The ability of this guy to own every news cycle really is something. And there is something of a secret to what Trump is doing – namely, that more than the ordinary politicians and their consultants and focus groups dictating an anodyne, inoffensive and boring presentation, Trump understands the old news maxim that “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Conflict sells papers and drives ratings. So Trump foments conflict wherever he goes.
That’s not a particularly successful governing style, of course. It means that Trump is running as an American Republican version of a Huey Long, of Hugo Chavez, or even Adolf Hitler. To generate conflict you’ve got to have someone to have a conflict with, and that someone has to make a good villain.
Trump, so far, has been able to pick good villains. People can’t stand John McCain, particularly in the Republican Party, so when Trump sticks a pin in him and the political establishment loses its mind they’re surprised to find out that most of the public is entertained rather than offended. Nobody likes Lindsey Graham, so when Trump gives out his cell phone number on TV in response to being called a “jackass” by Graham earlier that day, the response is a social media sensation and widespread amusement that Graham had no choice but to give in to and put out a web video coming up with all kinds of ways to destroy the phone Trump has rendered useless.
And when Rick Perry tries to horn in on Trump’s action by demanding he get out of the race after he ripped McCain’s military service, Trump clowns on him as a dummy who can’t hide behind those glasses. Perry then gives a speech calling Trumpism a “cancer,” which comes off as wooden and self-important, and Trump responds by pulling out a picture of himself and Trump smiling at the camera that he says came out of a meeting at which Perry came to beg Trump for campaign money in the last presidential cycle.
He’s picking fights with people he can easily beat, either because he has the goods on his adversaries or the public wants to see them hammered.
So when CNN’s Anderson Cooper tries to pop Trump with an uncomfortable question about a poll that doesn’t show him doing quite as well as his narrative indicates, Trump then has yet another easy mark to do his thing to. Now he gets to shred the media, which most of the public hates. And he does, telling Cooper that “people don’t trust you.”
The problem is that eventually you run out of easy marks, and beating up on failed ex-presidential candidates and long-shot contenders this time will only get Trump so far. You can certainly run against the media – Newt Gingrich’s boomlet in the last cycle came solely from doing just that – but that only can get you so far until the electorate will want more than that.
Eventually, the public will ask for more than entertainment out of the presidential candidates, and that’s when Trump’s Hugo Chavez routine is going to come to a moment of truth. The guess is he’ll probably be out of the race by that point, but that’s not set in stone.
One suspects also that Trump might begin rubbing off on the other candidates. One of those who could use a little “Trumpism” is Scott Walker.
Over the weekend Walker, whose stance on immigration has evolved quite a bit but now seems to have settled on a relatively hard line not just on illegals and controlling the border but on looking at placing tighter limits on legal immigration until the massive backlog of Americans who can’t find work gets cleared, was accosted in Iowa by the open-borders crowd in the person of an illegal immigrant from Wisconsin who accused him of trying to break up his family…
Walker didn’t do a bad job handling a hostile situation from a bunch of obnoxious peope attempting to ambush him. In fact, he was fairly presidential in how he handled the interview – he was firm but polite and he stayed on message throughout the encounter. He also shut down the activists who had sponsored the illegals to accost him by refusing to discuss anything with them; as it turns out they actually drove the family to Iowa in a bus from Waukesha, which tells you all you need to know about how organic this confrontation was.
But outside of the political junkies and news media, you didn’t see more than a blip out of this affair – because while Walker handled it exactly as a professional politician would be expected to, there was no news in it.
He could have turned that into a perfect, defining moment and solidified his street cred with the conservative base – something he’ll need to do, because unlike Trump Walker has a real shot at being president in January 2017.
What Walker could have done is to – before allowing his harasser to say a word in response to his position statement – demand to know how it is the man has his job. “Did they hire you off the books? Or do you have a Social Security number?”
And when the expected answer came, next up would be “So you’re using somebody else’s Social Security number. That’s identity theft, you know, and it’s a crime.”
Walker could then say “Look, I don’t bear you any ill will, and in your situation I can’t say I would have done much different from what you’ve done. All right? And I’m not somebody you should have any special fear of. But you’re here illegally, and you’re using somebody else’s Social Security number so you can take a job from one of the 93 million American citizens who aren’t in the work force, which as far as I’m concerned is the biggest problem this country has and you’re not part of the solution to it.
“So I don’t know what it is you think I’m going to do for you. You want amnesty? OK, great. It’s pretty clear Congress isn’t interested in giving you that. You want Obama to do something he can’t legally do and give you amnesty? Well, that’s piling illegality on top of illegality, and at some point everybody decides they want to play. They’ll decide that not paying taxes works better for them, or moving into some vacant house and not paying for it. Or dumping industrial waste in the river. And then we have chaos.
“If we’re going to do anything for you – give you a permit to live and work here, or a path to citizenship or something – then we’re going to need to have an economy that booms to such an extent that we come to you and say ‘what can we do for you?’ because we have a labor shortage and we need more Americans. Until then? Frankly, you really can’t complain about your situation and you definitely can’t make demands to be given better treatment than the citizens of this country who aren’t getting served all that well.”
Most people haven’t really thought about the illegal immigration question in quite the terms Walker had it presented to him in Iowa over the weekend – namely, that he’s being accosted by illegal aliens who are making demands of him and making him out to be a bad guy because he’s not willing to change the law to give them something they didn’t earn. The ingratitude and, frankly, greed of that really ought to rankle.
And while Walker wouldn’t have had to be rude or combative, he certainly could have owned that discussion in a greater way than he did. He successfully prevented the pro-illegal activists from damaging him, which was most important, but he didn’t sell it by giving a bored public the show Trump continues to give.
The problem with the GOP’s main contenders so far, and this has created an opening for Trump, is none of them have proven to be showmen. That’s going to have to change. Walker, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, even Jeb Bush – they’re going to have to learn how to drive a news cycle and show the public some bombast and personality.
If that means Trump Lite, so be it.