Donald Trump is doing a bit more than merely “trolling” Jeb Bush with his Instagram account, as the headline at National Journal has it. Trump is playing a longer game here, and he’s also playing rougher than terms like “trolling” or “minor ribbing” would suggest.
Trump also isn’t kicking Bush while he’s down or “punching down” with these viral video stings. Would anyone have believed, just a few months ago, that Donald Trump would be accused of beating up on the wimpiest kid in class by going after Jeb Bush, once portrayed as the nigh-inevitable Establishment prince in waiting, his fundraising totals so incandescent that other candidacies would melt away before them?
But here we are, watching Conventional Wisdom grapple with the idea that Trump seems to be picking on small fry with a viral video that, far from “ribbing” Bush, contrasts his infamous “illegal immigration is an act of love” remarks with images of illegal alien murderers.
This is not a new line of attack for Trump. He’s made precisely the same contrast between Bush’s “Act of Love” line and illegal alien murderers on the stump, such as a speech he gave in Michigan about three weeks ago:
These quick hits on Instagram – including previous jabs at the first President Bush’s historic “read my lips, no new taxes” blunder, and the second President Bush joking about WMD in Iraq – are meant to keep Jeb Bush on the mat, and nullify his Establishment backing, by making him a figure of derision to the Republican base.
Trump is smart enough to know that someone with Bush’s money and connections isn’t down for the count the first time he kisses the canvas. The only way to nullify such advantages is to make Bush reflexively unacceptable to so much of the Republican base that his poll numbers never recover.
This is also one of the reasons Trump likes to remind everyone that his own poll numbers are soaring so far above Bush’s. Old political hands will say that early polling is more about raw electricity and name recognition than serious interest, early front-runners often lack staying power, primary voters love to date populist bad boys but don’t marry them, etc.
True enough, but the other relevant bit of sage political wisdom is that “electability” tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; Mr. Electable is electable because all the opinion-makers say he is, or say that his opponents are not. That game can be played in reverse, by pounding a candidate’s early position with so much poll-smashing artillery that he never really looks plausible.
It’s a tactic most likely to work with unexciting, gaffe-prone candidates who can’t take a punch, as the Obama hatchet men who gave Mitt Romney the works while balloons were still bouncing along the roof of the Republican National Convention auditorium could tell you. Perhaps Trump and his team studied Obama’s 2012 playbook and decided to run a similar game against Bush. It would be encouraging to think someone in the Republican Party has the capacity to study the adversary’s tactics with a clinical eye.
Is anyone else in the GOP willing to study Trump’s tactics and fashion a counter-strategy more elegant than “run out and say the first negative thing about illegal immigration that pops into your head?” If Jeb Bush never comes back from arrogant nonsense like his “Act of Love” thumb in the eye of law-abiding Americans and legal immigrants, has the Establishment got anyone else waiting in the wings to put their chips on… anyone who can take a punch from Donald Trump?
And to those who think Trump’s play against Act-of-Love-ism is unfair – well, the purpose of having a functional immigration system, with secure borders, careful vetting of applicants, and the swift expulsion of lawbreakers, is so that you can separate the people with love in their hearts, and success in their heads, from those who harbor darker aspirations. Waving everyone across the border and then wringing your hands in neurotic angst after thrice-deported illegal aliens commit serious crimes is not good enough. Shrieking that all criticism of the current non-system is “unfair,” no matter how accurate, should not be good enough to win this primary.