On Trump, Hillary, brokered conventions and the 'silent majority'

On the eve of Super Tuesday, the Republicans are torn, Rubio is using Trump to boost himself and Clinton is laughing all the way to the bank

So, finally, Marco Rubio has reached that point. Ted Cruz got their earlier and John Kasich is still trying to hold back (and who cares about Ben Carson any more?). You may call it taking the gloves off, jumping the shark, sending in the artillery or getting down in the mud. Or too little, too late. However, you see it, Rubio is now taking on Donald Trump at his own game, indulging in personal abuse and mockery.

It's the time when winning on your own terms gets cast aside by the desire to win no matter what.

I've got a few observations on that:

  • It's risky for Rubio to switch from attacking Trump on policy issues (eg the lines about Trump employing foreign workers and getting his shirts made overseas, that he used effectively in last week's debate) to attacking him personally (eg his fake tan). But the goal is simple – as the media starts to report a Trump v Rubio slanging match, the media narrative suggests it's a Trump v Rubio race, and the others are squeezed out. Rubio's attacks on Trump are mostly about the other candidates, and pushing them out of frame.
  • The main risks are that a) it's impossible to out-Trump Trump because he knows no limits and b) he looks less presidential and decent. Rubio has only so many virtues to trade on anyway, given people are suspicious of his youth and political flip-flops, and while this may make him look tougher, it may also make him look less like 'a nice young man'.
  • The biggest loser in this name-calling is the Republican Party. Their team is damaging itself before it even fronts up to the Democrats.
  • The biggest Republican winner is John Kasich; a man worth not forgetting. The Ohio governor is now the last remaining candidate who hasn't descended into the mud. He can play the decent mid-westerner for all its worth. His team are saying that on March 15 he will win his home state of Ohio and Rubio will lose his home state of Florida. So who looks like a winner the establishment can rally round then? And if – IF – this comes to a brokered convention, Kasich could some through as a compromise candidate.
  • But the biggest winner of all is Hillary Clinton. From Super Tuesday on, she's expected to pull away from Bernie Sanders. Not only do her political sins pale in comparison to Trump's madness, she can use Trump fear to work on one of her biggest weaknesses thus far: grassroots fundraising. Having attended a rally of hers back in 2008, I'm still on her mailing list. And I'm getting emails such as this:

Friend --

Tonight, the Republican candidates will gather for another debate -- with Donald Trump now the clear frontrunner, we're likely to hear even more desperate attacks and extreme ideas than usual. (And that's saying something!)

I've said for a long time that Trump isn't a joke, and now, he's looking more and more likely to be the Republican nominee. The man who riles up his crowds by calling Mexican-Americans criminals and suggesting Muslims should be banned from entering this country has limitless resources to run his campaign -- and he also has a lead in the delegate count.

I promise you that I will fight to make sure he never becomes president. With just two days to the South Carolina primary and five days left until Super Tuesday, your support has never been more critical to this campaign's success -- and with Trump having won three of the GOP's first four contests, it's never been more critical that this campaign succeed.

Chip in $1 to the Super Tuesday Fund right now, and let's make sure we win this nomination:

In many ways, the attacks on Trump have only just begun. And there is certainly plenty of mud to throw, given his callous business record, the hollowness of his self-made man rhetoric, his previous "liberal" views.

To use some American imagery, he's not hard to paint as Goliath or the man in the black hat. Consider that great US Christmas film, 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Could there be a candidate more like banking baddie Henry F Potter than Trump?

Trump's campaign has been described as both a "hostile takeover" of the Republican Party and, as Jane has laid out, a natural if mutated extension of the party's increasingly extreme policies. Both are in part true. The "establishment" is being rolled aside by a Frankenstein candidate they never wanted, but they are also reaping what they have sowed, right back to Reagan and even Nixon.

Presumably with that establishment's backing, Rubio is pushing to make it mano-a-mano. But I don't think he (or they) know how this ends. Rubio had thought the natural winnowing of other candidates and Trump's own excesses would have brought it to this pass before this and without his help. But he's obviously accepted he now has to put his own shoulder to this wheel.

The problem for the Republican "establishment", whether of its own making or not, is how to handle it without destroying their own party. If Trump doesn't win the nomination now, given the states he has won and is expected to win this week, it would be without precedent. No-one's lost from where he is. While American politics is full of stories of people breaking those kinds of rules, Trump is not one to accept being one of history's losers.

So does the party accept Trump as nominee, somehow hoping he can change tack and become a serious candidate against Clinton? If he doesn't, and numerous Republicans with some sense and integrity speak out against him, it's internal war. If they rally behind him, his powerful and negative brand becomes one of the defining marks of the party, and potentially poisons it.

If, at the convention, the party forces him out, it risks Trump pulling down the building as he leaves it. He could run as an independent and split the vote. Or he – and what would be seen as an anti-democratic process – could terminally wound Rubio or whichever candidate the party rallies behind.

While I think it would be easy to over-egg the Trump phenomenon – as Rubio likes to point out, even most Republicans are voting against him at this stage – he's certainly a living, shouting lesson for politicians today.

The idea of the 'majority' culture as victims is growing and cannot now be ignored. Without defending the dark side (racism, ignorance) of some of the so-called 'silent majority', those with even a little power (a job, a home) are not unreasonably the first to question how much they should be asked to sacrifice to those worse off than themselves.

As Trump has shown, the unscrupulous can harness that sense of injustice and aim it against the powerless rather than the powerful. How important it is that those with power elsewhere try to moderate it instead. We had a glimpse of it in New Zealand after Don Brash's Orewa speech, and while that passion has been soothed, it won't have gone away.

In the US, much stems from the inequality and hardship caused by the global financial crisis (how ironic than a billionaire of any kind might benefit from that). But in a rapidly changing and unstable world, it's worth learning that you can only ask so much of people, when they are feeling hard done-by themselves.