But Trump has other strengths as a candidate. He took another lesson from Newt Gingrich. Four years ago, in a debate in South Carolina, Gingrich hammered the CNN moderator, John King, instead of answering a question about his ex-wife. King cowered. Conservatives loved it. Newt won a huge victory in the Palmetto primary.
Trump paid close attention. He now attacks media personalities at every opportunity. His feud with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, for example, worked to his advantage in multiple ways. It spoke to conservatives who had already become disenchanted with Fox. When Trump dumped the Fox debate, after the network refused to back down, it enhanced his appeal as an independent figure, willing to take on anyone. And although he ran the risk of being labeled a misogynist, the increased tension kept the focus on Trump and off everyone else.
He’s also attacked politicians. George W. Bush remains popular in military circles. South Carolina has a remarkable concentration of retired veterans and active-duty military personnel. Trump slammed Bush for invading Iraq, but won the Palmetto Primary, anyway.
Showing that there was no one—from a Fox anchor to a Republican president—whom he was afraid to attack, enhanced Trump’s appeal. And the fact that he got away with it only reinforced that. The crowds that had started to come out of curiosity began to identify with a man who modeled the fierce independence and dominance they aspired to themselves.
However, such attacks only work if the content is uniquely compelling. Stern’s content was compelling enough to make him radio’s biggest star for over 30 years. Pat Buchanan has been on the national stage since he wrote his 1968 speech for Spiro Agnew attacking the press bemoaning the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Trump wouldn’t have achieved his own success without a message that could draw tens of thousands to his rallies, or generate unlimited media coverage.
But Trump isn’t just a showman—he’s also a salesman. The first lesson in sales is to find what is causing your prospect pain, and then present a plausible solution to fix it.
This is where Pat Buchanan’s message on immigration, trade, and defense comes in. After Romney lost, many Republicans wanted to tack to the center on issues like illegal immigration and foreign trade. Trump saw a wide-open opportunity in the opposite direction. It is not hard to sell the notion that trade policy and illegal immigration have diminished American jobs and stagnated American wages. Although trade policy is wonkish, attacks on immigration put a face on the problem.
Many voters found themselves drawn to Trump—warts and all—in the hope that the man who has at least raised tough questions will also answer them. Why are American troops still in Europe to stop a Red Army that no longer exists? Why does America borrow from China and Japan to defend Japan from China? Why does it borrow from the Saudis to fund the navy that preserves the safety of the sea-lanes carrying Saudi oil to trade competitors in Europe and Asia? Why would Americans trade their jobs for cheaper stuff at the big-box stores?