"Attack his strength": The only way Republicans can stop Donald Trump

GOPers haven't been able to thwart him. But the truth is that Trump's biggest weakness is hiding in plain sight

Published December 1, 2015 11:05PM (EST)

 donald trump (AP/Wade Payne)
donald trump (AP/Wade Payne)

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has raised so many questions, like, is he serious? And no, really, is he serious? And he’s leading the polls? And how difficult is it to find gainful employment as an American in Canada?

But if there’s been one overall question that’s consumed political observers, the media, and Trump’s competitors the most, it would have to be this: What the hell is it going to take before the guy’s supporters wake up,  get serious, and realize he’s a charlatan?

Denigrating Sen. John McCain for being a P.O.W. during the Vietnam War didn’t do it. And resurfacing old footage in which Trump declares himself pro-choice, a fan of the Clintons, a believer in single-payer health care, or a fan of Barack Obama’s didn’t either. Trump simply ignores these past heresies, or he simply says that he changed his mind. He shrugs it off, basically. And his supporters still love him.

Sometimes, in fact, they end up loving him even more. Why? Because he “tells it like it is.” Because he “doesn’t care what other people think.” Because he “won’t back down.” Because he “won’t be bullied.” Because he’s resolute, unwavering, firm. Because he is, to condense his appeal to a single word, strong. That’s what they love about him — and that’s not subject to petty things like consistency. Or facts.

As even his most passionate haters will admit, Trump is not a conventional presidential candidate. But too many of Trump’s foes — especially those in the business of electing Republicans — fail to appreciate the full implications of that fact. They’re still trying to use conventional means to drive a wedge between Trump and the voters who love him. They’re still trying to trip him up with gaffes and flip-flops and fact checks.

That might work against any other kind of politician. But it won’t work against a candidate like Donald Trump. His enemies could find some late-90s photos of him wearing a hat emblazoned with TAX HIKES & ABORTIONS ARE GOOD, and he’d probably still whistle right past it. Because he knows that to explain himself, to apologize, to backpedal — it’s a sign of weakness. And weakness is very un-Trump.

Despite his being unconventional, though, Trump’s soft spots as a candidate are hardly mysterious or difficult to find. They’re right there in the open. All you have to do is follow Karl Rove’s advice — perhaps a bit more literally than he meant it — and “attack the strength.” In Trump’s case, that strength is ... strength. Or at least the perception of it. And that can mean only one thing.

If any of his Republican challengers want to take the air out of his presidential campaign, they’re going to have to make Donald Trump look weak. Not ignorant, not stupid, not misinformed, not shallow, not vulgar, not bigoted, not crass, but weak. He has to be made to look like he’s not in control. He has to be made to look like he’s vulnerable. He can’t be the Strong Leader his backers want. He’s got to look weak.

That’s all there is to it, really. It’s not especially complicated. And there have already been signs that some of his opponents understand this; Sen. Marco Rubio and Romney 2012 campaign manager Stuart Stevens do, at the very least. But they’re the outliers, and most Republicans are still flailing. (While pundits write Op-Eds about Michael Bloomberg making a late entry into the GOP race, which is effectively the same thing.)

Yet if Trump is as dangerous as some think he is — or if he’s setting the stage for a future candidate who is like him, but even worse — then time is of the essence. We’ve frittered away enough of it waiting for anti-Trump Republicans to smarten-up already. But that, in turn, raises another possibility. And it’s one that’s rather disconcerting for those who feel more than ready to watch this farcical, mean and nasty campaign end.

What if Republicans fully understand that Trump can only falter if he’s made to look weak? And what if the reason why they haven’t so diminished him already isn’t because they’re too stupid? What if it’s because they can’t?

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Donald Trump Election 2016 Gop 2016 Karl Rove Marco Rubio Stuart Stevens