Can Trump’s Bully Strategy Keep Working?

Donald Trump 2016 presidential candidate

Photo courtesy of Trump for President

Can Trump’s Bully Strategy Keep Working?
| published August 29, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts Thursday Review

In the first major Republican debate, held in early August in Cleveland, Ohio, Donald Trump faced a key question right out of the starting gate: would he vow there, on that stage, to support whomever the GOP eventually nominates as its candidate in 2016, and disavow any talk of a third party candidacy or independent run?

Some viewers held their breath in the expectation that Trump would hedge or dodge a direct answer. Instead he ran headlong into the question, saying he would not make any such pledge. Meaning, as he has intimated several times, if he is dissatisfied with the outcome, he will consider a third party candidacy in 2016. Rumors have already begun to swirl that Trump may bolt from the GOP race early, and begin the process of setting up a third party run.

In the long traditional of both Democratic and Republican Party politics, such a bold and brazen repudiation of party—especially when one is on a stage sponsored by the very party whose nomination you seek—would be grounds for immediate implosion. But not for Trump. The businessman and TV personality saw his poll number climb despite his refusal to pledge loyalty to the GOP (he is, in fact, a registered independent, and was before that a Democrat), and despite a very public row with Fox News host Megyn Kelly over Trump’s past insensitive and disparaging words about women.

The nasty fight between Fox News and Trump escalated over the next few days, and Trump refused to back down. Only after a private phone call between Fox News chief Roger Ailes and Trump was a truce of sorts worked out. Trump moved on to other targets, including some of his Republican opponents. But the same squabble with the conservative Fox News channel broke out again in earnest this week when Megyn Kelly returned from vacation, and Trump used the occasion to again lambast her, telling his followers on Twitter and Instagram that her show was better off while she was away. Ailes demanded that Trump apologize, though the news chief also said he did not expect contrition from the always irascible and controversial Trump.

But it was Trump’s dust-up with Univision’s Jorge Ramos which truly caught the attention of political junkies and media watchers alike. At a press conference this week in Dubuque, Iowa, Ramos—an author, analyst, and a frequent host of Univision’s Spanish-language news broadcast Noticias—stood to begin asking a question of Trump about the issue of immigration policy. By now almost everyone has seen the clip: Trump cut off Ramos, barking at him to sit down, and insisting that he had been neither called upon nor invited to the press conference. When Ramos refused to back down, Trump had security guards toss Ramos from the room.

Though Trump allowed Ramos to return later in the press conference, the tension was so thick it could only be sliced with a straight-from-the-factory Gerber Air Ranger knife. Ramos proceeded with his original line of question: how will Trump make sense of his proposals to oust some 11 million immigrants from the U.S., and how does he intend to pay for an enormous wall stretching some 1900 miles across the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump waved the question of the wall aside, explaining that it much harder to build a skyscraper than a fence. But Trump chose not to waste an opportunity to throw some legal business at Ramos., reminding the popular and well-respected TV news anchor of the pending litigation between Trump and Univision.

Trump’s legal battle with Univision is one of several which sprang instantly from his declaration months ago that he would seek the Presidency. His remarks to supporters about Latinos and Mexicans were widely deemed both irresponsible and insensitive, if not downright racist. Trump was immediately canned by NBC back in April—tossed more-or-less permanently from the popular shows The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice. NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt told reporters that the show would take a hiatus while NBC secured a new host, and Greenblatt went on to indicate that Trump was no longer welcome despite what Greenblatt described as a good relationship between Trump, and his producers, writers and directors at NBC.

But the Univision break-up was harder. After Trump referded to Mexicans as “drug dealers” and “rapists,” Univision was unilateral—dumping the Trumpster and his Miss Universe Corporation (Trump owns the majority stake in the pageant and its subsidiary activities) completely. Univision broadcasts the event in Spanish-language homes on three continents. Univision severed all relationships with Miss Universe and cancelled all of its contracts, saying that Trump had in effect violated the terms and spirit of the event and its wide dissemination.

Trump, with tens of millions of dollars at stake, fired back with legal action, accusing Univision of breach of contract and, ironically, defamation. Trump’s attorneys are asking for $2 billion in damages. Univision has said it will file for dismissal of the case, and due to calendar complexities, that process may not get started until mid-September, at which point Trump and his attorneys have another 45 days to weight their options.

