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Why the ‘Dump Trump’ strategy is doomed

August 22, 2015, 1:30 PM UTC
Republican Presidential Candidates Address 2015 Family Leadership Summit
AMES, IA - JULY 18: Republican presidential hopeful businessman Donald Trump fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson — Getty Images

The “reality show” sabotage tactics employed by contestants in Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” may soon come back to haunt the GOP presidential hopeful.

Political attack ads targeting Trump’s unconventional campaign are planned to hit just after Labor Day. Fox News reports that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, along with massive GOP PAC funds are joining forces to try to take down Trump’s candidacy with a focus on his actual business record and various issues such as his immigration policy.

In 2004, I critiqued Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.” Getting to know Trump personally through this experience, I am certain that the effort to Dump Trump is doomed.

Media pundits, political operatives, and rival candidates are universally bewildered by the way Trump transcends the inviolate political rules of physics and enjoys political immunity following impromptu offensive comments. It might be expected that virtually any of his inflammatory rhetoric, such as condemning the moral character of most illegal Mexican immigrants; triggering racial bigotry behind the “birther” movement; judging the degree of attractiveness of various prominent women; denying personal spiritual contrition when addressing evangelical groups; or mocking the Vietnam POW heroism of Senator John McCain, would have derailed a candidate’s campaign. For Trump, these standard faux pas moves have fortified his favorability ratings by likely voters, with at least a quarter of Republican voters claiming to support him in the primaries and trust him on the key issues — far more than any other GOP candidate at this stage.

Trump is critiqued hourly on his record of business triumphs, measures of personal wealth, ideological consistency on healthcare and abortion, and policy depth on issues ranging from immigration to global diplomacy. Each time the critics feel they have revealed Trump to be a narcissistic neighborhood bully with a penchant for gross exaggeration, his support only soars higher. Rival candidates, such as Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, and Rick Perry, have fallen in the polls when, out of principle or opportunism, they have taken the moral high ground and attacked Trump for misogyny, bigotry towards Latinos, or disrespect towards veterans.

In TV exchanges and multiple commentaries regarding The Apprentice, I showed how the premise of the show was akin to a circular firing squad or a game of musical chairs at a Hooters restaurant, with chest thumping and winning at all costs. In a Wall Street Journal column, I complained, “The assigned team-projects neglect the core functions of leadership, such as integrity, invention, and inspiration. No new good or services are created, no business innovations surface, and no societal problems are solved. Instead, we see people hawking sex, clothes, bags of dirt, more sex, and celebrity access.”

Trump was not amused. He responded on NBC Dateline, “So that’s reality! Business has all the things which he hates. Sex, there is plenty of sex in building. I know from personal knowledge, much personal knowledge.” Then he asked interviewer Stone Phillips, “Do you think much about sex?” Well, so much for debating the issues. As always, the interviewer falls victim to having the discussion reframed by Trump.


Then, turning to my own credibility, Trump replied in the Wall Street Journal … that I “lack the understanding of the architecture of a corporation, which is why [I] teach at Yale instead of Wharton!” But since I never hit him personally, just targeting the show, he did not truly hit me personally. In fact, he even called me several times (I dodged the calls, not wanting to hear expected legal threats). Finally, answering by accident, he reached me and then surprised me by asking what I didn’t like about the “The Apprentice.” He even offered me a job as president of Trump University.

Despite the fact that I’m a terrible golfer, and not interested in that position, I did agree to meet him for lunch at Trump National Golf Course to discuss how to improve the character of the show. For protection, my wife accompanied me, and we were joined by a brilliant, skeptical, economist colleague of mine who happens to be a skilled debater. To my horror, both were charmed by Trump, who complimented them both on their own entrepreneurial ideas. He agreed to consider ways to improve the show by not putting appealing young adults in morally compromising situations and instead replacing contestants with already ridiculed fallen celebrities.

Trump also consented to appear before an audience of critical CEOs at the Yale CEO Summit. When he arrived at that event, jaws dropped as he walked into The Waldorf’s lobby, as if the Pope had just arrived. One awe-struck father even momentarily let go of his baby carriage as Trump passed by. Most tellingly, all of our CEO guests laughed and applauded his antics—with jokes at my expense—and forgot all of their pointed questions.

At this point, rather than trash Trump or celebrate him, it is important to understand him and his following.

Donald the Great: The Role of Illusion and Heroic Aura

Trump transcends the quicksand of wonkish policy positions, reframing questions in his own image. Grandiosity works. Alexander III of Macedonia created his own mythic image, inventing the title Alexander the Great and creating a false lineage to Odysseus and Achilles. This larger than life presence provides an elevation, or heroic stature, that the anti-pomp Jimmy Carter lacked, but which Ronald Reagan and JFK long before him delivered in spades.

World leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, FDR, Abraham Lincoln, Charles De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nicolas Sarkozy have very little in common, but all appreciated the importance of stage craft as well as statecraft.

