better. Rand Paul became a veritable plaything for Trump on the debate stage before his relegation. Kasich and Bush have each gone through nominal sparring matches with Trump, but as Coppins notes,
…Their attacks often seem less geared toward doing actual damage to the billionaire’s candidacy, and more about appealing to the moderate voters and establishment elites who comprise the core of their support.
Even the one true sustained barrage on Trump, courtesy of the Club for Growth in Iowa, was met with decidedly mixed results. While it stemmed his rise long enough for Ben Carson to usurp him, however briefly, it was ultimately a blip that did no meaningful damage.
When considering this futility in the broader context of Trump’s astounding ability to ride his myriad gaffes and faux pas to ever increasing poll numbers, it’s easy to chalk it up to an almost mystical anti-fragility. The flak he takes only makes him stronger, so just stand down.
A December focus group from pollster/guru Frank Luntz is typical of this thinking. His group of 29 past or current Trump supporters not only found these attacks unconvincing, but they actually dug in further the more negative information they heard. By the end of the session, even the erstwhile Trump backers had renewed their support.
But a closer look reveals the inherent weakness of these approaches, while pointing to a more fruitful opening. The failed attacks fall into two categories- the first faults him for ideological apostasies and inconsistencies, typified by Perry and Jindal; the second questions his temperament, as in the case of Kasich and Bush.
By now it should be clear that these avenues represent, at best, political dead ends. One can’t effectively hurt Trump by questioning his conservative bona fides because that is utterly irrelevant to his allure. You can’t attack Trump as a cancer on the movement when most of his backers ascribe the same malignancy to The Establishment and long ago diagnosed the party itself as terminal. You can’t attack him for being a “Jerk” because that’s essential to his charm. You can’t attack his overheated and divisive rhetoric, because his YOLO approach to political correctness is a feature, not a bug.
To hit him where it hurts, you must go to the root of his appeal. According to Ron Brownstein’s thesis of the 2016 primary, Trump is winning because “the blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate has consolidated around one candidate” while the white collar crowd remains hopelessly splintered. So in order to draw blood, you must come up with an attack that can not only speak to white working class voters, but also begin to break Trump’s spell.
A billionaire real estate developer might make for an odd working class political (anti-)hero, but he has always projected the over the top caricature of what a working stiff might think being rich would be like. And his outer borough accent conveys a disarming familiarity that is impossible to fake.
So how do you chip away at this rapport? You start by shattering the illusion that Trump is a friend of the little guy. To his credit, Trump possesses an uncanny ability to perceive, identify, and harness the wants and needs of the average Joe. The problem is that Trump takes this unique insight into the working class and exploits it for his own gain.
Perhaps the best instance of this is Trump University, his for profit “education” venture that was investigated and later sued by the State of New York, which held Trump personally liable for running an unlicensed school. Personal accounts from former students are damning, describing a boiler-room operation that imparted no real estate knowledge while leaving them deep in debt. One student, a Trump supporter no less, called the school an outright “scam.” These stories, when combined with the slick Trump U pitch video could make for a great opening salvo. The possibilities are limitless, particularly given the mountain of opposition research material that has yet to be uncorked.
The bottom line is that you need to disabuse people of the notion that Trump is on their side. This is a con, and we are the collective mark. You do this by exposing his penchant for screwing over the little people- whether via Trump U, the Polish Brigade, Atlantic City, Kelo, or even H-2B visas, just pick your poison.
The key to this approach is not to explain, but to illustrate. Let the images speak for themselves- make it not about the issues, but about the people. Vera Coking and Wojciech Kozak need to be household names. If they aren’t in the spring, I can guarantee you they will be by the fall. Because if Republicans don’t step up and beat him themselves, the Clinton attacks on Trump will make Obama’s Romney playbook appear low energy by comparison.