Donald Trump enters the first Republican presidential debate as the undisputed frontrunner. Leading in nearly every national and state poll and the top choice of almost every GOP demographic group, Trump, with his appeal to working-class Americans who are fed up with a political system they think is selling them out, has been running circles around the mainstream media–and his primary opponents–who are flummoxed that they cannot control what Americans think of him. Here are five things Trump can do to sustain his momentum and start making his path to the nomination a bit smoother.
1. Assure Conservatives He’ll Be Ronald Reagan Instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger:
Ronald Reagan had plenty of liberal and celebrity friends, and he was even an FDR Democrat before becoming the leader of the modern conservative movement. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, lurched to the left after he was elected California’s governor during the recall election, and the celebrity politician disappointed, to say the least, the many conservatives who backed him instead of more conservative candidates like Tom McClintock because they were so desperate to have a Republican holding the state’s highest office. During the campaign season, Trump will have to explain his past liberal positions on a host of issues like abortion and especially property rights and eminent domain (Kelo). On the debate stage on Thursday night, Trump must take the first steps to assure conservatives that he will not govern like a Manhattan liberal if he is elected to the White House. Trump is no Reagan, but he does have a lot of similarities with The Gipper. Both were stars known by most Americans before entering politics. Like Reagan, Trump is a bigger star than the mainstream media reporters who crave the spotlight. Like Reagan, Trump speaks in “bold colors” and not “pale pastels” and drives the media elite crazy because he goes over their heads and does not play by their rules. Trump’s starring role on The Apprentice has prepared him for today’s political media environment just like Reagan’s past as a sportscaster and actor made him thrive in a media environment dominated by three broadcast networks. Conservative primary voters, though, will need to be persuaded that Trump will have more substantive than stylistic similarities to Reagan if he is elected to the White House and not become Schwarzenneger on the national stage.
2. Be a Considerate Jackass:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Trump as a “jackass.” But being a “jackass” is not necessarily bad. Politics is filled with losers who give off the vibe–like Michael Dukakis did with his wussy and scholarly response when Bernard Shaw asked him if he would favor the death penalty for someone who had hypothetically raped and murdered his wife–that they will not stand up for their significant other if she is attacked. Trump is not one of those wussy losers. With Trump, there is no doubt that he will fight back. Voters want a president with some fight, who will stand up for American workers against the elites in Washington and Brussels. They want someone who will defend America against its foreign enemies. In other words, they want someone to be a little bit of a jackass on their behalf. In many ways, Trump is like the athlete everyone hates when he is on the other team but would love to have on theirs.
Trump has said that he will not attack other candidates but will be more than willing to throw counterpunches. And this is where Trump needs to be careful. When Trump made his offhand remarks about Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) service, what Trump probably meant to do was throw out the question of whether McCain would have been lauded as a war hero and been elected to the Senate had he not been captured. But the way in which he made his remarks in Iowa gave the media–and his jealous rivals–plenty of fodder to pile on and and try to knock him out of the race.
Trump is a tailor-made candidate for the Twitter age, but he must also realize that as he continues his rise in the polls, his opponents and the media will look for every opportunity to destroy him. Just like it is nearly impossible to discuss sensitive topics in 140 characters on Twitter or even to attempt sarcasm, Trump can’t proverbially just push the send button and blurt out the first thing that comes to his mind when on the attack. Whenever he is about to make an offhand remark or take a shot at a rival, Trump should take a second to ensure that nothing can be interpreted as crossing the line.
Voters wan’t a president who can be a tough jackass on their behalf. But they also want someone who is exhibits empathy and is more classy than callous. They don’t want a thin-skinned “jackass” who punches down.
That’s the balancing act that Trump must master.
3. Forget About Policy Minutae–Projecting Leadership Is More Important:
The media think they can trip up Trump with policy questions. But not only is it impossible to get into substantive policy discussions when 10 candidates have one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds for rebuttals, voters frankly don’t care how wonkish a candidate is. Andrew Halcro, who lost to Sarah Palin in Alaska’s gubernatorial race, recalled a conversation he had with Palin during one of their debates. According to Halcro’s account, Palin said to him, “Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, ‘Does any of this really matter?'”