It was no accident that Trump held a last-minute town hall–pep rally in New Hampshire, drawing over 1,000 cheering enthusiasts, contrasting with Bush’s more restrained nearby town hall meeting of 150 polite observers. And he draws even larger crowds with just a few days’ notice. He addressed 30,000 people at an Alabama football stadium on Friday night.

In times of great economic uncertainty and global security risk, people search for strong, confident leaders who purport to know and see more than the rest of us. The danger of this heroic self-image is when the grandiosity melds into megalomania and demagoguery. Such charisma can spark group spirit and lead to great collective accomplishment but it can also lead to a loss of individual accountability and a trampling over minorities.

Donald’s Daddy Warbucks: The Horatio Alger tradition

Trump, like Martha Stewart, delivers to the masses a notion that success can be achieved via understandable, transparent formulas. In fact, the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth is a media creation. The real Horatio Alger was a pedophilic minister from Brewster, Massachusetts who fled to New York to write formulaic short stories for newspapers. He died penniless in 1899. However, decades later, a New York author created a fictionalized biography fusing Alger’s name with the image of self-made business success to sell to a nation eager for a hero. In the same period, newspaper cartoonist Harold Gray created the strip “Little Orphan Annie” with protagonist Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks as a beloved politically conservative, anti-politician, free-market capitalist.

Rather than resent success as Marx predicted, Thorsten Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” predicted in 1899 that Americans seek to emulate the successful. Trump ignites that desire for success and the belief in a fluid American class structure.

The Don of the Apprentice: Appeal of New Rules of the Game

When I’m asked to recap my criticisms of the original Apprentice shows, I find that baby boomers are overwhelmingly in my camp, but millennials are attracted to the values of the show. To the shock of baby boomers and “Gen X” cohorts, the recipe of “whatever it takes” to succeed, as modeled by the elimination game format is very appealing to them. They are impatient with established systems, as is often the case with rebellious 20-somethings. In addition, some millennials have lost faith in institutions like existing political parties and large enterprises. Trump promises independence from the corruption of campaign finance as well as raw, albeit offensive, comments free of prepackaged spin.

This generational cynicism is working well for Trump for now, but it can grow dangerous as racial and ethnic finger-pointing are just inches away from the bigotry of nativist movements in American history.

Trump as the Sultan of Insult

Donald Trump’s pride is paramount. He rarely initiates attacks but when he hits back, his counterpunch is so hard that he knocks the wind out of his novice assailants. Senator John McCain should never have been treated so disrespectfully, but Trump felt personally assaulted when McCain called Trump enthusiasts a band of “crazies.”

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Trump draws crowds as a political force but also as an entertainer. Saturday Night Live’s satires never were as funny, intentionally or not, as Trump’s own appearances on the show. Trump is easily in league with such standup stars of insult comedy as Howard Stern, Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Andrew Dice Clay, Chelsea Handler, Triumph the Insult Dog Puppet, and Amy Schumer. Insult humor is often used to silence hecklers and to discredit attackers. But things get ugly when such attacks are unprovoked, out-of-proportion, bigoted, mean-spirited, or damaging.

Trump’s “Art of the Comeback”

While Trump bragged recently that his book The Art of the Deal is the best book since the Bible, his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback is more relevant to this discussion. Resenting insinuations that he was ever bankrupt, he does acknowledge the restructuring of several of his businesses. Cynics have suggested Trump puts his name on all his buildings so that his creditors know where to redeem their assets. In fact, many buildings where Trump has retained only a tiny stake still showcase his name as creditors had to acknowledge the brand helped them close deals, complete the structures, and attract tenants.

Attacks on Trump’s competence or character only fortify his resolve. As Nietzsche advised, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Trump thrives on being defined by an “us versus them” mentality. A “Dump Trump” conspiracy of rival candidates will probably derail his candidacy in the Republican primaries but ensure that he launches a third party campaign to restore his reputation. In 1992, Ross Perot was a far less well-known, far more mercurial business leader outsider U.S. presidential candidate. He even withdrew from the campaign, re-entering five months later with an odd conspiratorial story about the CIA—and yet still drew 19% of the popular vote. It is quite likely that a Trump third party run would beat Perot’s impressive performance.

Despite his flamboyance and often attention-getting divisive inflammatory rhetoric, Trump is far more self-aware than most would expect. We were set up for a debate in Kuala Lumpur in 2005. I was surprised that anyone in Malaysia cared about our debate and was tired of repeating the same concerns about “The Apprentice.” So I asked him if he had any insights after experiencing setbacks. He replied with a parable.

He said he was entering a Manhattan party and saw a confused older man that was turned away by the guards. Trump went over to him and asked if he could help him. The old man smiled and said, “Donald, how are you? How is your father Fred?” The older man turned out to be renowned mega homebuilder and real estate titan William Levitt. Now in his 80s, Levitt had taken on big bets to revive his career long after selling his business, and had lost all his wealth. Trump’s lesson? “You must always know your limits. Despite my flamboyant public fights, I always know where the line is for me—even if that is not where you would draw it.”

Will the Republicans figure out where that line is drawn, and will The Donald?

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice, as well as author of The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press) and co-author of Firing Back (Harvard Business School Press).