Republican strategists prepare for alternate-future 1992

Donald Trump sees a squirrel.

Donald Trump sees a squirrel.

Midway through this strange Hill story, in which Senate Republicans inexplicably describe Donald Trump as a “smart guy” instead of a “shit-eating wildman,” GOP strategist John Ullyat articulates a frightening vision of the future:

The Republican candidates who decide to take him on and attack him do so at their peril and the party’s peril, because the worst thing for Republicans is for Trump to go through the primaries and make a third-party run.

But that would never happen, right? It seems pretty implausible that this country could see a three-way election among a Bush, a Clinton, and an outspoken billionaire—god dammit.

If you wanted to depress everybody, you could argue that Donald Trump is to Ross Perot as 2015 is to 1991. Our country again struggles with an anemic recovery from recession. A centrist Democrat named Clinton again challenges an establishment Republican named Bush for the presidency. It’s just that our gap between recovered and unrecovered is wider, our Bush and Clinton are literal poor relations of the originals, and our billionaire is less a self-made curmudgeon than a born-rich, thrice-brankrupt, bloviating clown.

Our new 1992 is what happens when a system does not change but degenerates, apparently. I’m not sure I buy that narrative, except for the clown part, which I believe with my whole heart. In this assessment I am joined by New York Times contributing op-ed writer David Wehner, who describes Trump’s political discourse as “insulting and witless:”

There’s not much that can be done about that. If conservatives rally to defend Mr. Trump on the grounds that he’s “refreshing” and has “passion,” that he’s “anti-establishment” and irritates liberals, they will do considerable damage to their movement and to the Republican Party. Mr. Trump is a pernicious figure on the American political landscape.

Wehner lists Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum among the Republicans who have praised Trump in such terms, which makes sense, since those two candidates also believe that the purpose of speaking is not to convey ideas but to make people look at you. As of this writing, approximately a third of the Republican field seems to hold that position. Sixteen months before the 2016 election, a significant number of candidates are running to become television personalities.

This phenomenon accounts for the widely circulated canard that Trump is running second. He was, in one poll, two weeks ago. But Trump’s success is a testament to how thoroughly Republican candidates have split the vote of people who try to pick the funniest answer in Quinnipiac polls. With Santorum, Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina all claiming to believe they could become president, smart-assess cannot poll as a bloc.

Trump may be running second, but he’s not running for president. He is running for the same reason he teased candidacies for president in 1988, 2004 and 2012, and for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014: free advertising. Trump is a brand name, and the more political writers treat him as a serious candidate—instead of as a publicity hound currently polling behind Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul—the more that name appears on cable and the internet. While Donald Trump the man embarrasses himself in a sham campaign for president, Trump the brand gets a free saturation marketing campaign.

Except this year, the marketing campaign is backfiring. Yesterday, the PGA pulled its Grand Slam of Golf event from Trump’s Los Angeles course, citing his public insistence that Mexican immigrants are “rapists, drug dealers and killers.” The PGA joins Macy’s, Univision, NASCAR and NBC among the corporate entities that have severed ties to Trump the business because of Trump the person’s remarks.

It turns out there is a limit to the principle that Just Sayin’ Stuff will vault you to success in entertainment politics. It worked for Sarah Palin. It worked, to a lesser extent, for Huckabee and Santorum. But for Trump, whose brand identity precedes his political career, mere audacity is not the killer app. Unlike Huckabee and Santorum, Trump started with business to lose.1

The last two weeks’ divestment support that theory. They also suggest that, unsecured though the border between American politics and entertainment has become, the system still kind of works. You can’t talk like a Klansman for free airtime and still sell ties at Macy’s. In 2015, you can be a billion-dollar luxury brand or a stunt demagogue, but you can’t be both.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. … and should this alternate 1992 come to pass, we may take some solace knowing Buzzfeed will swallow its own dick and self-destruct.

Leave a Comment.