If Donald Trump is known for anything it's for being a hard "counter-puncher," as he would be the first to tell you (and in fact did, on "Meet the Press" last month:
“Well, I think I’m a nice person. I really do. And I think that’s why my numbers always go up as you get to know me better. I think that frankly, I’d like to discuss the issues. I’m not looking to take anybody out or be nasty to anybody. And as you know, Chuck, when I made, you know, harsh statements about various people, that was always in response to their criticism of me. You know, Rick Perry, I always thought he was a nice guy. But he started hitting me hard. So I hit him harder... I’ve always counter-punched. You have to counter-punch. But I’m not looking to start anything. That’s for sure."
He didn't even pull his counter-punches when he went to Liberty University in 2012:
"I always say don't let people take advantage - this goes for a country, too, by the way - don't let people take advantage. Get even. And you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they're going to say, 'You know, I'm going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I'm going to let them alone because they're tough customers... You don’t want to get even, do you? Yeah, I think you do.”
His bodyguard tore up a protester's sign and then hit him in the face. He said he was counter-punching too.
Let's face it, Trump sounds more like a cheap gangster than a politician most of the time. His rhetoric is full of threats and swaggering braggadocio. That's just who he is. When he sounds like a cheap cartoon villain saying "I hope they attack me, because everybody who attacks me is doomed," that's what his followers like about him. But what's even more interesting is the fact that the political media seems to be adopting his rhetorical style. Trumpism must be catching.
Take, for example, the usually mild-mannered Mark Halperin, the man who sets the beltway's daily mood and passes down the approved talking points. Check out how he described the Trump situation going into tonight's debate:
Publicly, former Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his presidential run on Friday afternoon. Privately, those who do this for a living used a bloodier term of the trade: He was killed (politically, of course), the first of what may turn into many campaign scalps claimed by the fiercest killer in this race, Trump.
In the modern era, the Republican nomination has been won by the combatant who is best at playing a game of kill-or-be-killed. In the end, becoming the standard bearer has not been about the daily polls, the staff hires, the policy speeches, the fundraising, the cattle calls, the promised agenda. It’s been about having the skill and confidence to stamp out anyone who threatens you, using a combination of negative TV ads, candidate and major surrogate attacks, and planted opposition research.
All the Republican presidential nominees since 1988 have deployed these weapons in a rapid-fire flurry of assaults. The losers failed to respond quickly, handle the pressure, or maintain image control—and were pulverized. You win the nomination when you define yourself on your own (positive) terms and force your opponent to be defined in the public eye on negative terms. That is how you kill the enemy and prevail.
And to think I once thought the inevitable macho sports metaphors were creepy.
This is Trumpism run amok. And Halperin has caught a bad case of it. Scalping and assaulting and stomping and pulverizing -- it almost makes Trump's little references to "counter-punching" sound, dare I say it, a little weak. But regardless of his excessive rhetorical violence, Halperin is reflecting a very real concern among Republicans who are beginning to seriously worry that Trump is right: They are doomed. And they just might be. The New York Times revealed last night that their latest polling shows that only 15 percent of Republicans would not back Donald Trump if he were to get the nomination. Roll that around in your mind for a moment.
And it appears that the 15 percent who refuse are all members of the Republican Party elite. Bill Kristol is probably the most openly hystericalm but he's likely representative of most of his buds when he says, “I doubt I’d support Donald. I doubt I’d support the Democrat. I think I’d support getting someone good on the ballot as a third party candidate.” (His choice would be Dick Cheney. Seriously.) Then again, this is the man who "discovered" Sarah Palin, so perhaps his electoral instincts aren't all that reliable. Nonetheless, Trump seems to be sapping his confidence:
“I’ve wondered if I’ve had it backwards. Maybe I’m wrong … I kept saying ‘it’s not going to happen, it would be so unusual,’ but I don’t know.”
The Masters of the Universe are even more concerned. Politico reports that Wall Street is calling for the fainting couch:
[A] dozen Wall Street executives interviewed for this article could not say what might dent Trump's appeal or when it might happen. ‘I don't know anyone who is a Donald Trump supporter. I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who is a Donald Trump supporter. They are like this huge mystery group,” the CEO said..." So it's a combination of shock and bewilderment. No one really knows why this is happening."
Imagine that. If a CEO doesn't know anyone who likes Trump can they possibly exist? According to the article they've all gone a little sour on Bush, Walker and Rubio and are so desperate they're looking to John Kasich because, according to one top New York Republican, he's "a true businessman in contrast to Trump," which proves just how frightened they are. For all the things Trump pretends he is, if there's one title he can legitimately claim, "true businessman" is it. (Bankruptcies be damned.) Kasich by contrast is a career politician who left and went to work for Lehman brothers for a few years to make his bundle marketing his political contacts.
Halperin writes that these panicked political and business elites have been unable to agree on the best way to "take [Trump] out" and offers up a few different possible scenarios he heard from his sources. There's Trump's "character" which is allegedly tainted by divorce, rudeness, bankruptcy, sexism, narcissism and phony protestations of faith. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that Republicans think any of that is a deal breaker -- he's one of the most famous men in the world, all this is known and yet only 15 percent of the GOP says they couldn't see themselves voting for him.
Then there's the charge that he's a liberal in sheep's clothing, which only someone who doesn't understand the right wing would think is a problem. Conservatives like to be pandered to --- it proves they are powerful. In their view, Trump giving up his former liberal positions to try to gain their votes is a sign of respect.
Others apparently believe it might be possible to take him down by showing that he's unfit to be a serious president and commander in chief. You'd think that would already be obvious, but many Americans seem to think being the president doesn't require any particular competence. Indeed, they mistrust those who have it. They figure if he could handle those celebrities on "The Apprentice" he can deal with Vladimir Putin.
And finally, some think they can assassinate his character by going after what they call his "deals and females" which sound like some dirty dealings best suited to his former advisor Roger Stone.
According to Halperin, the idea is to "rattle him" so "his mojo will be disrupted."
Trumpism is one thing. It's bullying and rude and uninformed and completely inappropriate for a presidential candidate. But reading all that makes me think that Halperin must have seen a sneak preview of "Black Mass," the new Johnny Depp movie about the psychopathic thug Whitey Bulgar, before he wrote this conclusion:
Trump’s rivals used to believe he would kill himself within weeks of entering the race. Then they believed that the press would kill him off before Labor Day. Now, many of them privately answer the question “Can Trump be killed?” by saying, quietly and with a combination of frustration, wonder and doubt: I hope so.
I suppose it's a good thing for The Donald that they are so dumb they're talking about all this to the press. But then these were the guys who thought Scott Walker was a brilliant politician and that the third Bush presidency would be good for business, no doubt based on the three very unpleasant recessions (among other things) that happened during the first two. It's unlikely Trump has anything to worry about. If he loses "his mojo" it will be all his own doing. The GOP elite gang that couldn't shoot straight isn't capable of much of anything at this point.