Raiders of the Lost Trump

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who’s ever been in a toxic office job situation may have experienced that special fear associated with seeing co-workers turn into carrion feeders, examining your desk and chair and extra-special view with bad intent, itching for your imminent departure. Donald Trump doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be afflicted with this kind of fear. That’s good for him, since political speculation has now gone beyond horror at his rise in the polls to complacency that he will eventually fall to earth or simply get bored, and notably today, to guess-work about who will inherit his supporters.

At National Journal Charlie Cook suggests candidates positioning themselves to tap into Trump’s angry constituency could one of the strategic touchstones of the first candidate debate on August 6:

For Bush and Rubio (and Kasich if he makes the cut), the best advice would probably be to stay out of Trump’s way. Focus on making a positive impression on—and hopefully connecting with—Republican primary voters and caucus attendees. Each of them should have a game plan for achieving those goals and stick to it, almost no matter what Trump does. Approximately 60 percent of GOP primary voters belong to that more conventional wing of the party—and while that number is lower in Iowa, it is still not low enough to make it sensible for these candidates to court the anger crowd.

But for Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rand Paul, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and, if he makes the cut, former Sen. Rick Santorum—all of whom are running from a distinctly more ideological wing of the party—a wise strategy would be not only to follow the aforementioned advice but also to demonstrate enough anger that they plausibly stand to inherit Trump’s supporters if he does start to drop in the polls.

When asked which candidates might logically benefit if—or, more likely, when—Trump deflates, some smart and unaffiliated Republican strategists homed in on two: Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. While on the surface they are very different people, Cruz and Christie both arguably channel anger more effectively than their rivals and might be able to tap into that energy if Trump starts bleeding support. Cruz articulates an extremely conservative, anti-Washington form of anger. Christie’s ire is not quite so ideological but still pretty conservative, and he vents it well; as with Trump, no one ever accused Christie of pulling his punches. Although others might be able to latch onto some Trump defectors—polls suggest he has drawn support away from at least four or five of his rivals—these two seem like pretty logical beneficiaries of a Trump exit. Which could make next week’s debate an especially important one for them.

In other words, in their audition to succeed Trump, the most important trail to exhibit is not this or that issue position or ideological self-identification, but sheer anger.

At WaPo, James Hohmann and Elise Viebeck stare at polls testing the field with and without The Donald to discern who might benefit from his disappearance. After deciding it’s a “jump ball,” they abruptly give Mike Huckabee strategist Chip Saltsman–and even Huck himself–the opportunity to make a case that the once-sunny, now semi-deranged former Arkansas governor is a good fit for voters abandoning or being abandoned by Trump.

It’s certainly plausible from one perspective: as I’ve talked about here, Huck was pursuing the same white-working-class -friendly message of breaking from the GOP crowd on trade agreements and entitlements–though not so much on immigration–when Trump came crashing into the race to shout at Republican elites. Hohmann and Viebeck also note Trump’s surprisingly strong standing with conservative white evangelical voters and figure Huck’s the natural inheritor of that support.

Now if I’m with Team Huck I’m going to talk this sort of talk 24/7, not only in an effort to get a bullet placed by my name on the Invisible Primary charts, but also to explain my poor performance heretofore: Trump stole my voters! and The Media’s Too Busy Hyping Trump to Cover My Campaign! Indeed, note Hohmann and Viebeck, the latter excuse is already emanating from Rand Paul’s campaign.

But the astute evangelical-watcher Sarah Posner suggests Huck may just be running a bad campaign that’s out of touch with where the Christian Right constituency is going. In fact, she says, he’d be doing a lot better if he simply revived his 2008 persona of the funny, friendly bass-playing Baptist preacher with a bit of a populist edge to his message.

In any event, there are a lot of candidates circling the Trump vote, ready to pounce. But first somebody’s going to have to figure out how to expedite the candidate’s demise. Maybe it will just happen naturally, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.