During that contentious press conference in Iowa, Trump redirected Ramos—taunting him by asking the reporter if he was fully aware of his stake in the lawsuit. Ramos pleaded no direct knowledge, saying only that he was a reporter. Trump boasted not only that he knew of Ramos personal investment in the financial proceedings, but that he, Trump, was good at this sort of thing. Trump often brags of his ability to cannily work the legal system to his advantage. When asked sometimes in interviews about the numerous bankruptcies which Trump companies have filed, not to mention the thousands of unemployed folks left jobless because of Trump’s tactical financial retreats, Trump merely says that such legal machinations are part of doing business on the scale where he operates.

Trump’s head-on fist-fights and unprovoked clashes with reporters and journalists have begun to paint the brash businessman as a bully, a label which he clearly dislikes.

When Trump was asked by reporters on NBC‘s Today Show to explain his behavior toward Ramos in Iowa, Trump even offered up a non-solicited defense.

“I’m not a bully, Trump told Matt Lauer, “in fact, I think it is just the opposite.”

Trump said it was Ramos who was out of line, not Trump—a defensive position similar to the tact used after Trump’s now infamous entanglements with Megyn Kelly, and before that, with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

But some of Trump’s supporters say Trump had a right to challenge the authenticity of Ramos’ presence in that room: Ramos’ daughter, as it turns out, works for the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Ramos has said that the activities of his daughter are of no concern to Ramos, but Trump and his people say that Ramos is—and always has been—more of an advocate, a very public figure espousing a political and social agenda, and not an independent journalist in the truest sense. Worse, Trump’s defenders say, Ramos is little more than a Trojan horse—a person with direct family connections to a major political candidate. Even a few Republicans openly unsupportive of Trump agree that if it were not for Trump’s presence in the GOP field, Ramos’ biggest target would be an alternate front-runner, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, whomever. Trump just happens to loom so large that he makes for the easiest target.

None of which explains Trump’s very public on-again-off-again feud with Fox News, presumably a network whose tacit cooperation he needs now, not to mention later in a general election campaign where he can expect to be hammered daily. Aside from what many saw as his thin-skinned post-debate handling of the Megyn Kelly brouhaha, his all-too-easy willingness to reignite the grudge foreshadows a personality trait that some might find discomforting in the White House. As one friend asked rhetorically: do you really want Donald Trump taking that 3:00 a.m. phone call from Putin?

That Trump has to offer the somewhat negative-response defense that he is “not a bully” also points to his general disregard for political-correctness or the mere appearance of magnanimity. Clearly, his street-brawler style and fisticuffs sensibilities serve him well as a high-profile businessman and TV personality, but when New Jersey’s Chris Christie suddenly looks to be the gracious gentleman in the room, is the irascible Trump really who Republican voters will choose?

This weekend Trump turned his verbal firepower at top Clinton aid Huma Abedin, who Trump intoned is a security risk because of her marriage to Anthony Weiner. Trump attended a fundraiser in Norwood, Massachusetts on Friday night, and during that gathering said that Abedin should not have had access to any of the classified materials which passed across the desk or emails of Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. Trump also took direct aim at Weiner, calling him "a perv" and a "sleazebag" in reference to the sex scandals which engulfed Weiner when he was a Congressman. The Clinton campaign said that Trump's remarks were out of line and represent personal attacks, but reporters failed to extract an apology from Trump over the weekend as the comments went viral.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to draw large, enthusiastic crowds in every part of the country, and his poll numbers, which static lately, have suffered no damage because of his often brash campaign methods.

Trump is also hinting at what many Republicans have feared all along: that his brash, intimidating campaign so far has been only a warm-up for a third party candidacy. A decision could come as early as this week, some around Trump are suggesting. This would mean short-term relief for Republicans who wanted him gone a month ago, but it could still present problems next year as the GOP nominee—whomever that turns out to be—goes into a general election season with the distinct possibility that voters normally predisposed to the party might consider going rogue.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Versus the Press; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 26, 2015.

Is Trump Destroying the Air Quality?; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; August 9, 2015.