Donald Trump has claimed his first scalp. And, frankly, it’s the best-looking scalp in the GOP primary, possibly in American politics.
Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions were obliterated with one word — “Oops” — on a debate stage in Rochester, Michigan four years ago. His latest campaign was an exercise in a human being’s inability to overcome his own inabilities. A canny politician who helped cement Republican control of the Lone Star State, Perry’s well-earned image as a slighter, more authentic George W. Bush always doomed him, even if he hadn’t self-destructed on stage in a manner fitting a Spinal Tap drummer. He tried to play a serious wonk this time and gave one of the few noteworthy Republican speeches of this campaign season. But he ended up as chum for Trump.
Perry’s attempts to label the GOP frontrunner a “cancer on conservatism” were belied by the one-time GOP frontrunner’s own past rhetoric on immigration and a GOP base with a thirst for vengeance. The billionaire clowned the governor for his glasses, his lack of intellect, and his inability to secure the Texas border.
And when it was all over — after Perry continued to trash the reality star in the last speech of his campaign — Trump didn’t even dignify those last limp barbs with a response. Like Don Rickles, he admitted it was all for show, and complimented Perry with his first truly gracious tweet of the campaign season.
So how did a guy who has never won one vote as a Republican stomp on the longest-serving governor of one of the most important states in the union?
Easily. And he’s doing the same thing to Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Bobby Jindal. Why is Trump so successful in drawing his opponents into battles they can’t win? He riffs on a Republican Party that is ripe for contemptible comedy, ridiculous rhetoric, and daring demagoguery.
Here are five reasons why Trump’s tactics work so well:
1. Unabashed race baiting feels like “truth telling” to much of the GOP base.
Trump’s campaign began with corporation after corporation severing ties with him for his insulting characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals sent here by a genius Mexican government. This dark fantasy, which has never survived a single fact check, appealed to a GOP base that was birthed on “states’ rights” rhetoric and titillated by fantasies of welfare queens. This nurtured a sense of white victimhood that was an excellent resource for the party, right up until the point it cost them the popular vote in 5 out of 6 presidential elections.
After the loss in 2012, when Mitt Romney moved right on immigration to win the primary, the GOP establishment demanded immigration reform and the GOP base demanded mass deportations. Reform proponents Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker backed away from a path to citizenship but their past stances made them seem weak and phony. Trump’s embrace of racist rhetoric seemed like a burst of sweet truth to immigration opponents and white nationalists. Thus, even though Trump continues to dissemble and revise things he says on a nearly constant basis, he seems like the honest man in Greece to voters who like their white identity politics and won’t let them go.
2. Trump isn’t dumb enough to cut his own taxes.
Marco Rubio’s original tax plan was a huge giveaway to the rich, but it wasn’t sufficiently unfair for many on the right. Then he revised it, eliminating all taxes on investments so Warren Buffett, Mitt Romney, and many of the richest Americans — who have never been richer — would pay nothing in taxes. But Rubio’s plan still didn’t slice the top tax rate enough for the 0.01 percent.
So Jeb Bush decided that he would go all the way. Jeb! peppered his tax plan with a few distractions — higher taxes on hedge fund managers and a few tax breaks for workers — to hide the fact that it’s a giveaway to the richest on par with the breaks that his brother handed out. These tax cuts would help an average worker rent a car for a week or so. It will give the richest enough to build a car factory, probably in Mexico. Yet it’s tough to make that case, which is why George W. Bush got away with so easily misleading everyone about his tax plan in 2000. It’s much easier to say, “Jeb Bush wants to cut his own taxes by nearly $800,000 a year,” which is true.
Any tax cut for the rich would yield an even larger windfall for Trump, who thus far seems to be leaning away from any attempt to be called for that foul. On taxes, immigration, and trade, Trump benefits from no allegiance to the donors who have built the GOP according to their own interests — which is to make guys like Trump and themselves richer, at the expense of workers. And he gets to rub that in his opponents’ faces.
3. The right has spent decades telling us that the rich are infallible.
“Government should be run like a business! Give your boss more money and it will make us all richer. They’re not bloodsucking industrialists, they’re job creators!” GOP rhetoric for decades has praised the rich for their infinite wisdom. So how do you tell a billionaire whose ex-trophy wives are richer than you that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?
4. These Republican candidates are terrible.
Republicans like to say they have the best array of candidates in a generation. What do they really have? A dozen and a half uninspiring caricatures who have largely failed.
Jeb Bush benefited from a housing bubble that briefly made his brother look like a genius. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie are reviled in their states, where the damage they’ve done will outlast their feeble attempts to seek higher office by rewriting history. Scott Walker looks impressive until you compare his record to almost any other governor and recognize he’s never won a statewide election in a presidential year. His ability to demonize his opponents is nearly useless when running against Republicans. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul’s most impressive accomplishments are variations on the theme of Congressional obstruction. Carly Fiorina’s disastrous business record is perfect fodder for Trump to stomp upon, and Ben Carson is generally one thought away from repeating another “fact” that has been debunked on Snopes.com.
5. In a demagoguery contest, the best demagogue wins.
Articulating his opposition to the Iran deal, Ted Cruz doesn’t just imagine that Iran is both genius and suicidal enough to evade inspections and destroy Israel, despite the Jewish state’s own impressive nuclear arsenal. No, Cruz imagines Iran sending a ship across thousands of miles with a nuclear bomb that can be shot up into the sky to wipe out the U.S power grid.
Marco Rubio constantly raves about the danger of radical jihadists in the homeland, even though “nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.” Republican candidates speak about President Obama and Obamacare as massive failures, even though Obama’s second four years — the first period with Obamacare in full effect — is on pace for the second most jobs created during any presidential term ever.
In this crowd, a guy who says the biggest problem with the Iraq War is that we didn’t take all the oil sounds reasonable. GOP leaders promised their base that if they took over Congress, all their dreams would come true. Now the base is mad at those leaders because Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, Planned Parenthood is still funded, and the president’s executive action on immigration is still in effect. They prefer the lies to reality. And whoever is lying loudest will get their vote.
Trump has proven highly successful in manhandling a parade of bland Republican politicians. To him, Carson and Fiorina present different challenges because they both possess the outsider status that elevates them over Republican officials who have to deal with reality of some sort, and they symbolize demographic groups that are some of the biggest stumbling blocks for Republicans. The party wants to show the world that it has a black friend and a lady friend.
Trump’s attack on Fiorina’s looks came off as scurrilous and cheap. Calling Carson “low energy” — as he’s called Jeb Bush for weeks — takes on a different tone with an African-American hero who forged a career as a groundbreaking surgeon. Trump could still go all the way. Carson possesses most of the “evidence” — skin, hair — that Trump used to argue that President Obama isn’t a citizen. So why not go birther again?
It was Trump’s racist attacks on Obama’s citizenship that first made him a conservative hero. And when the Republican Party didn’t reject him for that, when it did the exact opposite by accepting his endorsements and making him a fixture of right-wing media, it served up the perfect opportunity for him to make his fellow Republicans look like fools.
File photo: Donald Trump and Rick Perry, June 20, 2013 (via Governor Rick Perry, Flickr)