Politics & Policy

The Anatomy of a Trump Defeat

Trump speaks at a campaign stop in Milwaukee, April 4, 2016. (Darren Hauck/Getty)

Last Friday, four days before Wisconsinites would cast their ballots, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Sarah Palin headlined an event for the Milwaukee County Republican party. Donald Trump, whose unconventional campaign rests almost entirely on his public appearances, had left it to Palin to carry the banner for him while he jetted off to Washington, D.C. There, he would cap a dismal week by sitting down with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus for a remedial lesson in delegate allocation.

It’s looking as if he will need it. Cruz trounced him in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, 50 to 33 percent, with 73 percent reporting, making a contested convention more likely in July. The results were significant in another way, too. Trump has mostly over-performed, astounding political onlookers at every turn. Wisconsin marks the first contest in which he has, arguably, underperformed, ceding to Cruz what had been an eleven-point lead in late February, as measured by a Marquette University poll, for a 28-point reversal over the course of just five weeks.

“I think Wisconsin is significant because it’s the first state that he was on track to win that he is going to lose as a result of his demeanor, temper, and comportment as a presidential candidate,” says Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.

Wisconsin was always going to be difficult terrain for Trump. Though the state has plenty of rural areas populated by the sorts of lower middle-class voters who have fueled Trump’s campaign, and hosts an open primary, in which Democrats and independents are free to cast ballots, it also has an unusually unified, politically sophisticated Republican electorate thanks to the bruising battles its governor, Scott Walker, has led it through in recent years. And, as Walker demonstrated on a national level, Wisconsinites are mild-mannered, potentially less inclined than others to an outsized personality such as Trump’s. The businessman finished third in neighboring Minnesota behind Marco Rubio and Cruz.

“There’s a certain cultural flavor that doesn’t react well to that New York braggadocio,” says Wisconsin-based talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, who opposes Trump’s candidacy and who conducted a bruising interview with him last week.

RELATED: How Cruz Cruised to His Wisconsin Win

Nonetheless, the way in which Trump was defeated at a crucial juncture will become the subject of intense interest not only for Trump and his opponents, but also for the confluence of outside interests aligned against him. “It’s like the Spanish Civil War,” says Sykes. “Both sides are trying out their military tactics, and whatever happens to have worked or not worked will be applied in other war zones.”

It was a loss for Trump, yes, but more important, a galvanizing moment for the forces aligned against him.

Many of Trump’s Republican foes have argued for months now that defeating him would require a sort of all-hands-on-deck effort: opposition from elected officials, the conservative media, and top-dollar donors. While there has been much talk about an anti-Trump movement — the Twittersphere has branded it #NeverTrump — its components have rarely worked in tandem. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 that conservatism was less a body of ideas than a series of “irritable mental gestures”; its expression in the form of a movement to destroy Trump, and to save itself, has been similarly disjointed. Independent parts have operated without a central-command system.

In Wisconsin, though, the stars aligned. A super PAC funded by Republican mega-donors sent an ad attacking Trump viral. After a self-imposed hibernation following his withdrawal from the presidential race, Walker emerged as a vociferous spokesman for Cruz. The state’s conservative talk-radio hosts, Sykes chief among them, hammered Trump relentlessly, unlike many of their national counterparts.

RELATED: Wisconsin Delegate Scoreboard: Cruz 36, Trump 6

And under pressure, the real-estate mogul made unforced errors, from sending an ill-advised tweet featuring an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife to giving an answer on abortion that managed to upset conservatives and liberals alike. By the end, even many of his most ardent supporters had become critics, and both groups were further convinced that the Republican nomination would be decided at the convention in Cleveland.

But, more than a loss for Trump, it was a galvanizing moment for the forces aligned against him, who emerged from Wisconsin more convinced than ever that a unified effort could slay the beast.

*    *    *

Back in Milwaukee last Friday, surrogates for each of the campaigns introduced the presidential candidates to a crowd of approximately 750 voters in Milwaukee County. Walker opened for Cruz. Former governor Tommy Thompson ushered Kasich on stage.

