Traveling in London, Sarajevo, Munich and Brussels the past six months, and working in Washington and Minnesota, my colleagues, students and friends from abroad have confronted me with the same question: can Donald Trump really win? My answer always begins with, "Have you seen the movie Predator?"
The year was 1987, and a team of U.S. commandos was on a mission in Central America to rescue American survivors of a downed helicopter. Or so they thought. Instead, they found an extraterrestrial Predator ("the demon who makes trophies of men"), almost invisible, determined to eliminate every member of the rescue team.
Two of the movie's stars went on to set a blueprint for Donald Trump's campaign for the White House almost 30 years later. The first and lesser known was Jesse Ventura (whose character "Blain" memorably uttered, "I ain't got time to bleed" -- though as it turned out, he did, meeting an early demise in the film). The second was America's number one action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose character "Dutch" made it to the end of the movie, as number one stars usually do.
It was Ventura, however, who first succeeded in state politics, winning the Governorship in Minnesota in 1998. Five years later, Schwarzenegger went on to win his race for governor in a controversial recall election in California. If you had asked the political chattering class to give odds on either man succeeding in state politics in 1987, they would have been long indeed -- longer than the Predator's nails. Each was viewed as more of a showman than serious candidate to run a "good government" state like Minnesota or California.
How did they do it? Simply stated, both men brilliantly positioned themselves as a credible alternative to their conventional, mainstream, establishment opponents -- and capitalized on a fractured electorate to win the ultimate prize.
In Minnesota, Ventura -- known as "Jesse The Body Ventura" as a professional wrestler -- used debate appearances (where he often said he hadn't yet formed an opinion on issues), county fairs and a clever low-budget ad campaign to first entertain and then convince a Minnesota electorate that he was a viable alternative to the two mainstream candidates.
And they couldn't have been more mainstream: the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Skip Humphrey, son of the great Minnesota Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey; and Norm Coleman, the brightly polished Republican (and before that Democratic) mayor of St. Paul. Skip and Norm projected establishment slick. Ventura, now depicting himself in Rodin's famous "Thinker" pose and running as "The Mind" at the head of the Reform Party of Minnesota (founded nationally by Ross Perot), projected candor and independence. In a three-way race, campaigning on the theme "Don't vote for politics as usual," Ventura won with 37 percent of the vote.
Where Ventura used a uniquely small town Minnesota stage to establish his credibility, Schwarzenegger surprisingly announced his candidacy on what was the largest entertainment stage in California and late night television -- The Tonight Show -- a novel tactic so effective it has become almost standard fare. In one night with an assist by Jay Leno, he virtually knocked out two of the establishment Republicans who were considering the race -- Congressman Darrell Issa and former major of Los Angeles Richard Riordan -- declaring immediately after the show that he was "the most unique candidate because I'm an outsider."
After Leno, like Ventura, Arnold limited his participation in debates and engagement on issues. On election night, in a multi-candidate mixed party field, he handily defeated the Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante and Republican Congressman Tom McClintock (read: establishment) who opposed him. Schwarzenegger tallied 49 percent, while Bustamante and McClintock together totaled nearly 45 percent.
So you have to wonder if Trump might have been listening in (for a change) as Ventura and Schwarzenegger plotted their political rise. He is certainly following their template: begin with a gigantically outsize personality (albeit with big hair substituting for big biceps); run a personality-driven campaign; embrace the mantle of outsider; use the establishment figures (e.g., Jeb Bush) as a foil to establish your anti-establishment credentials; feed the media's entertainment-driven coverage so that they replay your message for free; and run in a crowded field.
Is there anyone who can stop Trump on his way to the Republican nomination? In an anti-establishment year of epidemic proportions, in a system where the winner will increasingly take all delegates, and in a three-person race: not likely, as long as neither Ted Cruz nor Marco Rubio implodes soon. Like Ventura and Schwarzenegger before him, Trump has established his credibility with a significant swath of his electorate. But as Dutch said after pinning a hapless victim to the wall with a knife through the chest in Predator: Stick around.