Donald Trump

Donald Trump signs a pledge of loyalty to the Republican Party on Sept. 3 in New York City. (Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


Bloomberg Politics

Mark Halperin
Sep 15, 2015 2:00 AM PDT

  • The front-runner is a genius at attack, and completely invulnerable so far. So much of the GOP is searching for a way to turn him into a mere mortal.

Like almost everyone I know who is working on, covering, or closely following the presidential election, I spend about 60 percent of my waking hours talking about Donald Trump. People want to know if he can win, if he will win, and what might possibly derail his candidacy. The reason the answers are so elusive is that Trump has proven to be unlike any other candidate in modern American politics.

Top strategists for Trump’s rivals and some corporate and conservative interests are working with opposition researchers, messaging experts, and focus-group gurus to find some plausible scheme to end what has already become an enduring nightmare for much of the Republican establishment: Donald Trump, Front-Runner. The political-media world is speculating endlessly about which brave and hardy GOP soul will attempt a daring move against Trump, despite the certain threat of immediate, serpent-toothed retaliation. “I hope they attack me,” Trump said recently to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, “because everybody who attacks me is doomed.”

Publicly, former Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his presidential run on Friday afternoon. Privately, those who do this for a living used a bloodier term of the trade: He was killed (politically, of course), the first of what may turn into many campaign scalps claimed by the fiercest killer in this race, Trump.

“I hope they attack me, because everybody who attacks me is doomed.”

In the modern era, the Republican nomination has been won by the combatant who is best at playing a game of kill-or-be-killed. In the end, becoming the standard bearer has not been about the daily polls, the staff hires, the policy speeches, the fundraising, the cattle calls, the promised agenda. It’s been about having the skill and confidence to stamp out anyone who threatens you, using a combination of negative TV ads, candidate and major surrogate attacks, and planted opposition research.

All the Republican presidential nominees since 1988 have deployed these weapons in a rapid-fire flurry of assaults. The losers failed to respond quickly, handle the pressure, or maintain image control—and were pulverized. You win the nomination when you define yourself on your own (positive) terms and force your opponent to be defined in the public eye on negative terms. That is how you kill the enemy and prevail. Insiders and the campaigns themselves have long known this secret, even as much of the media coverage obscures the truth. In a sense, in every campaign cycle, the period between announcement speeches and the elimination rounds is merely a matter of marking time.

With Trump, the rules have changed. So far, he has proven to be largely immune from attack, and also a master killer himself, with a unique political arsenal. With a few months to go before voters vote, Trump has squashed the poll numbers and personas of a host of his rivals, without resorting to significant traditional opposition research, paid media, or surrogates. He simply uses Instagram, Twitter, and his virtually unlimited access to the news media to unsheathe his sharp tongue, cutthroat sensibility, and unerring perverse humor. And Trump can shift to kill mode without strain or hesitation.

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