Republican presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio, left, reacts as Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, February 25, 2016, in Houston.
Even now, as Republicans mount a last, desperate attempt to stop Donald Trump, they have to do it on his terms, not theirs.
They tried saying he wasn't conservative enough, because, they thought, isn't that what we've been arguing about for the last few years? Who's a real conservative and who isn't? But it turned out that while ideology matters a great deal to the elite, it's less important to the rank and file, and it doesn't matter at all to the plurality of Republican voters supporting Trump. Then they figured he might just implode on his own, so nobody bothered to dig up the dirt that would arm them against him. Despite the fact that there surely is plenty there.
It was the South Carolina primary that finally made Republicans realize that everything they had been doing when it came to Trump was wrong. It wasn't just that he won, it was that he won after a debate in which he actually—brace yourself—criticized George W. Bush for not stopping September 11. Jaws hung slack as one of the most critical conservative taboos was violated, and someone calling himself a Republican mocked the idea that Bush "kept us safe." Then Trump won South Carolina anyway, and won Nevada to boot.
After that, Marco Rubio obviously decided that the only way to beat Trump was to be Trump, or at least a somewhat less compelling version of him. So the guy who had touted himself as knowledgeable, smart, and serious went out and started tossing personal insults at Trump, with all the cleverness of your average fifth grader. "Donald Trump likes to sue people," Rubio said. "He should sue whoever did that to his face." Zing! Trump replied that Rubio isn't smart enough to get into the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to school. Zap!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln would be so proud.
But in the back-and-forth, Rubio may have come upon an attack that might lead some people to reconsider their support of Trump: that he's a con man.
At the moment, Rubio is making the case through the story of Trump University, which does indeed appear to have been a con. People desperate to change their financial circumstances were roped into seminars on the belief they'd be learning Trump's real-estate secrets, when in fact, "The contents and materials presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and seminar and time-share rental companies," according to a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Once they had you there, they'd tell you that to learn the real secrets you'd have to pay for a higher-level (and of course even more expensive) seminar. And the instructors "urged students to call their credit card companies during a break in the sessions, requesting increases to their credit limits."
While Trump University may be the clearest example of a con game Trump has established, is it really that far from Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, or the Trump presidential campaign? Trump's business these days is less about real estate than it is about monetizing his brand. Here's the model: Take a crappy third-rate product, slap the name "Trump" on it, and hope that rubes who are blinded by the big plane and the gold-plated furnishings will think they're buying success.
But the idea that Trump is a con man isn't potent simply because it's true. Like the most successful campaign messages, it not only tells you something about who the candidate is, it tells you something about who you are if you vote for him.
The best presidential campaigns have always done this. If you voted for Richard Nixon in 1968, you were part of the Silent Majority, the ones who were sick and tired of hippies and protesters and the degradation of their society. If you voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, you were optimistic and confident, ready to march into an American future that would be just like the past, only even better. And if you voted for Barack Obama in 2008, you were young, hip, creative, multicultural, open-minded, and future-oriented.
The story Trump tells is that his voters are fed up with losing, angry at the idiots in Washington, and ready for a strong leader who can kick the stuffing out of all the immigrants and foreigners keeping us down. But there's another story you can tell about them: They're marks. They're losers. They're suckers.
Every con man needs suckers, after all—the people who are gullible and dumb enough to turn over their money (or in this case their votes) to the one doing the conning. But a sucker is the last thing anyone wants to be.
The trouble is that America is full of suckers. We're a nation of people who pay money to have motivational speakers tell us to reach for our dreams, who buy books describing three-year-olds who got to heaven and meet Jesus on his "rainbow horse," who also bought millions and millions of copies of The Secret, which told you that if you wanted something, like a new Hermes handbag, you just needed to imagine yourself having it and it would actualize its way to you. We're a nation of the Puritan ethic but also of the get-rich-quick scheme, and Donald Trump's presidential run is the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme. Just vote for Trump, and before you know it "We will have so much winning ... you will get bored with winning."
Well if you believe that, you are indeed a sucker. The problem for Marco Rubio and the rest of the GOP is that it may just be too late to make the case. Super Tuesday is this week, and Trump may deliver a crushing blow to his opponents as all those suckers come out to vote for him, ready to make America great again. How long can he keep this con going? We're all going to find out.