Donald Trump is poised today to win the Super Tuesday contests, narrowing the Republican field’s options and making it even more difficult for a GOP candidate to face down the overwhelming, media-driven drumbeat message that Trump is the inevitable nominee. We can argue about the evident failure of the donor class to unite behind a message, strategy, and funding plan to take out Trump as he inevitably wrecks the GOP on his way to having his weirdly coiffed head handed to him by Hillary Clinton’s campaign death machine, but in the shorter term Trump has the capacity to destroy a lot of Republican officeholders on the way.
In recent days, a few bold members of the Senate, House, and candidates down the ballot have recognized the danger Trump poses not only to the GOP’s hopes of winning the White House, but to the larger conservative movement. Though it may be too late, the #NeverTrump movement is growing, as principled conservatives and political realists begin to see the scope of the devastation the Trump candidacy will create, much less the possibility that a power-mad narcissist man-child with a short attention span and poor impulse control could hold the keys to the Oval Office and our nuclear arsenal.
All that said, in the coming days it’s likely we will see Vichy Republicans of various stripes break to Trump. A fraction of them, like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who endorsed Trump last weekend, are driven to his anti-immigration message, which they believe is the singular and driving motivation for Republican base voters. Most will break like frightened herd animals, reading this year’s polling as a sign of permanent political realignment. A few will do so out of malice against the hated Establishment. Some will seek to curry favor, or appointment in the Thousand Year Trump administration.
All of them are making three enormous political mistakes. Here’s my advice to elected leaders and candidates considering selling their political souls to the Orange One:
Trump doesn’t need you. Trump doesn’t need anyone’s endorsement, because he always has the most vital backing he or any candidate could hope for: universal name-ID, wall-to-wall media coverage and an instant on-air presence the moment he desires it. He doesn’t need your political machine (most of you, to be honest, barely have one). He doesn’t need your aura of power and influence in your state. If you stand next to Trump, it’s because he wants to tweak a rival, not because you’re the special political snowflake of your state or district.
After last weekend’s debate, when Marco Rubio beat Donald Trump like a rented mule, Trump swung into action in a desperate attempt to recapture Rubio’s one bad night in the last few months by bringing the Jersey Judas Chris Christie on stage with him as a surrogate against the Florida senator. Christie stood behind Trump until summoned to bellow praise of “Mr. Trump” and condemnation of Marco. As an aside, the toadying usage of “Mr. Trump” by his sycophants is just one tug of the forelock away from people averting their eyes and bowing low to Prince Donald of Orange.
Christie appeared at Trump’s side for roughly 18 hours, heaving and yelling. His trained-seal act of hitting Rubio was a shoddy imitation of Trump’s opera-buffa style until one of the most brutal, ugly political moments I’ve ever seen caught on tape managed to crystallize how Trump takes anything given to him, consumes it, drains it, and casts it aside like a 45-year-old trophy wife. At a raucous airport-hanger rally in Arkansas, Trump wiped Christie off his shoe in a single, icy moment. You could almost see Christie’s soul leaving his body as Trump irritably said, “Get on the plane and go home. It’s over there,” while pointing away from the roaring crowd to a waiting jet on the tarmac.
It was a perfect illustration of Trump’s non-transactional politics; Christie thought they’d formed an alliance. For Trump, Christie was like Uber, but for one day of headlines against Rubio. From speculation Christie would be vice president or attorney general to “go fetch your shinebox” in less than a day must have been a revelation for Christie, one I hope he savors as the former governor of New Jersey and future manager of the Whippany Best Buy.
Trump didn’t need Jeff Sessions to endorse him; he needed him to gut the wheezing carcass of the Ted Cruz campaign. Trump already owns the “build the wall to keep the brown people out” demographic; Sessions was icing on the cake. His endorsement was devastating to Ted Cruz’s head. When Trump was done, though, Sessions was on his own. Of course, 12 hours after the Sessions endorsement, the senator from Alabama was having to bat cleanup on Trump’s tip-o’-the-hood to David Duke and the KKK.
You’re not Trump. You can’t rub up against Trump and absorb the magic aura of his fuck-you swagger. You haven’t been a reality TV game show host for decades in a culture that cares vastly more about the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of Wherever than it does about any political figure. You haven’t run a branding company dedicated to branding, well…you.
There are no Trump Republicans; there is only Trump. When the 2010 election swept Republicans into office in a massive tidal wave, they were part of a philosophical and ideological change. They were bound by a set of limited-government principles. To be sure, sometimes loosely and imperfectly so, but the Tea Party wave was driven by ideas, not a singular, authoritarian personality. On the plus side, you aren’t a narcissistic sociopath, so you have that going for you.
You permanently inherit Trump’s problems without his invulnerability to them. Donald Trump’s singular gift in this campaign is his willingness to detonate his way out of controversy, lies, and trouble by launching a rocket-powered bullshit blizzard of more controversy, lies, and trouble. That’s not you. You’re not propelled through life on a torrent of celebrity adulation and media willing to let you play by “It’s just Donald being Donald” tolerance rules.
Far from having the same kind of Kevlar media armor Trump enjoys, if you think you inherit his invulnerability, you’re deeply, sadly mistaken. You’re about to become a bullet magnet for every controversial statement Trump has made…and if you try to out-Trump Trump, you’ll be laughed off the stage.
John McCain felt the first sting of what will surely be a cornerstone of Democratic messaging and ad strategy this fall when his Democratic opponent Ann Kilpatrick launched a brutal ad against McCain featuring some of the greatest hits of Trump’s catalog of ugliness. The template for the ad is simple; Republican X endorsed Trump, therefore Republican X endorses and believes in Trump’s every single one of Trump’s ideas and policies. Fair? No, but this is politics.
I’ve knocked out any number of Democrats using ads associating them with the brand toxicity of Reid, Pelosi, and Obama, and before that Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, and others. All the Democrats have to do is what I did, in reverse. If Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is being sworn in come 2017, this family of ads will be thing that put him there.
As a Republican governor, a senator, or member of Congress, or as a Republican candidate, let me remind you: You’re known by the company you keep. By associating yourself with or endorsing Trump, you own Trump’s toxic radioactivity with voters outside his base. You own his economic ignorance, his poisonous stupidity on every consequential matter of policy, and his lack of political and personal discretion. And you own it forever. The Internet—and ad-makers like me—never forget.
There’s a reason Trump’s favorability rating is 2:1 negative, why almost no scenario leads him to victory in November. There’s a reason why women and Hispanics loathe Trump. There’s a reason why conservatives know Trump isn’t one of them. And there’s a reason why smart down-ballot candidates and elected officials who can see beyond the current frenzy are heading for the exits from the Trump circus; beyond the core of his supporters, Donald Trump is a hideous cancer on American political life. He’s an objectively terrible person, and that eventually matters in politics.
If you want to endorse that, you’re on your own. You’ll own it even after the Trump bubble bursts, Hillary Clinton is sworn in, and the Chinese-made red hat he shoved on your head at the endorsement rally is nothing but an uncomfortable reminder of your terrible political judgment.