Like almost everyone I know who is working on, covering, or closely following the presidential election, I spend about 60 percent of my waking hours talking about Donald Trump. People want to know if he can win, if he will win, and what might possibly derail his candidacy. The reason the answers are so elusive is that Trump has proven to be unlike any other candidate in modern American politics.
Top strategists for Trump’s rivals and some corporate and conservative interests are working with opposition researchers, messaging experts, and focus-group gurus to find some plausible scheme to end what has already become an enduring nightmare for much of the Republican establishment: Donald Trump, Front-Runner. The political-media world is speculating endlessly about which brave and hardy GOP soul will attempt a daring move against Trump, despite the certain threat of immediate, serpent-toothed retaliation. “I hope they attack me,” Trump said recently to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, “because everybody who attacks me is doomed.”
Publicly, former Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his presidential run on Friday afternoon. Privately, those who do this for a living used a bloodier term of the trade: He was killed (politically, of course), the first of what may turn into many campaign scalps claimed by the fiercest killer in this race, Trump.
In the modern era, the Republican nomination has been won by the combatant who is best at playing a game of kill-or-be-killed. In the end, becoming the standard bearer has not been about the daily polls, the staff hires, the policy speeches, the fundraising, the cattle calls, the promised agenda. It’s been about having the skill and confidence to stamp out anyone who threatens you, using a combination of negative TV ads, candidate and major surrogate attacks, and planted opposition research.
All the Republican presidential nominees since 1988 have deployed these weapons in a rapid-fire flurry of assaults. The losers failed to respond quickly, handle the pressure, or maintain image control—and were pulverized. You win the nomination when you define yourself on your own (positive) terms and force your opponent to be defined in the public eye on negative terms. That is how you kill the enemy and prevail. Insiders and the campaigns themselves have long known this secret, even as much of the media coverage obscures the truth. In a sense, in every campaign cycle, the period between announcement speeches and the elimination rounds is merely a matter of marking time.
With Trump, the rules have changed. So far, he has proven to be largely immune from attack, and also a master killer himself, with a unique political arsenal. With a few months to go before voters vote, Trump has squashed the poll numbers and personas of a host of his rivals, without resorting to significant traditional opposition research, paid media, or surrogates. He simply uses Instagram, Twitter, and his virtually unlimited access to the news media to unsheathe his sharp tongue, cutthroat sensibility, and unerring perverse humor. And Trump can shift to kill mode without strain or hesitation.
From the get-go of his entrance in June, Trump has engaged intuitively in kill-or-be-killed tactics. He’s shown a hair-trigger impulse for payback, game to needle, insult, or slam rivals from all points on the poll spectrum, whether they be purported chief challengers such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, or subtler contenders struggling in the polls, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki. It does not seem to be a coincidence that three candidates who have seen their nomination prospects rise of late (Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and retired surgeon Ben Carson) have avoided tussling with Trump, although the billionaire did participate in a brief scuffle with Carson last week (after which Carson apologized). On Friday, as noted, one of Trump’s most energetic brawlers, Perry, became the first candidate to leave the race.
Months away from Iowa, Trump has clashed with more rivals than the other 16 candidates combined. Campaigns typically don’t go negative early—they like to spend time introducing their candidates to the voters in a positive way, so they’ve got a foundation of goodwill before things get ugly. Trump is already well known by the public, so he has been free to strut his stuff—the buoyant and the bullying. In Trump’s view, of course, he’s just defending himself. “They attack…me first and I hit them back and maybe even harder than they hit me,” he explained over the weekend.
When media outlets and pundits exclaim that he’s gone too far, Trump is never sorry, never accepts any blame. Unlike other candidates caught in the Internet glare of controversy, Trump doesn’t do the deer-in-the-headlight cringe, nor does he apologize. When asked about his favorite Bible verses or challenged on his remarks about debate moderator Megyn Kelly and rival candidate Carly Fiorina, Trump hasn’t flinched, even when giving answers that some listeners find incredible. When he becomes aware he has stepped over the line (sometimes thanks to the counsel of his daughter, Ivanka), he knows how to minimize the damage by bluffing his way out the other side. And his capacity to generate news coverage and controversy gives him an unprecedented ability to change the subject and turn the page if he missteps.
In addition to his many imperious iterations of “they attacked me first,” he’s now, somewhat ingeniously, embracing his rough-and-tumble rep. “I don’t think it matters this time,” Trump said this weekend in Iowa. “We’re tired with this nice stuff. We need people that are really, really smart and competent and can get things done. We need people with an aggressive tone and we need people with tremendous energy and I’m your candidate.”
