The Republican and Washington and media establishments have failed to stop the rise of Donald Trump and their critics have accused them of not taking him seriously until it was too late.
One evening last June, some of the Republican Party’s wealthiest donors gathered for a cocktail party at an exclusive resort in Deer Valley, Utah, during a three-day retreat hosted by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
They had just heard from six presidential hopefuls. Tom Duncan, the CEO of tool-maker Positec Tool Corp, chatted with a few attendees about a fantasy ticket to secure the White House in November 2016: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as his running mate.
Many of the conversations had one thing in common: a stubborn refusal to take Trump seriously, even as fans packed sports stadiums to see him in the summer months, as he dominated media coverage of the election, and as polls showed him winning wide support among young and old, men and women.
Scenes like the one at Deer Valley would be repeated in rarified enclaves of the party elite around the country again and again in the coming months. Many in the Republican establishment believed he would eventually self-destruct or that Americans would lose patience with his bombast, his free-wheeling insults and lack of firm policies to back up his promises to “Make America Great Again.”
They were wrong.
But you can’t accuse them of not trying now. Suddenly aware that the Trump phenomenon is real and that time is running out, they are launching wave after wave of attacks and you can bet that this week it will reach a crescendo because if Trump does well on Tuesday and sweeps Ohio, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and Missouri, it’s all over, whatever the bean counters may say about delegate totals and contested conventions. Trump’s opponents and a variety of SuperPACs are drowning the airwaves with attack ads in those states and hedge fund managers are pouring money into the Cruz and Clinton campaigns.
As an example of the efforts being mounted now, last weekend a group of prominent billionaires and top Republican honchos flew in a fleet of jets to a luxury resort on a private island off the coast of Georgia, to attend a secret conference organized by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute to, among other things, see if they could devise yet another strategy to stop Trump.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google co-founder Larry Page, Napster creator and Facebook investor Sean Parker, and Tesla Motors and SpaceX honcho Elon Musk all attended. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), political guru Karl Rove, House Speaker Paul Ryan, GOP Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ben Sasse (Neb.), who recently made news by saying he “cannot support Donald Trump.”
Along with Ryan, the House was represented by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (Mich.), Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) and almost-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), sources said, along with leadership figure Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Diane Black (Tenn.).
Philip Anschutz, the billionaire GOP donor whose company owns a stake in Sea Island, was also there, along with Democratic Rep. John Delaney, who represents Maryland. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, was there, too, a Times spokeswoman confirmed.
A highlight of the gathering was a presentation by Rove about focus group findings on Trump. The business mogul’s greatest weakness, according to Rove, was that voters have a very hard time envisioning him as “presidential” and as somebody their children should look up to. They also see him as somebody who can be erratic and shouldn’t have his (small) fingers anywhere near a nuclear trigger.
Yes, these people think the best way to combat Trump is to reinforce his basic message that the system is controlled by a gaggle of rich influence seekers, top politicians, and the media who meet in secret to plot to thwart ‘the will of the people’.
What amazes me is that according to the report, these people are still looking to Karl Rove of all people to develop their anti-Trump strategy. Rove’s sell-by date has long past, with his last major ‘success’ being his adoption of the vicious anti-same-sex marriage policy to increase religious voter turnout in favor of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. Since then he has been on a losing streak. Rove is now notorious mainly for wasting his backers’ money but the influence of people like him explains misguided ads like this one put out by an outfit called the American Future Fund titled ‘The Best Words’, that seems to suggest that Trump is too coarse and vulgar in his use of language to be president.
My own feeling is that this ad feeds right into what Trump’s supporters like about him, his willingness to buck ‘political correctness’ and ‘tell it like it is’. It will actually cement his outsider credentials and his supporters will roar with laughter and be even more convinced that he is one of them and ‘not part of the establishment’.
If Trump continues to do well on Tuesday, his opponents may still try to stop him at the convention if he does not have an absolute majority, but they must know that that would be a disaster even if they somehow manage to succeed.
Tonight at 9:00pm ET is the 12th and penultimate Republican debate to be held in Miami, Florida (The last one will be held on March 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah.) As usual it will be content-free so the only interest is in how the candidates will behave. The desperate Rubio now admits that his descent to Trump-level insults was a mistake so he may try to resurrect his image as the fast-talking policy wonk. Ted Cruz will be true to himself and so will be condescending, patronizing, smug, and arrogant. (Carly Fiorina, who is Cruz’s match when it comes to lying and sneering unlikability, has endorsed him. Imagine what a Cruz/Fiorina ticket would be like. Oh, the horror!) John Kasich will do his usual aw shucks, ‘can’t we all get along’ schtick.
What will be interesting to watch is what Trump does. Will he try to ‘act presidential’ and ignore his rivals and focus on the Democratic candidates, which will mean that he thinks the primary race is over and has set his sights on the general election? Or will he continue to do what has worked for his so well so far, and attack all three of his rivals in order to go for maximum gain on Tuesday?