Donald Trump gets his final chance tonight to turn his campaign around when he debates Hillary Clinton in their third and final showdown at Las Vegas’s Thomas & Mack Center, which has a basketball court named after the late, great Jerry Tarkanian, the former UNLV basketball coach who was the ultimate outsider.
Tarkanian, who dared to call out sacred college basketball programs like UCLA and Kentucky that he thought the NCAA establishment hypocritically protected with its double standards, was described as the ultimate “rebel with a cause” who embodied Vegas’s “go big or go home” ethos. When Tarkanian passed away in 2015, the lights on the Vegas Strip dimmed to honor him, and Tarkanian joined Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Dean Martin, and George Burns as the only people who have ever received that honor.
After his passing, writers observed that Tarkanian “retroactively comes across as a guileless truth-teller in a world of sleaze and double-talk.” Tark the Shark “viewed the system as anarchic” and “he went and became the king of the anarchists.” Yahoo Sports’s Dan Wetzel noted that Tarkanian “saw the NCAA as a fraud – a pretentious, overreaching organization that made millions by employing absurd ‘amateurism’ rules… He felt its leadership was concerned only with its own power and money, so it staked out some kind of moral high ground and bullied everyone, particularly poor black athletes.” Wetzel pointed out that “out on the recruiting trail Tarkanian watched as just about every school in the country broke all the rules in the Wild, Wild West era … paying players and parents, fixing grades, whatever. Yet only the small schools would get investigated and punished.”
Tarkanian, Wetzel wrote, “wasn’t wrong.” But “he just wasn’t exactly the greatest messenger for the cause.”
Like Tarkanian, Trump has had trouble becoming the perfect messenger in the general election for the anti-establishment cause that propelled his political rise. Tonight, Trump has his last, best chance to convince voters that he is the truth-telling outsider who is beholden to nobody and will destroy the corrupt bipartisan establishment that Clinton embodies.
Here are some ways he can accomplish that.
1. TPP and H-1b:
Though he has the support of disaffected blue-collar workers, many of whom have not regularly voted in elections and may be off the pollsters’s radars, Trump needs to win over college-educated, white-collar suburban voters in the Philadelphia collar counties and places like Northern Virginia and North Carolina’s Research Triangle if he has any chance of pulling off a November upset. Trump can appeal to both groups of voters by reminding professionals in the suburbs that their white-collar jobs, especially in technological fields, can just as easily disappear like blue-collar manufacturing jobs if globalists like Clinton in the permanent political class make it easier for companies to get more H-1b visas. Trump can unite suburban professionals and blue-collar workers in manufacturing and mill towns by highlighting his opposition to increases in H-1b visas and bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
2. The Outsider:
Trump’s greatest appeal is that he’s the ultimate outsider and a blue-collar billionaire who will be beholden to nobody and stick it to the powers that be on behalf of American workers of all backgrounds. One of the most compelling aspects of Trump’s announcement speech last year was when he talked about how his father doubted whether he could succeed in Manhattan. Trump said his father used to tell him, “Donald, don’t go into Manhattan. That’s the big leagues. We don’t know anything about that. Don’t do it.”
“I gotta go into Manhattan. I gotta build those big buildings. I gotta do it, Dad. I’ve gotta do it,” Trump said he would often tell his dad. “And after four or five years in Brooklyn, I ventured into Manhattan and did a lot of great deals—the Grand Hyatt Hotel. I was responsible for the convention center on the west side. I did a lot of great deals, and I did them early and young. And now I’m building all over the world, and I love what I’m doing.”
Trump hasn’t talked about this much since. But he should do so often to remind voters that he, like them, has always been an outsider and will shake up the political system in their favor like he changed New York’s skyline when even his father, let alone the established real estate interests in Manhattan, doubted his ability to do so. Talking about overcoming his father’s doubts to succeed in Manhattan will humanize him and convince voters that he has always been a disruptor who can shake up the established order.
