When Donald trump first announced his candidacy, most observers had a good laugh. Political comedian John Stewart described it as “a gift from heaven,” sure to provide endless material for his last few episodes as host of The Daily Show. It was, in his words, a sort of “comedy hospice.”
But to the surprise (and horror) of GOP leaders, the Donald’s candidacy has far exceeded its life expectancy. Conventional wisdom holds that a billionaire whose most notable political accomplishment is publicly questioning the President’s citizenship status should fade to irrelevance almost immediately. But with the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses looming on the horizon, Trump has somehow stuck around. He is not just “hanging in there,” either. As of writing, RealClearPolitics shows Trump holding a 9% margin over his nearest rival, Ben Carson, and a 16% cushion over the leading establishment candidate, Marco Rubio.
Given Republicans’ tendency to rail against D.C. politics and the political establishment in general, it is perhaps unsurprising that political outsiders have gained a foothold. What is surprising is Trump’s seeming invincibility.
The brash, offensive, and sometimes patently false statements that have defined Trump’s political personality would end the Presidential bids, if not the careers, of most politicians. Beginning with his characterization of Mexicans as rapists, drug dealers, and criminals, Trump has spared no minority from his vitriol. He applauded his supporters for beating up a Black Lives Matter activist a recent rally. He has endorsed creating a registry of Muslims in the U.S., and even more shockingly, has not denied the comparison to the forced registration of Jews in Nazi Germany. He has launched ad hominem insults at Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance, and most recently, mocked a New York Times reporter’s physical disability. Considering that an untimely mental lapse was enough to sink Governor Rick Perry’s campaign in 2012, the fact that Trump remains atop the GOP polls is, quite frankly, astounding.
Understandably, Trump’s persistence has the GOP leadership in a tailspin. Most analysts agree that naming Trump as the Republican nominee would amount to handing Hillary Clinton the Presidency on a silver platter. Rumors abound that party elites have even considered drafting Mitt Romney to rescue the GOP from a general election disaster. Romney, however, has showed zero interest in running—so for now, Republicans must ask themselves: what will it take to topple Trump?
Attacking him on his qualifications (or lack thereof) has proved ineffective. For example, Trump’s most blatant weakness is his utter lack of foreign policy experience. When prompted on his plans to handle the immensely complex war in Syria, he has evaded giving details, instead promising to “bomb the sh** out of ISIS” and “make our military so big and so strong and so great that no one will mess with us.” Somehow, he asserts, this will win him the respect of historically hostile heads of state such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.
Given that the recent terror attacks in Paris have underscored the importance of the next President’s foreign policy, one might expect establishment Republicans to use this opportunity to highlight Trumps’ complete lack of a plan. Instead, most candidates have shifted the focus towards tightening immigration policy. In other words, they have redirected the debate straight up Trump’s alley, while his war-mongering has gone completely untouched.
Next, some candidates have attacked Trump based on his business past. In a recent debate, Carly Fiorina noted that his corporations have gone bankrupt four times over the past two decades—hardly a good track record. The Washington Post confirmed Fiorina’s claims. Again, conventional wisdom holds that four bankruptcies should undermine an inexperienced billionaire’s Presidential bid. But again, Trump defied conventional wisdom by doubling down. Taking to Twitter, the Donald declared, “I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!”
Since pointing out his obvious weaknesses has proved fruitless, some of Trump’s competitors have gone after his signature policy issue: immigration. Governor John Kasich rightly pointed out in a debate that Trump’s plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants is totally infeasible. “Come on, folks,” the Ohio governor complained on stage. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument. It makes no sense.” True to form, Trump failed to acknowledge the logistical impossibility of deporting 11 million people. Rather, he reverted back to his signature refrain: “I built a company worth billions of dollars. I don’t have to listen to this man.”
In brief, Trump possesses a bizarre advantage: his rhetoric is so consistently outrageous, and he defends his remarks so stubbornly, that no one is surprised when he goes one step further. Attacking him on policy positions doesn’t work because the Trump campaign has never been about policy. Rather, he has played on the frustrations and prejudices of a wide swath of white, blue-collar workers. And to the chagrin of the GOP leadership, this strategy has built Trump a devoted fan base.
How, then, might the GOP reclaim its Presidential bid? First, establishment candidates should focus more on the positive aspects of their own plans, rather than pointing out the obvious fallacies of Trump’s proposals. By wasting valuable airtime engaging with Trump, they acknowledge him as a legitimate contender and are soon drowned out by his irreverence.
Ironically, establishment candidates might also well to take a page from Trump’s playbook. Much of Trump’s support rests on middle class Americans’ fear of some abstract enemy. This enemy has at times been Chinese businessmen, Mexican immigrants, and most recently, Syrian refugees. By focusing citizens’ attention on these caricatures, Trump has built a groundswell of support that has little to do with actual policy. Similarly, establishment candidates could benefit from playing on conservative’s general opposition to the Obama administration, and the idea that electing Clinton would amount to electing Obama for a third term.
Lastly, the GOP leadership should push for a thinning of the field. With so many candidates jockeying for media attention, news outlets seize on the juiciest sound bytes. This pattern confers an obvious advantage to Trump, whose outrageous statements routinely make headlines. However, Trump lacks the expertise to go toe-to-toe with any singular candidate on policy issues. By rallying the field behind two or three legitimate contenders, Republicans might have a better shot at dealing Trump a knockout blow.
Having lost two Presidential elections in a row, and with a crisis of leadership in the House, the GOP desperately needs to present a strong nominee. It will take a team effort, though, to dethrone Trump—and to make the GOP great again.