When Trump entered the race in June, I just assumed he would monkey around in front of the cameras for a few days, get his hit of publicity, and then leave. I was wrong. I can take some solace from the fact that everybody else was wrong too. I’m not aware of anyone who accurately predicted what would happen, which is that Trump would boot a dozen losers–including all the supposedly strongest candidates–out of the Republican primary without breaking a sweat and now appear to be on the glide path to victory.
So, much as I and most of the rest of the human race may dislike it, a Trump vs. Hillary matchup looks more and more likely. Those writing about it fall into two camps, the ‘Of course Hillary would win automatically’ camp and the ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure about that’ camp. Hillary leads in the most polls, but not by a huge margin. So with that said, I think it’s time to consider what tactics Trump will employ in the general election race.
- Trump is post-spectrum. Everyone in politics believes there’s a political spectrum stretching from right to left, with individual politicians all at some point of being either conservative or liberal. But Trump doesn’t talk about conservative or liberal, right or left. (He may mention it a little, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not his main thing.) He’s assembled a farrago of positions from all over, some that could be characterized as conservative and some liberal, but Trump doesn’t insist on being seen as conservative. If anything he wants to avoid that. Primary opponents kept attacking him for not being conservative and the attacks bounced off without impact, since Trump wasn’t trying to be conservative.
Hillary whole campaign is based on setting up positions close enough to the center to win 51% of the vote, while not making the left-wing base angry. She’s ready and prepared for attacks from the right. But attacks from the left she’s not well-prepared for, and Bernie Sanders has already hit some of them. Trump could assail her for the Goldman Sachs payments, the ties to Henry Kissinger and other unpleasant characters, the Wall Street-funded SuperPAC, the vote for war in Iraq, the friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia, and so forth. Trump is not limited to taking conservative positions. He could take up Bernie-like issues such as raising Social Security taxes on the rich, minimum wage, or student loan debt, and use those to hit Hillary from the left.
- Trump uses surprise and ambiguity well. As I was trying to get at in this thread, Trump has been astonishingly good at keeping his opponents off-balance by doing things that no one ever expected. Ever part of his behavior and demeanor violates the rules that politics is supposedly played by. He makes deliberately offensive statements and won’t apologize for them, he threatens to boycott a debate and then doesn’t do it, he threatens to boycott a debate and then does do it, he refers to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, he does a hundred other things that every highly paid political consultant would tell a candidate not to do. Nobody can make plans for how to battle against Trump cause they don’t have any idea what he’ll be doing tomorrow.
Trump has already tussled with the Hillary camp once and used the element of surprise. Back in January, Hillary accused Trump of sexism. Rather than defend himself, Trump seized the moment to remind people of Bill Clinton’s “record of woman abuse”, i.e. the list of proven sexual harassment claims and unproven rape claims that’s trailed Bill for decades. That attack seems to have taken the Hillary camp by surprise, as they didn’t have a fast or strong response to it.
No one knows what surprises Trump will use in the next eight months–they wouldn’t be surprises if we knew. But we could imagine some possibilities:
[li]Hillary and the liberal media rant against the horrible, horrible border fence that Trump says he will build between the US and Mexico. Then Trump reminds everyone that as Senator, Hillary voted for a border fence.[/li][li]Hillary rants against the influence of big money in politics. Then Trump reminds everyone that Hillary has taken campaign money from Trump.[/li][li]Who knows that else?[/li][/ul]
Trump will continue to play the anti-establishment angle, and court the working class and uneducated. The most central part of his success thus far is that rather than framing his campaign as conservative vs. liberal, he’s framed it as everyone versus the establishment. Thus, no matter who attacks him–Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, the New York Times, Fox News, National Review, John Oliver–it’s further proof that the establishment is quaking in its boots, fearing the coming of Trump. This will continue. More people and organizations will attack him in the coming months, and when he responds at all, he’ll continue to play it as us vs. the rich and powerful.
Trump will continue acting quickly and will force Hillary to react quickly. Trump has deployed this tactic perfectly against his Republican opponents. In old-fashioned politics, everyone has time to think and plan. Armies of consultants, lawyers, advisers, pollsters, focus groups and so forth shape everything that a candidate does, everything they say, and every position they take. When there’s a change in circumstances, the consultants reconvene, the focus groups are polled, and the campaign’s position is slowly agreed upon.
Trump blows this up by acting quickly. After the San Bernadino terrorist attack, Trump waited just long enough for the news to sink in that the terrorists were linked to ISIS, then went public with his plan to ban Muslims from entering the country. It took everyone by surprise and none of his rivals were able to respond quickly. People expect meaningless boilerplate and vague promises from politicians. Trump’s clear, unexpected pronouncement made him the center of attention and left his Republican opponents looking lame. (Or perhaps I should say, more lame than usual.)
Whatever surprise events occur between now and November, Trump will try to pull a similar trick. He’ll announce a plan that’s outrageous enough to get all over cable news and draw condemnation from liberals, but stops short of going too far towards outright totalitarianism, and then Hillary will have to respond. If she offers meaningless cliches while waiting for her consultants to run the focus groups and take polls and find the response that 51% of the people want, she’ll risk looking lame.
Trump understands how the media environment has changed. In the past, people got news once a day. Now news is delivered within minutes. When he tweets something outrageous, it’s rocketing around the world immediately. People expect his rivals to respond quickly. They aren’t used to responding quickly.