How an anti-Trump Republican could beat Trump
A candidate who flips the establishment playbook on its head just might defeat Trump at his own game
Will President Trump face a primary challenger in 2020? Right now, as the GOP seems on the verge of passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut, most of it going to corporations and individuals, the party establishment seems to have won the victory over itself. But deep down, the party still hates and despises Trump, and would like to see him fall. So if the midterms don't go well, or if Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling uncovers anything truly damaging, there will almost certainly be a challenge.
The candidates are already auditioning. In all likelihood, Trump would crush whoever might go up against him. He's the incumbent president of his party, he has 80 percent approval ratings among Republicans, and he has right-wing media behind him. In other words, Trump looks unbeatable — at least by an establishment opponent playing by the establishment playbook.
But a candidate who flips that playbook on its head might — just might — defeat Trump. Or, perhaps slightly more plausibly, they might end up with an outcome similar to the Reagan-Ford match-up of 1976, where Reagan lost the nomination but won the party.
You see, party elites read Trump's appeal all wrong. They seem to think Republican voters like Trump because they've been brainwashed by Fox News into thinking that everything bad that is said about him is just #fakenews.
There's definitely an element of truth to the idea that the mainstream media's loss in credibility — which it spent many decades engineering all by itself — shields Trump from some negative allegations. But that's far from the whole story. It gives Fox too much credit and normal people too little. What's actually going on here is that most Republican voters are well aware of most of Trump's flaws — they just think the alternatives on offer are worse.
They think what the Republican Party has to offer to them is either oleaginous holier-than-thou Southern moralists (who don't appeal to anyone outside the South), or big business sellouts, or, maybe worse, sellouts to a cultural elite that despises the voters, their interests, and their way of life.
The only way a challenger will beat Trump is by not being any of those things.
Obvious strategies like those of Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), unloading to The New York Times about arcane process issues, is exactly wrong. Banking some media buzz and appealing to big donors who share those concerns might seem like a good idea, but as Jeb! found out the hard way, media and money don't mean much if the voters can't stand you.
Usually, the way campaigns work is that candidates try to differentiate themselves from one another. Here, the only way to beat Trump is actually to out-Trump him.
That doesn't mean trying to match him for rhetorical excess. It means attacking him for everything he was supposed to do but didn't. When he makes nasty anti-immigrant comments, don't get on your high horse and talk about the vibrancy of diversity, ask why he still hasn't built that big, beautiful wall he promised. When he touts his tax cut, ask why most of it goes to corporations and the rich, not voters. When he talks about repealing ObamaCare, ask why he's backing a big government bill that would hurt the people who voted for him most.
Don't talk about things that only elite people care about, like process issues and abstract "values" (whether progressive or conservative). Be more disappointed than angry that Trump simply isn't living up to the hype. If you're a Senator, sponsor actual legislation. If you're not in office, camp out in the Trump states and talk about the drugs epidemic, and crime, and trade.
Go guerilla. Ignore Washington, ignore the media, mainstream or right-wing, ignore the GOP activist and consultant class. Meet as many voters as possible and run a heck of a good Facebook page. Use a book (or better: a documentary!) to promote yourself. And whatever you do, do not respond to a New York Times or CNN reporter. (Although if you could yell at one for being bad at their job and have it conveniently captured by someone's smartphone camera, that would be a definite plus.)
In short, don't be the anti-Trump. Be the better Trump.
Are you guaranteed to win this way? No. But you certainly won't win any other way.