Trump has run a campaign with virtually no organizational footprint, and here it showed: His team couldn’t find anybody to introduce Palin. They reached out at the last minute to Milwaukee County GOP chairman David Karst. He’s not a Trump supporter, and, reached on the eve of the primary, he didn’t even think Trump had run a particularly good campaign in the state. “It would’ve been nice if Mr. Trump would’ve reached out to more Republicans,” Karst says. (He claims Trump spent more time wooing Democratic and independent voters, who were free to vote in the state’s open primary.)

Karst delivered his introduction with all the enthusiasm of a non-supporter. Palin, for her part, was met with a combination of stone-faced silence and muted applause as she threw out puzzlers such as “green and gold till I’m dead and cold,” her version of a Green Bay Packers cheer.

“There was a time in Wisconsin when she was a rock star, and then last night she’s there for Donald Trump, and it was truly horrible,” Sykes says. Her appearance served as the denouement of a two-week stretch, beginning in mid March, that left Trump battered, his weakness on policy and his campaign’s infrastructural frailty not just apparent but actually taking a toll.

Trump speaks at a campaign stop in La Crosse, Wisc. (Scott Olson/Getty

That stretch began on March 14, when the super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, Our Principles PAC (OPP), put up a seven-figure sum to air a television ad featuring a series of actresses reading some of Trump’s most offensive and eye-popping statements about women. (“You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of a**.”)

“We were really looking to hit him in a way that would kind of feel like a kick in the gut,” says Katie Packer Gage, the executive director of the PAC. Produced by Larry McCarthy, who created the famed Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis in 1988, the spot garnered a million views on YouTube within the first 48 hours. “We just dominated cable news with it,” Packer Gage says.

RELATED: Cruz Hustles to Show Softer Side, Exploit Trump’s Crises with Women

And then, Trump started playing into the caricature. On March 24 he blasted out a now infamous Tweet featuring an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, next to a glamorous professional shot of his own wife, Melania, a former model. “The images are worth a thousand words,” he wrote, after threatening to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Cruz the previous day.

The move predictably sent his critics into a frenzy, but it also riled some of his most ardent supporters. There has been a lot of talk about Trump’s “hard floor” of support, but for the first time, it looked as if that was beginning to crack. “Our candidate is mental. Do you realize our candidate is mental?” Ann Coulter, a diehard Trump booster, asked Breitbart News’s Milo Yiannopoulos. “It’s like constantly having to bail out your 16-year-old son from prison.”

RELATED: Only Ted Cruz Can Stop Donald Trump

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has yet to endorse a candidate — he remains close to Kasich from their shared time in Congress but has made clear that he is open to supporting Trump — called Trump’s actions “utterly stupid.”

There has been a lot of talk about Trump’s ‘hard floor’ of support, but for the first time, it looked like even that was beginning to crack.

“It has frankly, weakened everything that Trump ought to be strengthening,” Gingrich told Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “It sent a signal to women that is negative, at a time when his numbers with women are already bad. It sent a signal of instability to people who may be beginning to say, ‘Maybe I’ve got to get used to it, maybe I’ve got to rely on him, maybe he could be presidential.’”

When OPP aired its attack, it was actually targeting the latter group, which consists mostly of men, not women. Trump’s approval rating among women, which has lately fluctuated between 30 and 40 percent, was already abysmal. It is men who will ultimately lift or sink his campaign. “It was sort of seen as this ad targeting women, but we were actually targeting men,” says Packer Gage, who talks of the ad’s “slow seepage” into the culture and perhaps into Trump’s head, too.

RELATED: Cruz Must Be the Anti-Trump

As of Tuesday, the ad had been viewed nearly 3.5 million times on YouTube. More important, the portrayal of Trump as a foe of women had made its way into popular culture. The weekend before the primary, Saturday Night Live opened with a skit featuring a news anchor interviewing a female Trump supporter.

“Well, it’s been another bad week for Donald Trump with women,” the anchor declares.

“Okay,” her guest responds. “As a woman, I like Donald Trump, but as a full-blown nut job, I frickin’ love him.”

Trump campaigns at a diner in Wauwatosa, Wisc. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Conservative talk radio has, for the most part, been a great friend to Donald Trump. Conservative talk radio in Wisconsin? Not so much.

While hosts from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity to Laura Ingraham have given Trump both airtime and cover, with Limbaugh in particular vowing to maintain a policy of neutrality in the Republican primaries, Trump ran blindly into a talk-radio buzzsaw in Wisconsin.

