This is, of course, a pointless column. The Republican presidential race is over, as you may have heard. Donald Trump has the nomination wrapped up – in the most luxurious, velveteen packaging you’ve ever seen.
You’ve seen his polling lead: It’s yuge. You’ve watched his rallies: They’re even yuger. You’ve heard from the insiders, the panjandrums, the grand poo-bahs: He’s a man they can do business with; Bob Dole guarantees it. You’ve heard from Sarah Palin, and when has her political judgment ever failed?
But just in case at some point over the next few months of voting (a mere technicality, but you have to let the people have their fun), one of Trump’s remaining rivals (I can barely remember their names, to be honest) wanted to waste money running attack ads against him (a strange, antiquated concept, I know), it seems worth suggesting some ideas for how the poor hapless dear might go about it.
Thus far Trump has faced two main attacks. First, that he’s an unserious creep who’s temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Second, that he’s not a real conservative: that he lacks the Reaganite faith, the commitment to the right-wing catechism.
These attacks haven’t worked. Of course, they haven’t been offered all that often, or at least not by anyone polling above the single digits. But if you’re going to take a run at the Inevitable Nominee between now and his coronation, you might as well try something new.
So think back to that misty time, two years gone, when one of Trump’s current rivals – Chris Christie, that’s the one – was seen as the presumptive Republican front-runner. What was the basis of Christie’s appeal? Simply this: He was a jerk, but he was your jerk. He was rude – but to people who deserved it. He was an SOB – the SOB the country needed.
Then think about why the “Bridgegate” scandal was devastating to his image. Not because petty political payback is the worst thing in the world. Not because it proved Christie wasn’t a “true conservative.”
No, it devastated Christie because it flipped his brand. Instead of the jerk who looks out for the average guy, he became the jerk whose allies had stuck it to commuters. Instead of the tough guy fighting for you, he became the tough guy whose goons would mire their constituents in traffic for a pointless little feud.
Now apply that model to the Inevitable Nominee. Calling Trump a creep and jerk and self-promoter clearly doesn’t work, because his voters have decided that someone with his business chops and middle-finger-first attitude is exactly what they need.
To attack him effectively, you have to go after the things that people like about him. You have to flip his brand.
So don’t tell people that he doesn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force. (They don’t either!) Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos – workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University.
Or just take a camera crew around Atlantic City, and slap Trump’s name on what you find.
Likewise, don’t get mired in philosophical arguments about big government and crony capitalism. Find the people hurt by Trump’s attempts to exploit eminent domain: The widow whose boardinghouse he wanted to demolish to make room for a limo parking lot, the small-business people whose livelihoods he wanted to redevelop out of existence.
(One of the Donald’s foredoomed rivals, Ted Cruz, actually just cut an ad along these lines. But of course it’s too late for that to work.)
Finally: Calling Trump out for having “New York values” when you mean “thrice-married, coarse, and libertine” is telling people what they already know. If you want to persuade his voters that his “New York values” are a problem for them, put his alleged dealings with the Mafia on the table.
All of this is not particularly complicated. It’s roughly what the Democrats did to Mitt Romney, rendering him radioactive with many of the same working-class voters currently backing Trump.
Except with Trump the trick is subtly different. Mitt was a numbers guy, so he was caricatured as a cruel Scrooge. But Trump is a salesman: That’s been a big part of his campaign’s success. And how do you flip a salesman’s brand? You persuade people that he’s a con artist, and they’re his marks.
Or at least that’s what you would do, if the primary campaign weren’t over already.
But since it is, I guess I’m just offering general-election advice. Maybe Bernie Sanders will take it.