The Strategy That Could Have Taken Trump Down

Nathan L. Gonzales June 3, 2016 · 9:46 AM EDT

More than a dozen Republican presidential candidates spent a year of the nominating contest waiting for someone else to attack and take down Donald Trump. But the GOP contenders had a common goal with a flawed strategy: Trump’s opponents should have attacked the celebrity’s supporters instead of the candidate, an expert on loyalty says.  

“In any cult or loyal following, fractures can occur when the followers become disillusioned by the leader,” explained James Kane , a researcher and author on the concept of loyalty. “But more often, it is their awareness of their fellow followers that causes them to pull away.”

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” coalition unites a diverse group of people with different interests.  

For someone in business, they believe Trump’s candidacy is about better trade agreements or running the government like a business, instead of under the tyranny of professional politicians. To the white nationalist, it’s about building a wall along the border with Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country. And to a struggling, middle-aged worker in the Rust Belt, Trump is talking about a time in the country when it was easier to hold down a job.  

“What is important to understand, however, is that while all those individuals may want the same thing — to Make America Great Again — the most important thing to them is our reputation,” Kane said. “Regardless of the cause, no one wants to be thought of as irrational, unintelligent, insecure, immature, naive, racist, xenophobic, or hateful. Calling Trump any of those is one thing, labeling his followers is something else.”

“When they see who they are standing with and associated with they become uncomfortable,” Kane explained. “A person who likes Trump because they see him as a blank palette doesn’t want to be affiliated with a white supremacist.”  

Kane’s divide-and-conquer advice is not easy for candidates to digest.  

Attacking voters isn’t in the traditional campaign textbook for candidates, particularly in a high-stakes GOP primary where all white voters matter. Instead of attacking his followers, some of Trump’s opponents, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, were reluctant to intentionally alienate some of Trump’s supporters because the hoped to be the final beneficiary of his coalition.  

I first met Kane a few weeks ago at an event in Arizona where I was speaking. I normally don’t attend other sessions, but I saw a talk about loyalty preceding mine on the agenda, and thought it might be interesting, considering two of the final four presidential contenders (Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) have cultivated loyal followings even though they have loose connections to the parties.

In the general election, Hillary Clinton has the opportunity to attract Republican voters, but she may not be positioning herself to receive support from the #NeverTrump movement because of her rhetoric.  

The #NeverTrump movement is full of loyal Republicans who are questioning their commitment to the Republican Party because they believe the terms of the relationship changed dramatically by nominating Trump. Clinton has an opportunity to appeal to Republicans who are embarrassed by Trump and are concerned about immaturity, sexism, etc, though she’ll never get support from conservatives who believe Trump is a threat to their ideology.  

In a subsequent conversation, Kane identified a key difference in style between the presumptive nominees that makes Trump more attractive: decisiveness.  

“He could bankrupt America like he’s bankrupted his companies,” said Clinton at a recent campaign event in Detroit.  

“Trump would never say she ‘could.’ He would said she ‘would’ bankrupt the country.” It’s a subtle but important distinction. “One of the most basic parts of loyalty is who will keep me safe. People look for more certainty ... even if it’s not true.”

The rhetorical difference was also apparent in the discussion about the qualifications to be president.  

Earlier this month on MSNBC, Clinton said Trump had “given no indication that he understood the gravity of the responsibilities that go with being commander in chief.” In a more recent interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, she said, “I have concluded he is not qualified to be president of the United States.” It’s ironic that the New York Times story said “she did not mince words” when that’s exactly what she’s doing.  

Trump’s response was the perfect contrast. “She has bad judgment and is unfit to serve as president at this delicate and difficult time in our country’s history,” he said in a statement. There was no, “I have concluded.” The statement was direct and to the point.  

“She doesn’t have to be Donald Trump,” explained Kane, author of “The Loyalty Switch,” which is scheduled to be released late this year. “Just take out all the ‘could have’ and ‘would haves,’ and that will appeal to people who’ll say, ‘Finally, someone is saying what I’m thinking.’”  

While there has been some comparisons of Trump to Adolf Hitler, Kane sees more parallels between Trump and former cult leader Jim Jones. It’s not that Trump will ask his supporters to literally "drink the Kool-Aid" — like Jones' followers did in a murder-suicide that left 900 dead in 1978 —but a leadership style that includes decisiveness, promises of protection, and public humiliation of outsiders.  

So what does it all mean for the general election?  

“I see the Clinton campaign making some of the same mistakes,” Kane said.  

It might not be a unifying message, but attacking Trump’s most extreme supporters is the best strategy to fracture the GOP. “As long as they try to attack him, the people most loyal to him will protect him.”