The ebb and flow of campaigns is something political insiders and professionals try to master, but it is usually mysterious. Timing is everything. It is clear that Ted Cruz and especially Marco Rubio have generated some momentum by attacking Donald Trump more personally and viscerally, but far from clear that it will change the course of the contest. What if Rubio had started two weeks earlier with personal attacks: Trump as “con man’; Trump should sue “whoever did that to his face”; Trump as an elderly man who had to check during the debate that “his pants weren’t wet”? But it wouldn’t have been possible then, for Rubio himself was still too shaken by his February 6 debate bruising at the hands of Chris Christie to pull it off.
It’s not clear which of the attacks will stick. “Trump University,” a scam which must be an embarrassment to its founder, is surely the most effective, for it does involve Trump profiting from the gullibility and aspirations of people who were clearly not very well informed. That Trump seems uncertain whether to explicitly disavow or just feign ignorance when asked about David Duke’s support seems less likely to resonate: Klan endorsements and getting baited about them are almost a perennial in American politics. Jimmy Carter tried to make an issue of the Klan endorsement of Reagan, without much success. Trump—who to my knowledge has no racist past or associations to disavow—has certainly been less deft than Reagan in handling the matter, but that’s hardly surprising. That Trump has manufacturing ties in China and Mexico, meh. Anyone could say the whole point of his campaign is to change the incentives that make such offshoring arrangements attractive.
What is clear from attending a Rubio rally is that there is now an audience for this kind of thing; there are thousands of Republicans who really don’t like Trump and enjoy seeing him mocked. The press has responded to it too, and it may have catapulted Rubio into the number-two challenger status he has long sought.
Rubio seems to have hit his stride in the attacks, reveling in them and putting them on effectively. I saw him in Purcellville, Virginia (an exurb about an hour west of Washington) on Sunday—2000 people in a college gym, and the crowd was stoked. Rubio was not nearly as robotic and programmed as he was in New Hampshire. He began his rally with the attacks on Trump before pivoting to older material about America the exceptional nation and himself as a child of immigrants who best understands and represents this. But the candidate is now animated, and so was the crowd. Rubio was scheduled to make four stops on Sunday, so perhaps 8,000 people will have seen him. That’s roughly three percent of the Virginia primary electorate. An anti-Trump super PAC is doing a national buy of TV ads slamming Trump on the Trump University issue, but they apparently won’t air before Super Tuesday. In short, I’m not sure this new wave of anti-Trumpiness by Rubio is going to impact anything.
Yes, more people did see the debate on Thursday, where Rubio and Cruz performed tag team attacks on Trump, but the one pollster who re-phoned previous respondents after the debate found no change in voter sentiment. Corey Stewart, who heads Trump’s Virginia campaign, thought there was little chance that the debate had much of an impact: most of what people see, he said, is non verbal: “people see two little guys flailing, throwing punch after punch at a big dude.” In one recently published Virginia poll, Trump exceeded 40 percent, coming in first: Stewart thought that score might be “unrealistic.” But Trump is strong in the southwestern part of the state, the Hampton Roads area, the rural I-81 corridor—and weakest in the Washington suburbs. It’s a state Trump could still lose, but the prospect of that might have have been greater if the anti-Trump campaign had begun in earnest two weeks earlier.
One thing about personal attacks is that they draw responses in kind. Trump had been tough going after Cruz, but his only response to Rubio thus far had been to label him a lightweight choker on Twitter (without paying attention to the correct spelling). But one shudders to imagine what it would be like if the mudslinging got serious. Was the Trump campaign sending a warning shot when Diamond and Silk (two black women performers who have made widely shared pro-Trump “viral” videos and performed on stage at Trump rallies) brought up Rubio “rumors” to CNN? A campaign that just turned personal in the past week could quickly escalate into the ugliest in living memory.
Beyond the personal attacks, and the prospect of their escalation, there has been important intellectual shadow boxing behind the scenes. The escalation of personal rhetoric has meant that there is now no chance that Rubio would be selected as Trump veep, which would be one way in which neoconservatives could enter the foreign-policy apparatus of the next administration. It has long been clear that Rubio represented the neoconservatives’ best chance for restoration: his campaign was overlaid with a kind of neocon signaling, from the core “New American Century” slogan (evocative of PNAC) to the prominence of certain advisors, to the hawkish positions on every conceivable foreign policy issue, to the the lockstep adherence to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s positions.
Cruz and Christie and Jeb Bush have all made hawkish sounds too—but they were occasionally tempered. Cruz for instance suggested that the overthrow of Assad was a bad idea for the U.S. and is skeptical of nation-building. I had noticed that Chris Christie was very hawkish in his New Hampshire town halls, both about American defense spending and the Iran deal, and it puzzled me: it seemed slightly out of tune with his more moderate worldview.
This all came into sharper focus after Christie endorsed Trump—not a huge surprise if one had watched the interplay between the two men. But it was certainly a surprise to the neocons, who apparently believed they had effectively “tutored” the New Jersey governor. The tone of the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin’s attack on Christie hinted at the neocon shock of the turnabout:
after months and months of careful coaching by outside foreign policy experts, his initial gaffes (e.g. “occupied territories” was how he referred to the West Bank) stopped and he became proficient on national security. One former adviser told me he “absolutely” would never have helped Christie had he known he would endorse Trump. He said of Christie’s endorsement, “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
There is much to chew on here: the neoconservative effort to pressure politicians to say the right (pro-Israeli right wing) things on Israel issues, the patronizing tone of it all (“careful coaching”), and the sheer unrelentingness of their effort to control the national dialogue; the fact that an intellectually highly capable man like Christie felt it politically expedient, even necessary, to accept such tutoring and to mouth the resultant paragraphs. And the obvious insecurity of the neoconservatives: they can never really be certain that even if the politicians mouth the phrases they are told to that they will actually believe them, or whether, when circumstances change, they will go back to, for instance, thinking of the Palestinian territories as occupied territories, the way they are considered by practically every government in the world. One is reminded of David Frum’s lament about writing speeches for George W. Bush, delivered after Bush had begun his retreat from the neoconservative policies of his first term:
I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.
In any case, the Trump victories in South Carolina and Nevada, and the apparent endurance of his leads in the Super Tuesday race, have produced a swirl of neoconservative anxiety—maybe they will support Hillary (Robert Kagan has) or maybe they will try to get a third party going.
The resulting electoral sociology could be breathtaking. Whether he deserves it in any meaningful sense or not, Trump is clearly reliant on working-class support in his bid for the GOP nomination. That is his base, people who have voted Republican for two generations now and received nothing in return but seeing their kids sent to war, the loss of good jobs, and declining living standards. They want, as Corey Stewart says, to “shake things up” and don’t care if it’s done in a politically correct way. If that push continues, and the neoconservatives continue their migration towards Hillary, the end result will a race in which the Republican candidate is running to the left of the Democratic candidate, at least in terms of the social base of his coalition and on foreign policy. This would amount to a major realignment in American politics, certainly one more dramatic than anything we’ve seen in the postwar era.
None of this is even more than slightly probable: Trump could easily falter; there are ample indications that his standard stump message is getting tiresome, and it is not clear he is willing or capable of effectively renewing it. It may be that he will face opponents more compelling than Cruz or Rubio, perhaps at the convention. Or that the coming zillion-dollar Super PAC ad barrage, even if too late for Super Tuesday, will somehow do him in. Or that (and this is the fervent belief of Trump’s GOP establishment Twitter opponents) the attacks themselves will throw Trump off his game, and he will make more serious mistakes than he has made thus far. All could happen, singly or in combination. Politics in America right now is a big and exciting mystery.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.