Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere until someone attacks him personally, in a way so sharp-edged and relentless that the deflecting, dismissing, obfuscating and trivializing techniques that have so far served him improbably well stop working. It will require nothing less than a full-frontal assault on the Trump mythos, who he purports to be, the whole Trump mystique.
It will involve aggregating and dishing up every backroom deal, every tenant harassed, every questionable tax favor from a compliant politician, the eminent domain actions, all the bankruptcies, the racial discrimination charges, the bogus university, the pyramid scheme, the blustering and the posturing, the mob coziness, the unending go-to bullying stance, the taking credit, highlighting every community run roughshod over, even the cheating at golf, the immaturity, and the tax dodges masquerading as charitable contributions—all of it doggedly and, as must be the case with Trump, fearlessly.
Engaging in this process may not be pleasant or ennobling to contemplate, but once commenced it will chip away, chunk by chunk, and the moment Trump comes to believe that the vaunted Trump brand could be susceptible to being recast as an optical illusion, whether fairly so or not—and, truth be told, there’s reason to think it might be that, at least in some part—his instinct will be to protect it, and to do so he will find a graceful but speedy exit, slip-sliding off the stage like Bob Hope waving to the troops after a United Service Organizations roadshow, and that will be that.
It will be necessary to weather an initial tsunami of retaliation consisting of the kinds of accusations that have worked for him in the past: You don’t get it because you’re not a tycoon. You’re the entrenched establishment with an agenda to protect and therefore unworthy of an audience. My net worth says everything you need to know about me. The usual. The counter punches will be even more nakedly personal than the ones leveled at him, because, well, it’s what he does.
The Dirty Truth: Trump Can’t Be Trusted
Some say the details of the Trump hagiography don’t matter, that his policies may be up for discussion but his can-do bona fides are not—they are a given, unquestioned and unquestionable. They add that the foibles and quibbles have all been brought up in the past and they don’t stick; he’s a guy who knows how to get things done in a colossal way, and that’s all that counts, forget the other stuff.
Yes, that’s what he would have you believe, and he has spent a career making it so; but if Trump gets the nomination, the Republican Party will be betting everything that the grand Trump legend—hammered together over decades of single-minded self-promotion by none other than Trump himself—will hold up against the kind of vicious, take-no-prisoners inquisition it has never been asked to withstand.
His opponents will highlight not the breadth of his capabilities, but their narrowness, his success in one particular slice of the business sphere. They will focus not on his agility or creativity, but on the formulaic nature of what he does, learned at his father’s knee, and how reliant it is on the cooperation of complicit politicians who cough up the taxpayer-funded abatements and financial guarantees that make it all work.
They will not allow him to brush off bankruptcy as a benign “tool,” pointing out that he used it as a weapon to fend off legitimate creditors who, in order to avoid being screwed completely are bullied into agreeing to be screwed somewhat less than completely.
Single-mindedly deployed, and persistently, no matter how energetic the attempt to derail it, with not even the slightest nod to fair play, the uncomfortable question will be clear and persistent: Why should Trump’s undeniable earning power—in one particular segment of the business world that leans mightily on a long list of rather troubling techniques and behaviors—be an indicator that he has the broader abilities required and the moral and ethical bone marrow to warrant serious consideration for the most powerful, important—and potentially dangerous—executive position on the planet?
Just Imagine the Available Attack Ads
It’s easy to envision an ad something like this: They go out and unearth just a few of the many times Trump has used lawyers as battering rams to intimidate, buffalo, or crush his opponents, like here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. They will find all kinds of sympathetic characters on the receiving end of this and play sad violins in the background.
Finally, a voiceover: If this is the way Trump misuses the U.S. legal system, what do you think he’s going to do when he gets his hands on the U.S. military?
That’s one; there are a hundred more, and each aspect of Trump’s rough-and-tumble past will be deeply mined for golden sludge that can be balled up and hurled directly at his equally golden head.
Honest, fair-minded, and forthright themselves, Trump’s supporters view him as being refreshingly the same. They see him as Galahad, undaunted and unafraid as he gallops across the land on his white charger, slaying dragons on their behalf.
But what happens when an orchestrated, determined fusillade causes that image to gradually pixilate… then slowly resharpen into… The Artful Dodger, finagling advantage for himself at every opportunity, blessed, ultimately, with little more than a good line of patter and a genius for self-marketing that he has transformed into a cagily amassed mountain of gold? What happens if people start thinking maybe, just maybe, Trump is not who he professes to be, that maybe, just maybe, there’s trouble in River City?
You Can Bet Your Britches the Democrats Will
The only real question is whether someone will do it before it’s too late, which is to say before he gets the nomination and is delivered up to the Democratic oppo commandos, their tanks currently amassed and idling, who will use this exact technique to roll over him with the kind of steely-eyed brutality that doesn’t leave many pieces left to pick up. They will spend $1 billion (literally) personally destroying him completely, utterly, irredeemably, and forever, and they won’t do it by attacking his policies, they’ll do it by attacking him.
They did it to Romney when they had nothing to work with, other than his putting a dog on the top of his car and having a binder full of women. With Trump, fair or unfair, there is an embarrassment of riches. Trump might well have an explanation for everything, but it won’t matter: Truth takes a backseat to what you can make people believe, and that is a concept Trump knows a thing or two about.
