There is a myth circulating in the beltway. The myth is that bombastic business mogul Donald Trump can be taken down if only a Republican donor were to write a big enough check, if only a fellow GOP contender were to attack him with a vengeance or if only someone, somewhere concocted the right campaign-combustion cocktail.
Pundits, pollsters, reporters and donors have been racking their brains in war rooms and newsrooms from Washington to Iowa since the summer trying to understand the best way to explain and then to solve the problem of Trump. Underlying most of the scenarios gaming out the GOP primary has been the universal assumption that, if they really wanted to, the GOP “establishment” could step in and put a stop to Trump.
It’s not to say that Trump is going to win the nomination. There is plenty more action ahead, candidates to drop out and Trump stumbles to be had, but an organized campaign by the establishment isn’t likely to be his undoing.
The notion that the “establishment” or the party’s “adults” ultimately control the process has been around for a lot longer than Trump, an artifact of an older political era, when backroom deals and convention wheeling and dealing among party stalwarts would produce, often messily, a nominee. But the myth has persisted, perhaps because it rarely gets held up to much critical scrutiny in its own right.
With just two months until the Iowa caucuses, it may be time to recognize the reality that the myth has been obscuring: No strategic intervention is going to stop Trump now.
“If anyone is going to kill Trump, it is Trump,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and the author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.
Lichtman contends that Trump isn’t an anomaly. The Republican establishment has struggled before to find a way to defeat an insurgent frontrunner and eventual nominee. There was Wendell Willkie, the interventionist-minded businessman and Democratic-activist turned Republican, who prevailed at a deadlocked GOP convention in 1940 to secure the GOP nomination as the U.S. public grew wildly concerned with Hitler’s advancement through Europe.
The deadlocked 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia, where Wendell Wilkie eventually prevailed
There was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) whose campaign was fueled by a flat tax, deep antipathy to the Civil Rights Act and frustrated grassroots supporters who felt ignored and disenfranchised by the larger Republican Party.
In each case – just like today–the establishment had a favorite and in each one, an army of loyal supporters chose the insurgent instead.
But the lack of a historical precedent for derailing the Trump train has done little to dent the myth that he can be stopped, with the proper application of money and willpower.
The Wall Street Journal reported in November, donors were preparing to engage in “guerrilla warfare” with Trump through TrumpCard LLC, a group started by Liz Mair, a former RNC communicator, that pledged to take money from unnamed donors and translate it into the anti-Trump secret sauce.
Others have suggested Jeb Bush should be the one to take on Trump. What’s a presidential candidate that’s polling in the single digits got to loose?
“Take all of the ad time Right to Rise has reserved for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and turn the fire hose on full blast against Trump,” Chris Cillizza suggested in the Washington Post.
There are endless theories circulating as to what silver bullet could dethrone Trump. Some strategists claim Trump’s supporters aren’t serious. They won’t mobilize or stand in line during a chilly caucus night in Iowa. Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus, who believes Trump can be taken down and devotes much of her Twitter account to calling attention to Trump’s far out positions and inconsistencies told TPM that “it would be nice if the lower-tier vanity campaigns would end” as a way to solidify GOP support around an alternative to Trump. So far, however, there is no indication anyone in the GOP is trying — or would be able — to take out lower tier candidates before Iowa to pave the way for a consensus alternative to Trump.
Beyond the general difficulty for a party apparatus trying to knock off its own frontrunner, Trump presents several unique difficulties.
The nature of Trump’s support is a major obstacle to derailing him from the outside. His supporters aren’t fazed by his off-color statements. As Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus points out, Trump “brings in a whole new group of people who do not consume news. They only listen to him.” That makes it hard for media to fact check Trump claims with much credibility.
The Republican Party has always relied on its voters – even its base – not to “fall in love” but to “fall in line.” For months, strategists have been proselytizing that Trump’s lead is nothing short of a fluke. They reach back to the lessons of 2012. Voters once entertained the idea of a Michele Bachmann White House in a straw poll, pundits say scornfully. Then, voters joyfully recited Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan all fall. But, in the end, they backed Mitt Romney–no matter how reluctantly–in recognition he was the party’s best chance to take on Obama.
Trump supporters don’t appear willing to give up on their guy no matter how much the party elders distance themselves from him or condemn him. Trump is like the boyfriend with the motor cycle. The harder you try to keep your daughter away, the more she wants to date him. That’s why an establishment-backed ad assault aimed at discrediting Trump among his fact-resistant following is unlikely to resonate.
“Establishment money is not going to move Trump,” said Tom Reynolds, a former congressman and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “At this point, I don’t know how anyone would actually do that. People have chosen to see in Donald Trump what they want to see right now.”
A significant $1 million ad buy paid for by the Club for Growth in September had a short-term and limited affect on Trump’s standing in Iowa. Trump dipped in the polls in October, with Carson charging hard, but found his footing again as the leader in November and has held on in first or second place in recent weeks.
Advertising offenses against Trump also have diminishing returns. Trump has access to gobs of free earned media. After Trump announced Monday he would issue a full-out travel ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., he was interviewed on three networks Tuesday morning.
Trump’s position on banning Muslims from coming to the United States is just the latest test case on why Trump is so infallible. Trump’s position is the most extreme of any Republican candidate in the GOP primary, but while his statement set off a chain reaction of admonishment from fellow presidential contenders from Jeb Bush to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a crowd at his rally in South Carolina erupted in applause when he read his press release out loud. A dispatch of the event from USA Today detailed how some in the crowd were shouting “send them all home.” Even those supporters who disagreed with Trump’s policy, told USA Today it wouldn’t affect their view of Trump because it was not as if they thought the plan was an implementable idea.
It all goes to show that Trump’s far-out proposals–no matter how fanatical or impractical they are to implement–don’t seem to turn off Trump voters. Reminding his supporters that he mocks reporters, is radical on border security or wants to deport 11 million immigrants won’t hurt his reputation in their eyes.
A Republican bundler in Washington told TPM that donors are genuinely worried about Trump. They aren’t assuming now that he is just going to go away, but the bundler said donors aren’t rushing to throw money at the problem.
“The guy is a phenomena. He has touched a nerve. To some extent, he is the anti-Obama, and he is really good at what he does,” the bundler said on background so that he could speak freely about the state of the donor class.
But the GOP bundler says donors aren’t interested in pouring money into a campaign to take Trump down because they aren’t confident that anything can really be done before Iowa.
“They don’t know if it would work,” the bundler said.
The only way to beat Trump, he said, is to do to Trump in the early primary states what he is so scared to be: make him the “loser.”