Chris Stirewalt at Fox News
A Trumptation – that moment when the GOP front runner becomes the total focus of the political press based on an intentional provocation – has a well-defined life cycle.
Stage One: Donald Trump has a fever and there’s only one cure
In the case of this week’s outrage, Donald Trump’s problem was that he was not getting enough attention in the wake of the attacks in San Bernardino and the president’s Oval Office address. Trump was not only out of the limelight, but he suddenly found himself for the first time ever trailing his new chief adversary, Sen. Ted Cruz, in an Iowa poll.
The discussion on Monday and Tuesday was all about Obama. And not in a good way. The president’s decision to tack five minutes of partisan palaver onto the end of his address to the nation had opened wide the door to criticism of his tone and his policies. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was trapped in his orbit and one could start to see how 2016 could be a referendum on Obama’s record on Islamist terrorism.
Part of Obama’s partisan punch was that Americans should resist calls for broad-based discrimination on religious grounds. The response from the GOP was a collective scoff. Republicans said they were focused on killing the members of ISIS and improving terror safeguards, not religious discrimination. Obama, Republicans said, was just trying to distract from his own failures.
And then Trump arrived to turn Obama from partisan to prophet.
Stage Two: Mutual interest prevails
Assume that what Trump and almost all Republicans believe about the press is true and that under every blouse and suitcoat is a Hillz for Prez t-shirt. Assume also that these same journalists are desperate for ratings or clicks. If Trump offers them a controversy that will both drive attention and help Democrats, how could they say no?
A journalist might feel bad about such feverish coverage of any candidate unless they thought it was actually good for the country. If you’re on the Trump train, then it’s easy. Trump it up. And if you’re a liberal Democrat who thinks that it would be very bad for any Republican to win, it’s easy too. Wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican frontrunner calling for the federal government to institute religious tests is not just good business, but it’s also patriotic. Light ‘em up.
As Trump learned in his birther endeavor in 2011, there’s lots of attention to be had in living up to the caricature Obama has drawn of Republicans.
Stage Three: The inquisition
Now, it’s not like America will or can start making people swear religious oaths. What would immigration officials do? Demand visitors eat bacon sandwiches? But if you’re a Republican being interviewed by the media on any topic under the sun — from terrorism to tax policy — you can expect the interview to immediately turn into an interrogation about that thing Donald Trump said.
This one is ripe enough that it has been easy and direct for most in the party to disown and denounce. Even Trump’s cleanup – excepting Muslim military personnel, etc. – hasn’t sufficiently confused the issue to create many traps. Fear of a Trump backlash isn’t what it used to be. The backlash is continual so his rivals can at least try to get in on the upside.
As always, Cruz plays it a little differently. Cruz differed with the policy but in keeping with his 12thCommandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of the Trump – Cruz declined to offer his opinion on the Muslim ban itself or Trump’s rhetoric.
It’s what you could call a vulture’s good manners. It is uncouth to denigrate your dinner.
Stage Four: Hardening hearts
Trump faces long odds for the nomination, made longer by this kind of conduct. The more dangerous he becomes to not just the Republican Party’s prospects in the next election but future as a viable opposition party – a generational catastrophe that Paul David Miller compares to the Agrarian Revolt that wrecked Democrats – the more urgent the effort will be to unite against him.
Trump has one hope, which has been his best hope all along: Jeb Bush. While Bush strives to be the last man standing against Trump, Trump no doubt wishes for the same thing. Bush’s PAC man, Mike Murphy, has started what promises to be a very ugly and very profitable (at least for him) effort to tear down Cruz and Sen.Marco Rubio, even as the latter increasingly rates as the party’s best-liked figure and best hope to defeat Hillary Clinton. Bush isn’t exactly a furnace of potential these days, but maybe he can claw his way over Rubio and give Trump a chance to stage a hostile takeover of the GOP.
So while you can’t count Trump out, the urgency in the efforts for Republicans to unite and defeat him is intensifying. Candidates weighing whether to drop out, donors waiting for the signal to jump in and undecided voters all have more reasons to get going today than they did on Monday.
Those who felt indulgent toward Trump or maybe even a little Trump-curious themselves will increasingly join the ranks of the opposed, if only for electoral purposes.
Stage Five: In the trenches
If you liked Trump when he was receptive to a reporter’s suggestion that Muslims be registered with the government, you wouldn’t like him any less today.
If you believed in Trump when he was calling for the revival of “Operation Wetback,” today is not the day that you walk out.
If you agreed when Trump said that perhaps a Black Lives Matter protester should have been “roughed up,” this is far from the end of the line for you.
If anything, today will be another baptism by fire for the Trump nation. They will not abandon their man, especially when he is under attack by the liberal media. And this is the real genius of Trump’s method. He seeks negative attention from the press which then helps reinforce his message to his supporters: That they are under siege and fighting together.
Many of Trump’s backers feel under siege anyway, and by more than just reporters. They are facing a broken economy, an unraveling culture and a future that looks increasingly grim for themselves and their country. Going down fighting doesn’t sound so bad to them.
For now, the cycle works well for both Trump and his media frenemies. It remains to be seen whether it will work so well for his committed supporters.