“Well I think he had really no choice. He’s doing very poorly in the polls, he’s a very low-energy kind of guy and he had to do something, so they’re spending a lot of money on ads.”
— Donald Trump quoted by Politico on Jeb Bush’s latest attacks.
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Suppose you were an idiot and suppose your were running for president, but I repeat myself.
OK, I appropriated that line from Mark Twain, but it so perfectly captures the Summer of Trump and besides I couldn’t help myself.
Over our long summer of political discontent focused on “anchor babies,” insults aimed at “losers” and women who bleed, well, let’s don’t go there, the vast Republican field of presidential candidates has allowed a low-class real estate developer whose only high office has been in one of his tacky office buildings to repeal the essential rules of politics. Maybe the cooler fall temperatures have finally caused them to wake up and stop the madness.
It’s reported that the “low energy” Jeb Bush, the one-time GOP frontrunner and former governor of Florida, has finally decided to take off the kid gloves – they must wear them up at the Bush estate in Kennebunkport – and start hitting back at the man who has been “emasculating” him for weeks.
“Look, Jeb Bush was a very successful governor,” says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, “he’s a thoughtful man, he was a good, conservative governor. But every day, Donald Trump is emasculating Jeb Bush, and Republican primary voters are not going to default to the establishment candidate who is being weakened by these attacks that go unresponded to.” Bingo.
At least since June most of the Republican field, and many observers (yours truly included) have maintained that Trump’s half-life as a contender would last about as long as his hairdo in a windstorm. But the big boor kept on boring, tapping into the deep resentment and, of course, nativism that has come to define those who populate the outer planets of the GOP solar system. In retrospect it should have been obvious that someone in the massive Republican field would vault to the front of the pack by channeling the anger that has fueled so much of the over the top opposition to Barack Obama for the last seven years. Trump, as my father use to say, may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid and he has tapped that deep vein of resentment, even hatred, directed toward Washington, immigrants, the Kenyan-Muslim president, Wall Street, organic food and, who knows, maybe even Megyn Kelly. She is a card-carrying member of the elite, after all.
Until Jeb Bush realized that “staying under the radar” was a political path back to forever being referred to as the younger brother who couldn’t cut the Republican mustard, Trump has completely dominated the political summer. He did so because he is different, which is more than just loud and offensive. He has ridden the crest of a wave of mostly white, middle class resentment about a country that is changing rapidly in a way that many Americans must find downright scary, even scarier than a bloviating real estate developer.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, Trump is just the latest incarnation of the “outsider” in American political history, the out sized personality willing to rhetorically attack the status quo, while offering little more than fire, brimstone and bluster. George Wallace played the part in 1968 and later. Huey Long in the early 1930’s did the same. Long was probably never a serious national threat to Franklin Roosevelt, but for a few brief moments in 1934 and before his death in 1935 he must have seemed a real threat. Ross Perot, Henry Wallace, Jesse Ventura and a host of lesser names have regularly appeared to appeal to the thirty percent or so of Americans who are always really pissed off about something.
What has been different with Trump is his mastery of the new tools of political communication and, of course, that the American public has never been subjected to such a full-fledge narcissist for such an extended period of time. Talk about different. Trump has been able to sustain his summer run with crude but effective marketing skills, four-minute hits on cable television, late night tweets that become early morning headlines and lately Instagram mini-commercials that may have been the catalyst convincing Jeb to jab back.
Every Trump tactic is just like the man: over the top, mostly devoid of fact, nasty and guaranteed to generate lots of attention. That’s the point – attack, attack, attack. Trump’s aggressiveness on the offensive – both meanings – makes General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign look like a low energy loser.
One of the oldest rules in politics is that the attack gets the attention, while the major policy speech gets ignored. Trump understands that rule and has been on the attack constantly since he joined the Republican race. Another old rule, especially true for Jeb Bush, is the fact that any political attack gone unanswered is an attack believed. When Trump repeatedly refers to Bush as “low energy” – essentially a wimp – and a “loser” who is “weak” he is really attacking Bush’s character rather than his policy positions. It’s a brilliant strategy that Bush had better match tweet for tweet.
So put me down in the camp of those, like Steve Schmidt, who think Bush had no choice but to get down in the hog swill with Trump. His task is very complicated, however, because of the dynamics of the Republican electorate. Bush wants to pull some of those thirty percent or so of really unhappy Republican voters over to his cause, but even more realistically he needs to present himself as a tough, decisive alternative to the loudest mouth in the race. Bush’s strategy of going after Trump is right, but the quality of his message and execution of his plan will determine if he has enough of the political attack dog in him to make the strategy work. I have my doubts.
Bush’s first major push back against Trump was ripped from the oldest and moldiest Republican playbook. Bush called The Donald a “liberal” and highlighted the nice things Trump has said over time about the Clintons. If Trump were a conventional politician that line of attack might have some legs, but the issues with Trump aren’t based on policy or anything that has to do with facts and reason. The disaffected won’t quit liking Trump because he got Hillary to his latest wedding or has had more positions on abortion than he had neckties. The Republican Party might reject him, however, if he starts to be seen as lacking in the essential quality that measures the ultimate success of any American president.
It’s all about the guy’s character. Bush needed to get under than mop of orange hair and tweak – and tweet – The Donald’s outsized personality, his enormous ego and his inability to let any slight go unanswered.
Trump is the grade school bully who couldn’t be stopped by appeals to reason or by complaints that he broke the rules or by tattling to the playground teacher. You have to shame him and call him what he is – a man whose ego and self-regard are so outside the realm of normal human interaction that he is dangerous, to himself, the Republican Party, the country and more.
Bush needs to dust off Ronald Reagan and say “there you go again…” when Trump unloads and Trump will keep unloading because he can’t help himself. Jeb might even anticipate a Trump attack on him by making the attack himself. “Donald says I’m low energy, and I admit that I like to sleep at two o’clock in the morning rather than sit up inventing nasty things to say about people.”
A more direct line would be to simply say: “Trump is erratic, undisciplined, a hothead, an egomaniac completely full of himself. He may have the right character to succeed in the unethical world of New York real estate where you buy and sell contacts with mayors and governors, where people cheat and cut corners to get ahead, but he lacks the character to represent the American people.”
I’d never refer to Trump as a “reality television star,” since that gives him too much credit. He’d always be a “frequently failed real estate developer.” I’d point out that some of the great companies in America have declined to work with Trump because he lacks honesty and character. “Trump’s made a career out of being a bully when American needs a leader.”
Belittle the man where it hurts him the most: his mattresses are uncomfortable, his ties are badly constructed (I’ve never had one, but I bet they are), the towels in his hotels are too small, he’s getting old and can’t chase younger women any longer so he’s decided to run for president.
Trump would come back, of course, from such an attack with a discourse on how successful he has been, how rich he is, etc., but Bush will need to stay focused on the great man’s character, which even those who current support him must know is hardly a match for any president since Warren Harding.
Bush is an inherently clumsy candidate who often seems unsure of what he wants to say or what he really believes, but the circumstances of the Summer of Trump and his declining poll numbers have now pushed him into a strategy he might have wisely adopted weeks ago. Trump reminds us that attacking is often succeeding in politics and he who would attack also needs to defend.
Bush had better jump in with both feet and start landing some haymakers. Such are the moments that define candidates. Can Bush be a better retail politician than he has been? Is there any fire in that gut? Is there any ‘there’ there? With regard to Trump, can he finally find a language to point out what most of the country already knows?
Sometimes you just need to call the schoolyard bully a jerk and hit him upside the head with your lunch box.