It explains, for example, his outsized, almost embarrassing obsession with poll numbers: They tell him not whether he is right, but whether he has done enough to make people think he’s right; not whether he’s actually qualified to be president, but whether he has done enough to cause people think he is. For Trump, it seems that perception out there is and always has been the only reality that matters, especially when you know how to turn it into riches.
Of course, Romney didn’t fight back, much to the exasperation of those counting on him. Trump most certainly will, and that in and of itself might form a very large part of his appeal—but it will be endless and increasingly ugly, maybe even Queeg-like, and ultimately Ronald Reagan was right: When you’re explaining, you’re losing.
It’s not pretty; it’s not nice; and this explanation takes no position on whether it would be a good idea or a bad idea, whether Trump would be a good president or a spectacularly ill-suited one. But for those who desire to see Trump neutralized, for whatever reasons, who deem his ouster a consummation devoutly to be wished, it is the only way to make it happen.
Attack Trump for Who He Is, Not Who His Supporters Are
The puzzlement is, why are they going about it completely the wrong way? Consider this: Yes, the problem is Trump—at least, according to all of his opponents, the hierarchy of the Republican Party, the condescending media, endlessly self-congratulatory “Progressives,” and just about everyone else, excepting of course the largest chunks of registered Republican voters.
They don’t see him as a problem at all, and that’s why the wrong way to confront him—absolutely the wrong way—is to attack his “candidacy,” meaning his policies, positions, and ideas, and that is true for three reasons, each one worse than the next.
1. It doesn’t work, and anyone who can’t see that by now has a learning disability. The reasons don’t matter: It’s the way it is. Get over it. Move on.
2. Any attack on Trump’s policies, especially attacks that are vituperative, haughty, and nasty, are received by his supporters—correctly—as attacks in kind on them. If the Republican Party hopes to get them out to vote for anyone other than Trump, it ought to stop insulting them, right now if not sooner.
3. If an attack on his candidacy should start to work, it will only guarantee a catastrophic third-party spoiler run, notwithstanding any hot-dogging promises to the contrary Trump might have recently made. Does anyone doubt his advisers will whisper persuasively in his ear, “You know, you’re better off having a White House with a Democrat who’s grateful—maybe one who went to your wedding—than a Republican who’s annoyed…”?
The only solution is to get Trump to quit of his own accord, and that will happen when his brand—not his candidacy—is in serious jeopardy, and he comes to believe that he’s run the string as long and as far as it will go; that there is a lot more at stake, finally, than his mere candidacy. He will then find a way to make a triumphant exit, turning his attention, once again, to figuring out how to get people to pay him to put his name on golf courses that he has nothing to do with.
Pay the Piper Now or Later
If one needs to feel better about this nasty business, bear in mind that anyone who thinks Trump wouldn’t do the same thing to an opponent if he deemed it necessary hasn’t been paying attention. Again, repeated for emphasis: The thing to look squarely in the eye is that the Democrats will do it to him. (Pay me now or pay me later.)
There is little reason to doubt that Trump genuinely wants to make America great again, and a strong and plausible argument can be made that he should be left unmolested; that he is the best thing since sliced bread, the greatest hope for redemption that America has seen in decades, uniquely qualified and precisely positioned to provide exactly what the country needs.
Certainly, this is how he is viewed by his supporters, who appear to be decent, patriotic Americans who want the best for this country and all its inhabitants. They are good people undeserving of demonization.
But for those who feel his supporters are dangerously misguided and badly misreading Trump’s capabilities and intentions, who believe his nomination will spell disaster not seen since the days of Barry Goldwater, taking him down, moving him out, neutralizing him is deemed the single most desperately pressing imperative imaginable.
It’s a Dirty Job, But Someone Has to Do It
Yes, it will be the politics of personal destruction; the dirty little demon in the closet that has done so much to turn our political system into a cesspool of institutionalized mean-spiritedness. It’s an infection, true, and maybe someday another dynamic will take root, some kind of ceasefire, but, until then, it’s a good idea to accept the reality as it is, rather than as we might like it to be.
At first it will be called sour grapes and unfair, and people will rush to his defense, claiming, well, of course the establishment wants him gone—they have everything to lose, so they smear him, the Golden Boy. If the effort to unravel the Trump folklore is as thin and weak-kneed as in the past, he will skate on it all once again.
More likely, a small crack in the dam will appear. Trump and his supporters will do their best to put fingers in the dyke, but eventually it will give way, and when that happens there will be the biggest political pile-on since… well, maybe ever.
Of course, perhaps the Trump legend is unassailable, or its ingredients beside the point. Maybe his supporters and a lot of other folks, too, simply won’t care, so long as they continue to believe he and he alone can do whatever it is they yearn for. Maybe it’s true that the upside of Trump neutralizes the downside. We’ll see. We will definitely see.
But if the Trump legend doesn’t hold up, if it plays out as described here, on the day Hillary raises her hand and takes the oath of office, a lot of people are going to be sitting around, shaking their heads, and saying, “What were we thinking? Why didn’t we bring these things up before they did?”