Imagine it’s the Fall of this year and you’re a U.S. House or Senate candidate in a swing district or state. Your Democratic opponent is running a low-risk campaign, having pivoted to the slightly-center-left with aplomb. Regardless of their actual beliefs, they’ve got their masks bolted on tight, staying relentlessly on message as technocratic middle-of-the-lane moderates. Barack Obama’s approval numbers keep creeping higher and higher as a kind of “at least he’s not crazy or obviously corrupt” vibe sets in with the public. It makes your “Obamacare, Benghazi, tranny bathrooms” message cluster feel less promising than it did last year when you were planning this run, doesn’t it?
Your pollsters and strategists are hunting for a message and a tone where you can capture the anger and unrest of the Trump voters without becoming Trump-like, because no matter who you are, you’re not Donald Trump. You don’t have the built-in pad of celebrity and reality-television brand image. You don’t have the weird media dynamic where the spectacle of Trump’s shitshow du jour seems to erase yesterday’s insanity with a new hot mess. To your credit, you’re also not utterly insane and suffering from political Tourette’s syndrome. I hate to tell you this, but it’s not working.
When you endorsed him, you bought all the problems Trump has with the voters and none of the assets. That’s why you’re awake at night, staring at the ceiling wondering what the madman will tweet next. You’ve had a tough summer, with endless questions from the press in your not-too-conservative state. Every time he opens his mouth, you’re flooded with questions. You wake up every day trying to stay on your message, but each morning your guts get watery when the Google alert with “your name + Donald Trump” pops on your iPhone. It’s why you can’t go on your Twitter or Facebook or do town hall meetings; because the whole election is about Trump, not you.
The resources you need from the donor community are a bright spot, because they’re certainly not giving the money to Mr. Self Funder Billionaire, but you’re having to spend it basically as it comes in to defend yourself. Your opponent and their allied SuperPACs are pounding you with media linking you at the hip with Trump. The themes are easy to predict; “Donald Trump says Mexicans are rapists…and Candidate X still backs him…100%” is the core script. Some of the connections are tenuous, but it doesn’t matter. All because you said the fateful words, “I support Donald Trump.”
I get it. You were terrified of his online horde of low-information whackjobs, neo-Nazi trolls, red-hat jackasses and their endless, febrile demands that you worship at the foot of Agent Orange. Hell, you’re a politician. You want to be loved. He was beating all the people you liked and respected, one after another. The media kept making him the spotlight, the hot focus of attention and you wanted some of that mojo, didn’t you? Bad call.
You see it in your polling, every day. Trump’s poison brand has splashed over on you, like the reek of some political sewage you can’t wash off. Your data model shows you need to capture at least 30% of the Hispanic vote, but with Trump polling with Hispanics in the low teens and nearing single digits in some places, you can’t seem to break through. Married, professional women are voting for Hillary in droves, repelled by Donald Trump’s racism, misogyny, and also by the increasingly hideous behavior of his supporters. They’re suddenly not so fond of you, either.
You own his politics. You own his policies, even the ones that only last as long as the next contradiction. You own the racial animus that started out as a bug, became a feature and is now the defining characteristic of his campaign. You own every crazy, vile chunk of word vomit that spews from his mouth. You own his racist bleatings about Mexicans and “his” African Americans. You own his digital Hitler Youth alt-reich fanboys with their white-power fantasies and roaring anti-Semitism.
He’s political poison. Don’t believe me? You will. Feel that sinking sensation? That’s Trump’s negatives dragging you down. Donald Trump’s polling-average approval rating among registered and likely voters today stands at a grisly 34% favorable and 60.5% unfavorable. Hillary’s isn’t much better, but she has the small benefit of being able to shut her mouth when some crazy thought is trying to escape her mind.
You were intrigued by his new, energetic populist message that breaks out of the stale confines of the tired old GOPe’s message playbook? You mean “build duh wall!” and “bomb duh oil?” and the rest of his catalog of slack-jawed inanities? Good luck with that. Yes, you need to stop “speaking Washington” but Trump’s message, affect and style isn’t fungible to human candidates.
Oh, you believed he was expanding the electorate? Bringing in millions of new voters? They’re not new; they’re just general election GOP voters who came out for him in the primary. Not you. Him. You perhaps overlooked that he’s also shedding millions of voters from the GOP’s coalition. If you’re in a swing state or district, tell me how you win back the Republican women and professionals who are fleeing Trump in droves? Tell me how you win in Florida or Nevada or Colorado as Hispanic support approached single digits?
He’s not going to change. He’s not going to stop being a shallow blowhard and non-stop-Malaprop. There is no better Trump. He’s not going to become more Presidential or more mindful. Trump doesn’t give a damn about your election. You’re not part of a unified Republican ticket; you’re collateral damage in Trump Rampage Raw WWE 2016. Every day, Donald Trump hands the Democrats another sword with which to cut off your political heads. Every day, Trump adds to their catalog of opposition research and endlessly catchy video bits. He’s all yours, and there are few paths to escape the blast radius.
As much damage as he does every day, he’s also giving you an out. Tear off the bandage. Take the short blast of pain and the stupid tweets from stupid people. Take the idiotic Tweet he’ll hit you with and make fun of it. Wash the stink off, and you’ll feel like a human again. You won’t spend every day in fear of defeat, or in fear of losing your political soul.
You don’t have to give Hillary Clinton a tongue bath to divest yourself of Trump. Quite the opposite; she’s an egregious, amoral horror show, and you should feel free to let it rip. You should start talking about how both major candidates represent everything that’s wrong with politics in this country. Stop talking in the stilted messages of Washington cliches and get home, mentally and physically. Donald Trump’s campaign is waged in the Acela Corridor’s media universe; yours is waged back home, and don’t you forget it.
Run as yourself. Run with some passion and iconoclastic fire. Stop trying to run a generic, please-the-base campaign where your political lanes are bounded. Run as a Florida Republican or a Colorado Republican or a Nevada Republican and separate your brand from Trump’s.
You can’t finesse this. There is not “just a little Trump” just as there’s no “just a little pregnant.” Just run. As the national party brand becomes a singularly (and foolishly) focused on defending the daily fever-swamp conspiracy talk, racist meanderings and general absurdity of Donald Trump, your survival depends on it.