Politics & Policy

Note to GOP Elites Upset about Trump: Wonkery ≠ Leadership

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

All Monday-morning quarterbacking of the 2016 GOP primary should begin with a clear stipulation: There is nothing wrong with the fact that every Republican campaign (along with virtually every professional politician on the planet) was blindsided by Donald Trump’s rise. Yes, there were numerous smart people who detected the seething anti-establishment sentiment in the electorate. Tapping into that anger was central to Ted Cruz’s strategy, for example, but I’ve yet to find the pundit or politician who predicted that Trump would lead the GOP’s internal revolt.

But by Thanksgiving, the shock should have worn off. By December, the urgency of the situation should’​ve been clear. After all, not only had Trump led the RealClearPolitics polling average since July 20 (except for a three-day Ben Carson blip), he’d already exposed that he wasn’t just running as a populist but as a no-holds-barred brawler, dominating media coverage to an unprecedented degree and demonstrating that normal political rules no longer applied. Gaffes didn’t hurt Trump. His vile insults and crass demeanor only built his popularity.

So what did the Republican contenders do? They largely acted as if Trump wouldn’t matter. Ted Cruz kept lamely referring to Trump as his “friend.” Marco Rubio largely ignored him entirely, and while Jeb Bush tried to strike back at Trump in debates, he did so poorly and ineffectively. Instead, they got busy with what they viewed as their truly important work —  destroying each other.

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The result was catastrophic. To millions of voters, it looked as if there was only one leader on the stage — only one person with the guts and moxie to assert his will. The rest of the field looked small and weak, and in attacking one another while leaving the big bully alone, they looked frightened. While running to be the leader of the free world, they came across as intimidated by a real-estate developer and reality-TV star.

#share#To be clear, I don’t think they were actually afraid; they were just foolish. Convinced that Trump would self-destruct, or that the “real” competition was to become the not-Trump, they spent vast sums of money attacking one another. By February 20, of the $215 million spent by super PACS and other outside groups, only $9 million (around 4 percent) had been spent attacking Trump. By contrast, tens of millions were spent to destroy Marco Rubio. In New Hampshire, for example, Bush alone spent roughly $16 million against the Florida senator.

The tragedy is that when the attacks against Trump finally did come, they worked. Cruz woke up in the week before the Iowa caucus, hitting his “friend” hard and effectively. He won. But still, the lion’s share of the spending was wasted on fratricidal conflict. Only after the Nevada caucus did Cruz and Rubio both seem to wake up. Only then, did they seem to realize that “not-Trump” was insufficient. Someone had to step up and actually lead the effort to save conservatism and spare America from a dime-store demagogue.

RELATED: Dear GOP: United Behind Ted Cruz or Deserve Your Fate

Rubio and Cruz succeeded in humiliating Trump in consecutive debates. At the March 3rd debate, Trump was floundering so badly that his campaign manager, the now-infamous Corey Lewandowski, broke debate rules to go straight on the debate stage to calm his candidate during a commercial break.

The next weekend, Trump suffered through his worst polling day of the primary. He lost Maine and Kansas and narrowly prevailed in two states — Kentucky and Louisiana — that he was supposed to win in a rout. But, in hindsight, these attacks came far too late. Trump had built the largest and most loyal base of any GOP contender.

#related#Our modern elite — with its dearth of military experience and biographies notorious for their absence of hardship and self-sacrifice — often can’t comprehend true leadership. They’re wonks, data-crunchers, tacticians, and game theorists. They’re brilliant, but they’re not wise. They’re politicians, but they’re not leaders — at least not yet. And when the crucial moment came — when their movement and their values were at stake — they didn’t take the necessary risks. Instead, they triangulated. They played it safe. And they lost.

I’ll never forget the moment I understood the true depth of support for Trump. My wife’s uncle died weeks before the first primary. At his funeral, the pastor said that one of his greatest regrets is that he knew he would pass away before he had a chance to vote for Donald Trump. I’ve never heard that said of any candidate, much less a man so unworthy of such devotion. But he was following his leader. No one else had stepped up to earn his trust.


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