3. Billy Bush Tape vs. Wikileaks:
Who would have ever guessed that Billy Bush would be the member of the Bush family who would potentially derail Trump’s campaign? When Trump’s lewd remarks and the subsequent stream of sexual assault allegations against him inevitably come up in the debate, Trump’s best argument may be to frame the race as a choice between an imperfect candidate who will always put America first and an imperfect candidate who has shown she will always put the interests of the global elite ahead of what’s best for America.
Trump can then cite many of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked emails to remind voters that Clinton embraces open borders, has colluded with a political establishment that, like the NCAA Tark railed against, always protects its own, and embodies everything voters hate about the political establishment.
4. America-First Businessman vs. Globalist Egghead:
Trump too often comes across as the guy who gets lost and, even after an hour of driving around aimlessly, stubbornly insists he is not and refuses to ask for directions. That’s not a quality that endears him to voters, especially women voters.
It’s obvious that Trump is not a master of policy minutiae. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because that’s what staffers and wonks are for.
When Trump is unsure about a policy question, he should just admit that he is not a master of policy details but he, unlike Clinton, will always put the interests of Americans first (remind Americans that “America First” applies to Americans of all backgrounds—U.S.-born and legal immigrants—who are currently here) on terrorism, immigration, trade, and jobs. He can then pivot and portray Clinton as a so-called policy “expert” who has supported failed military adventures abroad and who will use her mastery of obscure rules and laws to benefit herself, her cronies and the global elites in the permanent political class instead of American workers. That’s a winning message that allows Trump to turn his weakness on policy matters into a strength.
5. Minority voters:
Trump’s message to minority voters who may be hesitant to vote for him should be that though he may not have the best bedside manners, he is the doctor with the policy prescriptions who is best suited to cure their ailing communities.
During the primary season, prominent black writers and pundits like Van Jones and Jamelle Bouie conceded that Trump’s message on jobs and immigration could resonate with a significant number of black voters in the general election. To maximize the chances of his message getting through to minority communities, Trump should talk about how he opened his Mar-a-Lago club to blacks and Jews and how Palm Beach allegedly discriminated against his club because he integrated it.
Trump can also tell minority voters that Democrats have been like the deadbeat parent/ex-significant other who always promises the world but never delivers. Trump can also show some humor and tell minorities that they could vote for him in private and do not need to tell their friends and family. Blue-collar minorities who may attend some rasslin’ matches may be receptive to Trump’s message that bad trade deals, the country’s porous borders, and the breakdown of law and order are diminishing opportunities for them and those in their communities and consider voting for Trump to turn things around.
But Trump also needs to reach out to minorities in the middle class who are not living paycheck to paycheck but are still a car accident or a medical emergency away from bankruptcy. He must remind these voters that their status in the middle class is at stake in this election if Clinton spends eight years in the White House putting Wall Street ahead of Main Street. He should tell these voters that his policies will send the elevator down to bring more minorities into the middle class while Clinton’s globalists’s-first policies will only jeopardize their hard-earned status in the middle class.
Before the first presidential debate, all of the momentum was on Trump’s side. Trump was leading or within the margin of error in nearly every national poll and gaining in every swing state poll. Those polls may have been the worst thing to happen to Trump because he turned in a debate performance before a record audience that made him look like a rookie quarterback who never bothered to learn any of his team’s plays and did not know what he did not know.
But even as Trump has arguably had two of the worst weeks a presidential candidate has ever had, Clinton has not put the race away. And that may be a testament to how powerful Trump’s America-First message is and how much voters still do not like and distrust Clinton. Though almost everything has gone against Trump after the first debate, it still seems like Trump is like the football team that has done everything it could to lose the game but still has the ball at its own ten-yard line, down only one score, with two minutes remaining. It’s now up to Trump to actually make the argument for his candidacy—and against Clinton’s—before the American people and not be remembered as the Ryan Leaf of politics.