Indeed, the image of a brash, unrepentant iconoclast fits in well with Trump’s public persona, one that’s been forming for more than three decades. As a survivor of the Gotham City tabloid wars, as a best-selling author, as a ratings-rich television star, as a man of near-unerring showman instincts, Trump knows how to define himself on his own terms. Watch any video of Trump’s television appearances from the 1980s onward, and note how consistent his presentation has been over the years, from personal and political interests to style. The negative press he’s received along the way (bankruptcies, conflicting wealth estimates, controversial deals, divorces, crude contretemps, birtherism) has had minimal impact on him because it is all part of his chaotic brand. Since June, Trump has tramped headlong into snares that would shred any other candidate, only to Houdini his way out without a significant scratch. For Trump, outrageous affronts and un-P.C. pronouncements are actually part of the impression he wants to project, and his supporters eat it all up. Each time he shrugs off another perceived P.R. disaster, he gets stronger. What his critics view as irresponsible, dangerous demagoguery, his followers translate as authenticity, currently the favored buzzword of the 2016 election and the most coveted attribute.
In Ames, Iowa, in July, moments after Trump famously diminished John McCain’s military service, I asked the billionaire if he thought his campaign or his public image could be harmed by anything he said.
“All I can do is be me,” Trump replied. “I have to be me. If I’m not me, I’m not being true. I’m a very honest person, and I have to be who I am. And people like what I say.”
Trump’s gotta-be-me strategy works in part because he so relentlessly remains on the offense and dominates the campaign dialogue. In terms of pure candidate skills, Trump is a virtuoso—in a few key ways better than even Bill Clinton, especially when aiming to make an opponent lose control of his or her public image. When Trump throws a jibe (often laced with humor), it comes off as something Trump truly believes in his head and his gut, increasing its effectiveness. It consequently resonates with the public as true. And the bluntness of the delivery discombobulates Trump’s targets. The Donald knows when he’s scored a point and stays on it. When he misfires, he adjusts, without the need for focus group testing.
An example of a classic Trump taunt, one that perhaps has had the biggest impact on the race so far, is his repeated wisecrack that Bush is “low-energy.” Although Bush has worked as tirelessly on the campaign trail as anyone in the race, and at times is passionate on the stump, he possesses an innate laconic demeanor, a chilly aspect. Even his admirers get the essence of Trump’s dig, which plays into the psychobabble notion that the former Florida governor is just a watered-down, Jebby-come-lately Bush in a family tree of presidents. Much of the public (and the press) perceives the essence of Trump’s zinger. And, boy, has it thrown Bush off his game. Jeb’s efforts to lash back, first with dignity, then with pique, were off-message and served him ill.
But it isn’t just Bush’s energy level. Trump has an instinct for finding the weak spots in his rivals’ records that will get under their skin. Trump doesn’t always go for full factual accuracy, but puts a personalized spin on vulnerabilities and delivery. Among his targets so far: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s economic record, Fiorina’s business background, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s immigration stance, Bush’s ties to lobbying and corporate interests, and, of course, the poll standing of everyone else. And knowing the voters appreciate that he is a hard-nosed negotiator, Trump cleverly damns all of his rivals by calling them “nice,” by which he means they are not up to the job of dealing with China, Japan, and Mexico.
Of late, Trump has glaringly overstepped on occasion, for instance deeming the world-renowned neurosurgeon Carson an “OK doctor.” It will be interesting to observe if Trump uses more circumspection going forward, employs surrogates, or pumps some of his private cash into negative advertisements. So far, he hasn’t needed any of that.
After the Summer of Trump, with most of his opponents yipping toothlessly or running scared, some of the candidates are donning Trump-sized gloves. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal last week launched an extended tirade, calling Trump shallow, a narcissist, an egomaniac, and a carnival act, later adding insult to insult with the remark that it looks like “he’s got a squirrel on his head.” Fiorina has dismissed Trump’s latest jabs with smirking scorn (and, her supporters, claim, has laid the groundwork to succeed in taking on Trump where her male counterparts have abjectly failed). Perry departed the race with an exhortation to his fellow Republicans not to “nominate a candidate whose rhetoric speaks louder than his record.”
But part of the problem for the candidates who want to try to kill Trump is that they have other stuff to do, stuff that Trump has no worries about: getting better known; raising money; currying favor with the press; seeking endorsements; demonstrating he or she is ready to be commander-in-chief. As Bush and others have seen, taking on Trump creates a media environment where the only message you can get out is about your battle with Trump. Based on what’s happened so far, that is at best a severe distraction, and in most instances it has turned out a whole lot worse. But the alternative is to continue to let Trump totally dominate the race, which has become the biggest frustration of nearly all of the candidates and campaigns.
