I wrote two months ago that Donald Trump is a mirror image of the conservative psyche, a perfect distillation of the Tea Party id: No ideas, no substance – just bluster and fiery platitudes. Everything that’s happened since has confirmed my initial suspicion. Trump has continued to repackage shopworn stupidities and beam them back at his audiences, and conservatives can’t get enough of it.
If you’ve followed Trump’s ongoing spat with Jeb Bush, you’ve probably noticed that Trump is winning. And the reason is simple: They’re fighting on Trump’s terrain. Trump’s appeal is mostly psychological. He rarely makes sense and he never bothers to explain himself; he just demonizes brown people and tells anxious white people that he’ll make their country great again. Because he’s tapping into something deep and dark, the specifics never quite matter – it’s the tone that counts.
Trump’s tough guy shtick has made Jeb a soft target. Trump’s latest jab comes in the form of a brief Instagram video. Like everything else Trump does, the ad is completely devoid of ideas. It is, however, oddly brilliant, and exactly what you’d expect from a reality TV star like Trump. Spanning a few seconds, the ad shows Jeb discussing the intricacies of health care policy while a supporter sleeps behind him. Against this backdrop, the narrator says, “Too much energy? Need some low energy? Jeb, for all your sleeping needs.”
The message is clear: Jeb is a limp dotard who lacks the vigor to make America great again. This plays nicely into Trump’s campaign narrative, which feels like a massive exercise in megalomania and overcompensation. Trump basically stands behind a podium and tells people two things: He’s incredibly awesome and everyone else can stick their political correctness up their ass. Is it any surprise that his ad essentially casts Jeb Bush as the protagonist of one of those “Low T” commercials?
Jeb’s response to Trump so far has been mildly amusing. He appears not to understand what’s happening to him, or why Trump, despite having nothing concrete to offer, is winning this exchange. One of Jeb’s longtime advisers, Mike Murphy, now the chief strategist for Bush's super PAC, said that “He [Jeb] has faith over time in the people and the power of his ideas.” John McKager Stipanovich, a Florida lobbyist and close Bush friend, struck a slightly different note, arguing that “Donald Trump epitomizes everything Jeb has spent his political career trying to prevent the Republican Party from becoming.”
As best I can tell, Jeb’s strategy is to engage Trump (so as not to appear meek) without adopting Trump’s tactics. At a recent campaign stop, Jeb countered Trump by emphasizing his political stamina: “The ‘low energy’ candidate this week has only been six days, sixteen hours a day campaigning with joy in my heart.” He also released a video last week that highlighted all of the liberal positions that Trump has taken in the past.
Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for Jeb: You’re missing the point. Trump supporters (read: the conservative base) don’t care if you’re campaigning with “joy in your heart.” Nor do they care if Trump once identified as a liberal. And they certainly don’t care about the “power of your ideas.” What Trump understands (and what Bush clearly doesn’t) is that the people flocking to Trump are doing so because they don’t give a damn about policy or substance or facts. They want to hear someone tell the establishment that it’s full of shit, and Bush is the establishment. Trump may not have ideas or political acumen or a basic sense of decency, but he knows what alienated conservatives want to hear – and that’s enough.
Trump’s success (and Jeb’s decline) shows how easy it is to openly infantilize the conservative base. You don’t need ideas to win over Republicans anymore; you simply have to reflect their paranoia and frustration, with as much bombast and superficiality as possible.
Donald Trump gets it, Jeb Bush doesn’t – and that’s why Trump is winning.