You know the look that victims get in horror movies just before their bodies are dismembered and souls sucked out by whatever horrifying creature has been loosed on the land? That eye-bugging, mouth-gaping, hands-raised-in-a-futile-effort-at-self-protection look meant to convey both abject terror and utter disbelief? That’s the look the Republican establishment wore throughout Super Tuesday, as Donald Trump added to his impressive stack of primary wins.
Central to the horror, of course, is that no one in the party has a clue how to stop him.
Thus far, attack ads haven’t done much (though brace yourself for gazillions more to be spent). Debate pile-ons, by candidates and moderators alike, have gone nowhere. Efforts to spotlight the inaccuracies and occasional insanity of Trump’s stump promises haven’t made a dent. Neither did Marco Rubio’s trash-talking Trump’s, ahem, manhood. And the Hail Mary most often floated, a brokered nominating convention, would likely result in as much or more damage to the GOP than letting the Trump juggernaut roll on. The grassroots already hates the Republican establishment enough to embrace Trump. Imagine the mushroom cloud of rage that would vaporize party elites if they were seen as thwarting the Will of the People through procedural shenanigans.
And make no mistake. Trump will make certain that the public hears about every bit of systemic manipulation, big-money muscle, and back-channel b.s. used against him in this race. Unlike a traditional political player, the billionaire carnival barker has no qualms about revealing how much snout and gristle are involved in the sausage-making of presidential politics. In fact, Trump’s willingness to advertise not just the financial corruption at the heart of the game but also its hypocrisies, complicities, and dirty tricks may be the one area where he is actually the no-nonsense truth-teller he claims to be.
Take Trump’s warning last week to Marlene Ricketts, matriarch of the Chicago-based billionaire clan that owns the Cubs. Upon learning that Ricketts had given $3 million to the anti-Trump PAC Our Principles, the GOP frontrunner tweeted: “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide.” Translation: Nice little family you got here, lady. Be a shame if something happened to it.
The not-so-veiled threat made news (as do all things Trump), prompting the Cubs’ chairman Tom Ricketts to note, “It’s a little surreal when Donald Trump threatens your mom.”
I’m sure it is. But this is the way the game is played—albeit usually more subtly. If you don’t think Republican operatives have nice fat files on Democratic moneymen like George Soros and Tom Steyer, you are kidding yourself. Republican megadonors Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess have drawn their share of scrutiny. And the conservative Koch brothers have received near-proctological probing from Democrats and the media alike. (Taking the game one twist farther, associates of the Kochs reportedly launched a covert campaign to discredit the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer in retaliation for her investigation of their machine.) Making waves in the murky oceans of cash that influence the American political system slaps a big target on a person’s chest. Trump just doesn’t bother having someone else do the slapping for him.
Those who come scrounging for dollars better be prepared for the spotlight as well. The anti-tax Club for Growth considers Trump insufficiently fiscally conservative and, as such, opposes his candidacy. Back in late summer, the Club got into a Twitter war with Trump that prompted him to snark: “The president of the pathetic Club For Growth came to my office in N.Y.C. and asked for a ridiculous $1,000,000 contribution. I said no way!” The Club fired back: “Actually @realDonaldTrump asked for that mtg & then asked for races he could support. Thought he could buy us off. Worst Kind of Politician.” Trump’s response? He tweeted a photo of a fawning letter from Club president David McIntosh to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, asking Lewandowski to pass along “a letter for Mr. Trump and a request for a $1 million contribution to the Club For Growth.” However the meeting in question came about, the Club apparently wasn’t too put off by the billionaire’s economic views to swallow its principles and grovel for his money.
Then, of course, there was Trump’s most flamboyant episode of pulling back the curtain. During the first Republican debate last August, he was asked about an earlier claim that he had bought himself scads of politicians over the years. Did Trump dispute the charge? Of course not: “I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people before this. Before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
This honesty earned Trump only mild pushback from his debate colleagues, perhaps because some of them had been the beneficiaries of Donald’s largesse over the years—a fact he also did not hesitate to share. Repeatedly. In fact, arguably the first blood of the evening was drawn when Rand Paul accused Trump of not being a true conservative as evidenced by his “hedging his bets” by “buying politicians of all stripes.” An unruffled Trump responded by telling the audience of Paul: “I’ve given him plenty of money.”
Trump has also not been shy about his manipulation of the political media. In October, he threatened to boycott the CNBC debate unless it altered the format to please him (which it did). Three months later, he got into a far juicier tiff with Fox News, resulting in his skipping the Iowa debate and organizing a competing media spectacle. In the final hours before the debate, Trump shared with CNN his story of how Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had come a-calling to try to make nice with Trump and lure the debate season’s biggest draw back onto the stage.
Then there was that awkward on-air moment when Trump, in a phone interview with “Morning Joe” Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, thanked the MSNBC hosts for being such steadfast “supporters” of his. The words had barely left Trump’s mouth when Scarborough began scrambling to downplay his and Mika’s chumminess with the candidate.
And while the sleazy tricks that helped Ted Cruz win Iowa—including peddling the rumor that Ben Carson was on the verge of dropping out of the race and urging his supporters to support Cruz instead—would have come to light regardless, the word spread faster and farther when Trump threatened to sue Team Cruz over them.
Trump’s gleeful exposure of a political order most voters already regard as hopelessly broken is a tactic both effective and tough to counter. The more Trump spotlights the ways in which the system is stacked against regular folks, the more they love him for his straight talk—and the more they loathe the elites who are trying to stop him. And his team knows it. In an interview with Breitbart News on Monday, Corey Lewandowski beat the establishment-is-out-to-get-us drum hard:
This is the fundamental problem with the ruling class in Washington, DC—the party bosses, the K Street crowd, the lobbyists who control all these politicians. They will do anything to maintain their power. They will do anything. They will say anything. They will spend whatever it takes because they know that if Donald Trump becomes the nominee and ultimately the president of the United States, the days of backroom deals are over. He will only be responsible to the American people.
Whatever you think of Trump, the first part of Lewandowski’s analysis is hard to dispute. And so continues the accelerating, self-perpetuating vortex that the Republican establishment seems helpless to control. Going after Trump only proves the thesis underlying his entire candidacy, giving the creature fresh blood to continue its rampage.
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