“How do we get to April of 2016 and nobody got in his face before?” says Sykes, the king of the medium in Wisconsin. Mostly, it has been Trump and his security team getting in the face of critics, both real and perceived, but when Trump appeared on Sykes’s show last Monday, Sykes turned the tables on him.

RELATED: Reminder: Most Republicans Have Voted Against Trump

“Well, welcome to Wisconsin,” Sykes said. “I know you realize that here in Wisconsin we value things like civility, decency, and actual conservative principles, so let’s make some news.” He went on to challenge Trump to say that the wives of the candidates are off limits, and to apologize for tacitly mocking Heidi Cruz’s appearance. Trump refused, saying, essentially, that Cruz had started it. “I expect that from a twelve-year-old bully on the playground,” Sykes told him. “Not somebody who wants to hold the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”

He went on to play OPP’s attack ad, and to ask Trump to respond to it. “I never thought I would run for office,” Trump said. Sykes pointed out that he’s said similar things to women on the campaign trail, from Megyn Kelly to Carly Fiorina.

RELATED: The Three Paths Forward for #NeverTrump

The reviews came in swiftly. The conservative website RedState: “Charlie Sykes Just Destroyed Donald Trump.” The New York Times: “Wisconsin Radio Host’s Combative Interview Surprises Donald Trump.” Mashable: “Donald Trump Meets His Match in Wisconsin Radio Interview.”

Conservative talk radio has, for the most part, been a great friend to Donald Trump. Conservative talk radio in Wisconsin? Not so much.

The following day, Scott Walker joined Sykes’s show to announce that he was endorsing Ted Cruz. Walker bowed out of the presidential race in September, urging others to do the same so that the GOP could focus its resources on defeating Trump. As it turned out, his endorsement wasn’t merely a lukewarm one intended to block Trump’s advance. He went out of his way to help Cruz, cutting television ads for him and appearing alongside him at events.

“I was surprised by how strongly Walker came out for Cruz,” Sykes says.

The move proved yet another trap for Trump, who had assailed Walker’s governance while he was an active presidential candidate. In the wake of Walker’s endorsement, Trump revived the shtick on the ground in a state where Walker remains popular, and where he has won three elections in the past five years. “Wisconsin is doing very poorly,” Trump said, criticizing Walker for his failure to raise taxes. “I wouldn’t exactly say that things are running smoothly.”

RELATED: How to Drump Trump

David Karst, the Milwaukee County GOP chairman who introduced Palin on the Trump campaign’s behalf last Friday, called Trump’s decision to attack Walker “a very poor mistake.”

Wisconsin Republicans, are “the ones that have elected [Walker] three times in the last five years, and we’re the reason why Governor Walker was not recalled, so we have a lot of loyalty to Governor Walker,” he says. “So I was kind of surprised about that.”

#related#On Trump’s end, the self-inflicted damage continued. The day after Walker endorsed Cruz, and two days after his disastrous interview with Sykes, he appeared in primetime at an MSNBC town hall, where he told host Chris Matthews that women who receive illegal abortions should be punished.

The slip-up, which even Trump uncharacteristically copped to, once again turned friends into foes. “What happened last night on MSNBC is huge,” Limbaugh told his audience. “I’m telling you what happened last night was huge in terms of rejuvenating the Democrats.” Trump, he argued, had given the Democrats ammunition to revive their assertion that Republicans are engaged in a “war on women.” 

“None of the mistakes have been forced, and nobody forced him to react negatively,” Gingrich told the New York Times. “I think he has a real possibility of, having surged amazingly, to miss the golden ring.”

*    *    *

Yes, Trump’s errors were, strictly speaking, unforced, and Wisconsin was never a gimme. But his foes will argue that the results there are definitive proof not only that the race is headed to a convention but also that if conservatives mount a collective offensive on the front-runner, he can be defeated there, too. “I think that what shifts now, and we’ve been saying that all along, is that if we can win Wisconsin, then this is going to Cleveland, and so, this is going to Cleveland,” says Packer Gage.

The top GOP strategist notes that, thanks in part to the outside pressure brought to bear on Trump in Wisconsin, the mogul is “literally now, I think, one Megyn Kelly tweet away from this being over, one Heidi Cruz tweet away from this not being recoverable.”

His foes, who until the Wisconsin battle had been unable to mount a credible offensive, are crossing their fingers.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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