Perhaps we will have more data this Wednesday night when the top 11 Republican candidates come together on stage in California for the second debate. Every campaign is considering the risks and rewards of challenging Trump and won’t back away from a fight initiated by the questioners or Trump himself, but several senior advisers to other candidates have told me they remain wary of instigating such a bold move. On a crowded stage with limited time, taking on a seasoned TV star still seems foolhardy when the campaign cycle is swinging into autumn.
Along with the unknown of “who” will go after Trump comes the question of “how” they will try to stop him eventually. Discussions with numerous highly interested Republican and conservative strategists over the last two weeks yield very little consensus. No campaign wants to spend TV ad money now to go after him. The Club for Growth, a Washington advocacy group, is one entity that is willing to spend money to try to derail the front-runner. The group has long been at odds with Trump, and announced at a press conference on Tuesday a $1 million ad buy going after the billionaire that will air on broadcast, cable and satellite television in Iowa and on the web. The two 30-second ads attack Trump on some of his "very liberal" policies and for his support on "eminent domain abuse," but it surely isn't enough to bring him down and the group is suspect in some eyes (they recently hit him up for a $1 million contribution, undermining their credibility). The Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce, and other names are bandied about, but there is no sign any of them plan to take on Trump imminently.
Then there’s the question of what message “frame” (to use the politics term of art) to deploy against Trump. Part of the difficulty here is that most conventional strategies have been tried already (and featured regularly in the news media) and have had no discernible impact on his rise. Several of the other Republican campaigns have robust opposition research operations in place, and along with their lobbyist, Wall Street, and congressional allies, are looking for additional background on Trump to forge a clear line of attack.
The current thinking on possible frames falls into four distinct but overlapping stratagems:
1. Trump can’t be trusted because he is an egomaniac with a bad character (his business dealings; his bankruptcies; his two divorces; his insulting statements about women; his casinos; his compulsion to name things after himself; his hazy answers about his own faith; and his aggressive use of eminent domain).
2. Trump is a liberal and unprincipled (past support for single payer, the Clintons, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and abortion).
3. Trump is not close to being fit to be a serious president or commander-in-chief (his recent answers on foreign policy; his lack of specifics on almost everything).
4. Trump is a politician, not a businessman/outsider (his long-time retention of Beltway lobbyists; his self-serving campaign contributions; his courtship of local, state, and national officeholders).
All of these frames have some potential, according to those who wish to end Trump’s domination of the Republican nomination process. But picking one (or two), and driving the message to success is as difficult as it is vital to his foes. There is by no means consensus on which of these frames will work or how to flesh them out. One school of thought, according to my reporting, is to go with an amalgamation of “deals and females,” on the theory that those are Trump's twin vices and the opposition could use those issues to at least pry away some parts of his current coalition and bring his poll numbers down closer to the pack. The hope is that should Trump's numbers go lower, he will get rattled, his aura of invincibility will dissipate, and his mojo will be disrupted.
In the end, however, Web videos, surrogate attacks, press scrutiny, even multimedia TV buys are likely not going to be enough to kill Trump. There will almost certainly need to be a candidate who steps up and takes him on directly and repeatedly. And one who, regardless of an ability to scale the Trump tower, presents him or herself as a strong general election contender.
But barring some major unforeseen development, most Republican strategists now are resigned to deferring a climactic attempt to kill Trump until the field winnows down next spring. This scenario, of course, ignores the prospect that Trump could rack up so many victories in the meantime that his momentum would be difficult, or impossible, to stop. But Trump’s adversaries are hoping that his power will wane when the entertainment portion of the contest ends and voters are ready to pick a president.
Can Trump be killed? The history of past nomination fights suggest he can be. The untraditional front-runners of the summer silly season have always swiftly fallen to the back of the pack—or out of the race altogether—in the fall. But we are in uncharted territory now, with a canny celebrity front-runner who combines an unprecedented and nearly unlimited access to both social and traditional media with a completely sui generis gift for attack and counterpunch politics. The three-month whirlwind since he entered the race demonstrates that of all Trump’s extraordinary talents, master of kill-or-be-killed might be his most decisive—and the single most important factor in determining whom the Republican Party nominates for president next year.
Trump’s rivals used to believe he would kill himself within weeks of entering the race. Then they believed that the press would kill him off before Labor Day. Now, many of them privately answer the question “Can Trump be killed?” by saying, quietly and with a combination of frustration, wonder and doubt: I hope so.