Palin, as she usually is, was right. Contrary to what the miserable permanent political class denizens think, normal Americans do not watch debates with policy books, at the ready to send out rapid-response emails or to “fact-check” every supposed gaffe. They are not impressed if a candidate is a champion at memorizing minutiae. They want a candidate who projects leadership, which is Trump’s strength. He leads in polls among voters who say being is a “strong leader” is the most important quality they are looking for in a president, and Trump must continue to assure voters that he’ll lead and “get things done” on curbing illegal immigration, reducing the debt, and creating jobs.
And if Trump ever wonders if he belongs in the arena without having spent a lifetime in politics, he should remember what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) told the late Tim Russert when Russert had doubts about whether he belonged in Washington with folks who had Ivy League degrees and Rhodes Scholarships. Moynihan allegedly told his aide, “Look, Tim, you can learn what they know. They can never learn what you know.” Just like Trump hired the best lawyers as a businessman because nobody would expect him to know all of the laws and statutes, he would hire the best policy advisers to brief him on the minutiae. And voters get that. They care more about whether somebody cares about them and what they will do with the information that the policy geeks give him than how many obscure policy details a candidate can regurgitate on a given night. Voters don’t “grade” debates like mainstream media pundits and opposition researches, which is something many in the permanent political class somehow never understand.
In a debate with ten candidates, it may be more important to prepare responses for questions that are always asked of GOP candidates and possible attacks his rivals may use against him. For instance, if Trump is asked about what type of person he would appoint to the Supreme Court, he could suggest Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Mark Levin. If he’s asked about his donations to Democrats, he can say that he knows the system better than anyone and he’ll use his insider knowledge to clean house in D.C. and fight for the little guy. If Jeb Bush attacks Trump for being cozy with the Clintons, Trump could say that Bush awarded her the Liberty Medal on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attacks.
4. Treat the Debate Like It’s Part Wrestlemania, Part Beauty Pageant:
No matter how much the hypocritical media claim they care about policy issues, they cover the presidential election season like a Freak Show that is part rasslin’ and part beauty pageant. They care more about Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” than his foreign policy and economic proposals. They obsess over Sarah Palin’s emails (more so than Hillary Clinton’s) and don’t even bother to read her numerous substantive policy speeches she has given over the years on foreign policy, crony capitalism and energy. And all they want is conflict and buzz, and that is exactly what Trump should give them. He should eviscerate establishment Republicans and the political and media class with gusto and have fun doing it.
In the reality television and Twitter era, no candidate may be better prepared to thrive in today’s in-your-face media environment than Trump, who starred on The Apprentice, tussled in Vince McMahon’s WWE ring, and co-owns the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. Unlike other political candidates who are awkward and timid in front of the camera, Trump thrives when the klieg lights are the brightest. Though Trump has never participated in a political debate, he may actually be more prepared for this spectacle than his rival politicians. There is no doubt that Trump relishes being in the arena, and he should go into the debate ready to be the “babyface” against the establishment “heels” and confident in his abilities to master the so-called Freak Show.
5. Use The Trump Brand to Show Independence:
Trump’s brand can be his greatest strength or weakness. It’s on him to make it into the political asset that it can be for him. One hurdle Trump will have to jump over is the perception that he is running for president to enhance his brand. When he mentions his business deals, buildings, golf courses and successes, he should always remind voters that he is not doing so to advertise his properties or shamefully boast but to let voters know that a Trump presidency will give more Americans a chance to succeed like he did. He should remind voters that he has already taken a financial hit after his remarks about illegal immigration, and he would not be in the race if he were running just to promote the Trump brand. Working-class voters who are fed up with Washington, traditional politicians, and the smug and insufferable media elite also love Trump because he is not beholden to the political and media establishment. When talking up his successes, as he will inevitably do, Trump cannot come off as insufferable and should do so in a way that will hammer home his greatest strength–he is a non-politician businessman whose wealth and huge successes allow him to be unshackled from the seedy special interests that prevent politicians from fighting for the interests of American workers on issues like immigration, the debt, and trade. If voters start to associate the Trump brand with garishness, it will be a negative. If voters associate the Trump brand with success and political independence, he’ll win.