As in any competition, Donald Trump's sudden success has required time for competitors to study and solve. Wrathful rants about the former P.O.W. and sitting senator, John McCain, are said to be Trump's Waterloo, but notice that The Donald has used the friction to strengthen his You-Can't-Handle-the-Truth brand. The Standard Table of Influence reveals counter plays that Trump opponents are finally making, some to freeze, some to taunt, and others to leverage his curious insurgency:
Ted Cruz: "I'm a big fan of Donald Trump's," brags Ted Cruz. "I think Donald Trump is bringing a bold, brash voice to this presidential race...I for one am grateful that Donald Trump is highlighting [immigration] issues." Ever the debater, the junior senator from Texas was first to figure that Trump's energy is better to tap than sap. His play is a Bear Hug, a freezing strategy that Cruz hopes will inoculate him against Trump's vitriol. That Cruz has only finessed the McCain insult is proof of his strategy to buddy up.
Rick Perry: "What Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism," Rick Perry lectures. " It is Trump-ism -- a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense." The former Texas governor's plays are two-fold, the first of the framing sort, a Label that morphs his opponent's agenda into a meme: Trumpism. Unless The Donald equates it with red-white-and-blue capitalism (and he might), Perry's hope is that the ism is taken as something more sinister, like socialism. His second play is the Bait, because accusations of demagoguery and nonsense demand response. Trump might have risen to it, say, with a Bear Hug, to claim his Trumpness, but there hasn't been time. Feeling his oats, Perry has jumped to McCain's defense with another dare -- that Trump withdraw.
Carly Fiorina: The savviest calculation of, well, Trumpism has been by Carly Fiorina who smoothly says of the billionaire's boasts, "[He] taps into an anger that I hear every day." Pivoting to her script, she breathes, "People are angry that a commonsense thing like securing the border or ending sanctuary cities is somehow considered extreme...It's not extreme; it's commonsense." Fiorina's principle strategy is to Draft, where, like a racecar, she will follow Trump, feed off his energy, and hope to pass him.
Others, desperate to make the debate cut, have taken their shots. Chris Christie has issued clipped Call Outs, saying that Trump's comments on Mexicans and McCain are inappropriate. Lindsey Graham has offered memorable Wrecking Ball and You're Fired sound bites, both Labels. Marco Rubio has only skirmished, copying another Rick Perry verdict that Trump is not fit for high office. His play is a Crowd, the me-too of influence strategies.
But what of Jeb Bush, Trump's apparent punching bag? To date, Bush's reflections on Trump have been more obligatory than strategic, and so we wait for the debates. Will he run diverting plays to ward off Trump's "total disaster" barbs or preempt his attacker? Mainstream Republicans are bound to worry because Bush shows no facility for clever quips and any attempts to sidestep Trump's word bombs are sure to cast Jeb as a weakling.
There are two plays Bush might consider: First, the Mirror. Think of this play as the nice guy's Call Out, the influence strategy that uses facts and figures to freeze a player's position. It's especially useful against poseurs, which Bush surely thinks Trump to be, because it pits evidence against hyperbole to set a tone of reason and reasonableness, qualities that Bush is keen to convey. Using this play, Bush will open his opposition research files and start firing. Tell us why you supported Hillary? Tell us about your four bankruptcies? There will be more as oppo-machines come to life. Bush will then follow with the Screen, the plays that connects a player to issues, ideas, events and symbols. He'll focus on governing as the core competence of a president. He'll defend it as honorable practice, not beltway abuse. And he'll cite, chapter and verse, in English and Spanish, his work in service to millions of citizens...as opposed to billions of dollars.
These and other plays might work, but their success will be determined more by Trump and how or whether he chooses to counter them. Look for Cruz to be left alone and for more attacks by an energized Perry. Watch for Fiorina to strategically shadow Trump and for Bush to rise above him, or try. The strategies of influence are never more apparent and entertaining than in contests for high places and prizes.
Graphic courtesy of Playmaker Systems, LLC with photo from Wikipedia