As some of you know, I’ve long been fascinated by the innovation of more mobile forms of warfare during the American Civil War. Out in the West, Grant and Sherman began streamlining and eventually even abandoning conventional supply lines to allow themselves figuratively and in some cases almost literally to run circles around their enemies. The Civil War fielded huge armies which needed constant replenishment of vast amounts of stuff – food, clothes, weapons, ammunition and more – which in turn required well organized supply lines, all of which limited mobility. More mobility is better than less of course. But in warfare, increased mobility reaches a point where it ceases to be an incremental or quantitative advantage and becomes a qualitative and transformational difference.
It can be like that in campaigns, too. And I started thinking about it with Donald Trump’s campaign. Yes, stick with me, I’m actually serious about this. Trump is an inciting racist buffoon. But we can’t get the full picture if we resist the reality that he’s also a sort of blowhard savant with his own particular genius with media and message.
I started thinking about this with the “anchor baby” rathole he’s sent the GOP field scurrying down. Jeb among others gets tangled up in not wanting to use the term but also not wanting to get out-immigrant-hated by the other candidates for not using it. So he finds himself saying it but saying he’s only quoting others saying it. Then he clumsily says it’s mainly about “Asians” not “Mexicans.” And then before he can even deal with that goof, Trump is on Twitter mocking him for his “Asians” comment and also crapping again on Megyn Kelly and stomping her increasingly hapless boss Roger Ailes in a statement to Politico. And this itself comes almost simultaneously with Trump using grade school “Asian” speak to attack Chinese and Japanese trade negotiators who he claims walk all over ‘loser’ American leaders. “We want deal!”
The dynamic was most palpable comparing Jeb’s painful and drawn out efforts to grapple with and find some non-ridiculous rationale for his use or non-use of the phrase “anchor babies”, lashed to the unpredictable tempo of impromptu reporter questions with Trump jumping from one attack to another on Twitter, entirely at his own pace and on his own terms, and sustaining a total indifference to whatever contradiction there may be between ridiculing Jeb for his offensive Asians comment and channeling an old Charlie Chan movie in one of his campaign speeches.
Not caring about those contradictions, not caring about racist provocations is rooted in the nature of Trump’s campaign. He doesn’t have to get 50% of the national electorate. He doesn’t even have to get 50% of the GOP electorate. He’s dominating the field with 20% to 30% of the GOP vote by owning the part of the GOP base (the lion’s share of it) who feel aggrieved and threatened and crave and respect dominance. As I wrote just after the GOP debate, when everyone was saying that Trump couldn’t win a battle with Fox, you are simply not going to win the fight with this audience saying Trump wasn’t nice enough to or didn’t use the right words with a strong, assertive woman. Not going to happen. Tossing Jorge Ramos isn’t a problem with these folks, it’s a fantasy. So there’s a whole part of the equation that Trump simply does not have to worry about.
But the speed issue is an entirely separate advantage, one Trump is dominating first because he’s been playing this game for decades but especially because he’s adept at social media and is palpably going by gut and operating on his own without the complex messaging operations that cling on to every other candidate. News organizations and media figures can always move faster than candidates because they have to hold press conferences and prep for them or send out press releases which by definition need to go through the media itself. Twitter has the added advantage of allowing him to flick the news cycle without showing his face or getting questions in response. But the whole picture brings home just how much the modern campaign is built around risk aversion, protecting the candidate from him or herself.
When you see tweets like these you are absolutely certain Donald Trump wrote them himself. It’s definitely him, as clear as a tweet from Chuck Grassley could only possibly be from the senator himself.
In a clumsy move to get out of his “anchor babies” dilemma, where he signed that he would not use the term and now uses it, he blamed ASIANS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2015
Asians are very offended that JEB said that anchor babies applies to them as a way to be more politically correct to hispanics. A mess!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2015
Normally candidates, as we know, simply don’t do this. Ever. But to do so you need to be able to not just act fast but act fast again and again to control the tempo and pace of the news conversation so you’re on to the next punch or the one after that before your adversaries have even responded. You also need to be experienced in the tabloid news culture and be totally in tune with your target audience. All of these combined are allowing Trump to act faster and thus more totally dominate the progression of the news conversation than any candidate has ever. It’s not just that he’s good with the press. We know that. He’s operating at a speed and mobility that the other campaigns are not able to react to effectively no matter what they do. Not with this electorate. A national electorate would be a very different story. But for now, dominating the would-be frontrunners, in the deepest sense of the word,is doing a kind of damage that will prevent a lot of them from ever getting there.