Fascist or Con Man: The Dueling Anti-Trump Narratives
There are two prevailing narratives against Donald Trump in this election cycle.
There is Trump the fascist: the man who scapegoats Mexicans and Muslims and muses about punishing women who have abortions. He's the candidate who stands by his campaign manager charged with battery against a reporter. He's the guy who in 1990 described the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square as a "riot."
Then there is Trump the con man. That's the proprietor of Trump University, the New Yorker who pretends to speak for flyover country, the guy who, as my colleague Timothy L. O'Brien has documented, covers up his business failures and inflates his personal wealth.
Democrats tend to fall in the first category. They portray Trump as an authoritarian. Hillary Clinton, for example, seized on Trump's first answer on abortion on MSNBC's "Town Hall" last week, when he said that if abortion were illegal, women who had abortions should be punished. She quoted the late poet Maya Angelou: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them."
Republicans tend to portray Trump as a con man. When Senator Marco Rubio was spending $25 million attacking Trump in Florida (only to lose his home state by double digits) he often accused his opponent of "trying to pull off the biggest scam in American political history." Mitt Romney's speech attacking Trump last month focused on him as a conniver.
There are elements of truth in both narratives. But taken together, they are incoherent.
The lesson of history is that we ignore fascists at our peril. Hitler wrote a book about what he intended to do, but too few people took him seriously. On the other hand, con men use their words to deceive. They are showmen who play to a crowd, who conceal their agendas to appear as something they are not.
Does Trump really mean it when he says he will deport everyone who is in the U.S. illegally? Or is it more likely that he is taking the nativists for a ride, as he is alleged to have suggested privately to the New York Times editorial board?
These critiques matter in the Wisconsin primaries Tuesday, or at least they should. It looks like Trump's stumbles of the last two weeks will cost him. If the anti-Trump forces, particularly in the Republican Party, have found a formula that works, there is a chance to deprive the front-runner of the delegates he will need to win his party's nomination on the first ballot at the convention in Cleveland.
Tim Miller, a communications adviser to the anti-Trump political action committee called Our Principles and formerly the communications director for Jeb Bush's campaign, outlined his PAC's anti-Trump message Monday. "He's a complete fraud and you cannot trust him," he told me. "No matter the issue you care about, Donald Trump is liable to screw you over on the back side. He has always taken advantage of people to help himself."
That sounds a lot like the Romney and Rubio message on Trump.
But Miller also warned, "someone can be a fraud but also have authoritarian tendencies." He acknowledged that he didn't think the voters would buy the line that Trump is the second coming of Benito Mussolini: "I think it's more effective to say you just don't know what he's going to do. He's liable to do anything when he gets into the White House, when his ego is threatened."
Liz Mair, a GOP strategist who is an adviser to the far smaller Make America Awesome political action committee, also said her group was focused on portraying Trump as a fraud. "We feel the most powerful message with them is, 'He's not your friend, champion or advocate,'" she told me. Rather, she said, he's the guy taking advantage of "average Joes like you who like him."
Mair's group has spent around $20,000 this campaign cycle on very targeted messages, primarily on social media. Her group sent out a Facebook ad that portrayed Trump's wife Melania posing nude on a bear skin rug that said, "Meet Melania Trump, your next first lady. Or you could support Ted Cruz, on Tuesday."
The ad targeted conservative Mormon women in Utah. Mair estimates her PAC spent about $300 on the ad, but received millions of dollars worth of free media when Trump himself seized on the ad as a pretext to attack Cruz's wife, Heidi. "I consider the ad a success because it got Trump off his message for two weeks," she told me.
Miller told me that even before Trump's abortion comments last week on MSNBC, his PAC bought ads on Christian radio in Wisconsin emphasizing Trump's past support for late-term abortion. Again the message is that Trump in 2016 is not the same guy who used to bankroll establishment Republicans and Democrats from his penthouse apartment in Manhattan.
Trump of course freely admits that when he was a businessman he gamed our political system. Now that he's a politician, he promises to clean that system up.
The Republicans who are horrified by Trump are warning voters not to believe him. All the while, the Democrats who expect to face him in November are warning voters to take Trump at his word.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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