DONALD TRUMP’S self-admiring book about his supposed business acumen is titled “The Art of the Deal.” So what to call this less celebratory examination of his political tactics?
Hmm. Maybe “The Dart of the Eel.” After all, for months Trump has dominated presidential campaign coverage with sly and slippery tactics that would make members of the order Anguilliformes proud.
Today, let’s look at a few of them.
Trump’s free-media success depends on driving the cable news and instantaneous Internet narrative, something he does with a mixture of bombast, denunciations, and attacks, often delivered via Twitter. Sometimes the mere prospect that he might make news is considered news, as with his announcement that he’d be tweeting commentary during last week’s Democratic debate. As part of that strategy, he’s mastered:
The Hit and Stun Attack
Trump takes his rivals off guard by turning conventional campaign behavior on its head. Normally, a leading candidate wouldn’t target a low-polling rival. But Trump has gleefully gone after lagging candidates like, say, Rand Paul. Usually, candidates refrain from insults, instead confining their calculated newsmaking conflicts to policy disagreements. Trump, however, delights in personal put-downs, knowing that they command cable TV attention.
Other times, Trump gains the advantage of surprise by declaring that a fellow Republican has no clothes. Witness his recent declaration that President George W. Bush actually didn’t keep the country safe, given that the September 11 terrorist strike came on his watch. There’s nothing beyond the pale about that assertion, but it’s not one you’d expect from a leading GOP candidate.
Politically, it was effective, forcing Jeb Bush back into the quicksand of defending his brother’s controversial presidency. That’s bad news for a dynastic candidate who wants to run as his own man, but has great trouble offering a disinterested assessment of his brother’s tenure.
It was a racially charged comment — Mexico is sending rapists, drug dealers, and other criminals into the United States as illegal immigrants — that helped fuel Trump’s initial rise in the polls. Yet he’s smart enough to know that over the long term, he can’t run as an out-and-out bigot.
Instead, he’s resorted to craftier comments that resonate with nativists and the racially resentful without setting off broader alarms. One example: His assertion that Jeb Bush, who sometimes addresses Hispanic audiences in Spanish, “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Who could possibly care about that, one may ask? Well, say, the kind of person who bristles at the select-your-language option on an ATM screen. Sadly, some percentage of voters do.
Or take Trump’s declaration that as president he would deport any Syrian refugees the Obama administration allows into the United States. Trump’s ostensible reason is Trojan Horse worries. To wit, that those Syrians may be terrorists who will reconstitute themselves into a large “army” once inside the country. That rationale lets him play nativist notes as part of his national-security overture.
When his comments create a backlash, Trump employs a modern variant of the ancient adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That is, that those who share a resentment of his critics can become his supporters. He defends himself by saying that he doesn’t have time to be politically correct. The claim that he’s merely cutting through PC cant finds a receptive audience with those who harbor similar sentiments.
Those tinny tricks have worked for Trump so far. The question is: Will they grow old — and if so, when?