Tonight, CNN hosts the second presidential debate of the 2016 cycle. In other words, ten Republicans are about to confront the elephant in the room. Donald Trump remains the frontrunner for the party’s nomination. His support has actually grown since the first debate, back in August—and angst over his candidacy has grown accordingly. Mark Halperin, of Bloomberg, reported yesterday that strategists are working overtime “to find some plausible scheme to end what has already become an enduring nightmare for much of the Republican establishment: Donald Trump, Front-Runner.”
In Halperin’s account, these efforts have thus far yielded more questions than answers, since Trump’s candidacy has thoroughly subverted conventional wisdom and political norms. Many observers thought, for example, that Trump’s personal attacks on Fox News’s Megyn Kelly would backfire among Republican primary voters; apparently not. More generally, hopes that Trump would self-destruct have been dashed—in fact, his offenses have actually boosted his standing. Whether someone else can take Trump down is an open question, complicated by the issue of whether his rivals are willing to try. Rick Perry was Trump’s first and fiercest critic, and he was also the first candidate to drop out of the race. I don’t think those facts are causally related, but as Dave Weigel writes, at the Washington Post, many people do.
A further problem, Halperin continues, is that there’s no consensus on which anti-Trump “frame” would be most effective. Based on his conversations, he distinguishes at least four lines of criticism:
1. Trump can’t be trusted because he is an egomaniac with a bad character…
2. Trump is a liberal and unprincipled…
3. Trump is a politician, not a businessman/outsider…
4. Trump is not close to being fit to be a serious president or commander-in-chief…
Back in August, a few days after the debate, I disagreed with the idea that Trump’s frontrunner status was some sort of mirage, which was at that point the conventional wisdom: “Republicans are starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.” I was pessimistic even then because I’m familiar with the playbook Trump is using. Texas has a number of elected officials who’ve won Republican primaries that way, and a number of conservative rabblerousers who continue to use this approach to raise money and put themselves in the spotlight, contra all sense and reason.
And so I have another warning for any anti-Trump Republican strategists who may be reading this: All of these criticisms are true. But none of them are going to work. The problem is that they’re all criticisms. As such, they give Trump an opportunity to cast himself as the aggrieved party, and playing the victim is, I suspect, the first thing they teach at carnie college. Here’s how it works:
His supporters have already succumbed to the premise that Trump is a conservative outsider—a noble underdog, determined to fight the establishment and to speak truth to power. Having accepted that premise, they are predisposed to take any criticism or disagreement as further evidence for Trump’s claim that he is surrounded by powerful enemies who are determined to thwart him for their own selfish or corrupt or ideological reasons. His ultimate failure will be taken as proof that the game is rigged—against the candidate, but also against people like themselves, his supporters.
It’s shameful that some grown adults would respond to valid criticism so disingenuously, and it’s ominous that they would be rewarded for doing so. But there you have it; Trump is trundling down a well-trod path.
How should Republicans respond? I continue to think, as I did in August, that it’s a bad idea to make common cause with a carnie, as several of Trump’s rivals have done. Life is an iterative game, and strategic decisions made in 2016 may have long-term consequences for candidates like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. Such calculations certainly help explain the growing acceptability of this victim mentality, which I fear will have long-term consequences for all of us.
By contrast, I think that over the long-term, Perry’s approach will prove to have been a better one. As my colleague Dave Mann put it yesterday, the governor “left on his own terms…he was beaten, but unlike last time, he wasn’t broken.” Perry also, significantly, didn’t break the party in his bid to become its presidential nominee. In suspending his campaign, he went out of his way to affirm his support for conservatism, and to call out contemporaneous trends that threaten it. Republicans should thank him for that, because the party has no future if it’s defined by reference to a person rather than a philosophy.
That doesn’t help the Republicans who will join Trump onstage tonight, though. According to Halperin, none of them are eager to tackle Trump, exactly: “On a crowded stage with limited time, taking on a seasoned TV star still seems foolhardy when the campaign cycle is swinging into autumn.”
They may not have a choice, though, and so I hope the strategists have taken note of one of the frontrunner’s quirks. Trump was nervous during the first debate. You could see that from his body language, as he punctuated most of his comments with a weird, shadow-puppet hand gesture, and you could see that in the aftermath of the debate, as he continued to brood over Kelly’s questions. Trump may, in fact, be a more fretful person than his hat suggests. Politico’s Michael Crowley had an astute offhand question last week, on Twitter: “has anyone ever seen Trump laugh?” For such a question to even arise suggests that there’s a luxurious vein of self-doubt beneath all the bluster and bravado. If so, the best way to handle Trump on live television would be to humor him, to commend him for his lofty aspirations, despite the obvious problems with his executions. This would be especially effective coming from candidates like Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, or Carly Fiorina—all good-humored, accomplished, self-made, and therefore well positioned to aggravate the frontrunner’s insecurities, solely because they’ve earned the right to share the stage.