Donald Trump is the Republican frontrunner.
No pundit thought it would come to this. 2015 was supposed to be the year Republican primary voters held a serious discussion among the best representatives of the various stripes of the coalition: moderate, Tea Party, libertarian, social conservative. Instead, we are stuck with headline after headline about the latest high-decibel tomfoolery of a man who is no conservative.
Enough pieces have been written analyzing the social phenomenon of his meteoric rise to the top of the polls. This isn’t funny, or even interesting, any more. But it must be of abiding concern to anyone who cares about the future health and viability of conservatism. The sociologist in us must now yield to the strategist: how does a credible conservative alternative defeat Trump?
It is a maxim of American politics: “Never get angry, except on purpose.” Undirected anger defeats no opponent and passes no legislation. There must be a forum, an audience, and an opportunity to answer the fool according to his folly. Fortunately, this happens to be today, at the Republican presidential debate on August 6.
What the GOP Field Will Likely Do
The top ten Republican candidates for president will assemble in Cleveland for the pony show. The debate moderator will almost certainly begin with asking Trump about one of his most recent asinine comments. Trump will predictably defend himself and lash out at the host for following the mainstream media. Then the field will have a chance to respond.
Jeb The Sensible holds his nose at the stench. Bush will stick above the riff-raff, and he will hope the freak doesn’t get too close. He may express that he is offended by Trump’s remarks, and hope for a better tenor. Expect a pivot toward Bush’s positive vision instead of Trump’s negativity.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have both praised Trump; they will try to downplay disagreement. Even if they did register strong disagreement, it would seem shallow and forced after their recent comments of support. Scott Walker may follow this strategy to a lesser extent, particularly given his strategy of wooing Iowa conservatives. All hope to harvest a rich share of votes following the candidate’s inevitable demise. But this is precisely the problem: he has not imploded, and none of his chickens have yet come home to roost.
A staunch conservative who can unite the base has an excellent opportunity at deflating the buffoon. Three candidates come to mind: Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Rand Paul. All three have strong conservative credentials. All three also have lackluster poll numbers. Rubio and Paul’s have sunk substantially since their respective presidential announcements, and Perry has failed to garner substantial support since his June announcement. Each has little to lose, and everything to gain in establishing himself as an effective Trump foil.
What GOP Candidates Should Do
An effective Trump foil will look to Joseph Welch as a historical source for guidance. Welch was counsel for the United States Army during the 1954 McCarthy hearings. Fred Fisher, a young protégé of Welch’s, had been a member of the National Lawyer’s Guild, which had Communist sympathies.
When Sen. Joseph McCarthy brought this up, Welch was infuriated, and sought to defend his friend’s credibility and future career. He interrupted McCarthy with the historic line: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
The line is a made-for-TV-moment that would bring great applause from the Republican audience. This direct method of attack would concisely question Trump’s motives and character, something that is desperately needed. It would receive favorable media attention and a favorable response from the Republican donor class.
Assuming the very best, momentum would generate in a new direction, and the party could begin to move on from Trump’s antics. Perry, Rubio, or Paul should effectively resurrect the line, or something close to it, Thursday at the Republican debate.
So go ahead, campaign strategists. Prepare your man for a fight. Be sharp and unyielding. Hit hard. And you will win.