The Secret History of Donald Trump's Goon Squad: How a Wannabe Demagogue Hijacked the GOP Primary

The consensus as of today is that Donald Trump is slipping because his poll numbers in Wisconsin don’t look great and his negatives just get higher and higher. But the truth is that Wisconsin was always likely to be Cruz country. The GOP there is very organized and in much of the state it’s highly ideological. A true blue conservative like Cruz (or Rubio if he’d stayed in) could always have been expected to do pretty well there. It’s the home of the Scott Walker, the vote suppressing, evangelical union slayer who, unsurprisingly, endorsed Cruz.

As of now, Trump is still expected to win big in New York and in the rest of the primaries even with his high negatives. There are a still lot of angry white men and women who love them in this country. Whether there are enough to guarantee him the nomination remains to be seen, but he’s done very well despite running a campaign that’s completely unique in the annals of modern politics.

It’s always tempting to think of Trump as operating entirely by the seat of the pants, but nobody runs for president without some kind of a plan. This piece from Gabriel Sherman at New York Magazine is a real eye-opener about Trump’s:

As early as 1987, Trump talked publicly about his desire to run for president. He toyed with mounting a campaign in 2000 on the Reform Party ticket, and again in 2012 as a Republican (this was at the height of his Obama birtherism). Two years later, Trump briefly explored running for governor of New York as a springboard to the White House. “I have much bigger plans in mind—stay tuned,” he tweeted in March 2014.

Trump taped another season of The Apprentice that year, but he kept a political organization intact. His team at the time consisted of three advisers: Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and Sam Nunberg. Stone is a veteran operative, known for his gleeful use of dirty tricks and for ending Eliot Spitzer’s political career by leaking his patronage of prostitutes to the FBI. Cohen is Trump’s longtime in-house attorney. And Nunberg is a lawyer wired into right-wing politics who has long looked up to “Mr. Trump,” as he calls him. “I first met him at Wrestle­Mania when I was like 5 years old,” Nunberg told me.

Throughout 2014, the three fed Trump strategy memos and political intelligence. “I listened to thousands of hours of talk radio, and he was getting reports from me,” Nunberg recalled. What those reports said was that the GOP base was frothing over a handful of issues including immigration, Obamacare, and Common Core. While Jeb Bush talked about crossing the border as an “act of love,” Trump was thinking about how high to build his wall. “We either have borders or we don’t,” Trump told the faithful who flocked to the annual CPAC conference in 2014.

Meanwhile, Trump used his wealth as a strategic tool to gather his own intelligence. When Citizens United president David Bossie or GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Trump for contributions, Trump used the conversations as opportunities to talk about 2016. “Reince called Trump thinking they were talking about donations, but Trump was asking him hard questions,” recalled Nunberg. From his conversations with Priebus, Trump learned that the 2016 field was likely to be crowded. “We knew it was going to be like a parliamentary election,” Nunberg said.

Which is how Trump’s scorched-earth strategy coalesced. To break out of the pack, he made what appears to be a deliberate decision to be provocative, even outrageous. “If I were totally presidential, I’d be one of the many people who are already out of the race,” Trump told me. And so, Trump openly stoked racial tensions and appealed to the latent misogyny of a base that thinks of Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.

First of all, let’s address this issue of “The Apprentice,” which his interview with Woodward and Costa in the Washington Post shows was a very important factor in his running for president. In fact, he couldn’t stop talking about it regardless of the question. He was terribly torn about giving up the show to run for president, evidently unsure about what was the best use of his time. After much deliberation he finally decided being leader of the free world would do more good.

But what’s most interesting about his early planning for the possible early presidential run is that talk radio formed the basis of his agenda. This explains how he caught on to the immigration zeitgeist when he did. Recall that Trump wasn’t the first to seize on it as the raging vote getter it’s turned out to be. That would be David Brat, the unknown outsider who unseated the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary back in 2014. He had some powerful help from talk radio hosts, particularly Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, who had been pushing the issue very hard for some time. The Central American refugee kids at the border drove the frenzy to fever pitch shortly thereafter. Trump’s claims that “nobody ever talked about immigration” before he brought it up has never been true but until this article nobody knew if he knew it was untrue. He did.

Trump’s use of intel from the likes of David Bossie is an important revelation as well. His confidant Roger Stone is probably the best known dirty trickster in GOP politics and many words have been written about him in this election; but Bossie comes in a close second. (I wrote about him for Salon here.) The political organization he runs is called Citizens United—yes, that Citizens United. It was Bossie who brought that famous case, and the subject was a partisan hit job called “Hillary: the Movie.” Bossie is a very effective character assassin going back decades. And he’s very well connected with the most thuggish members of the right wing machine, which is how he came to recommend hatchet man Corey Lewandowski to the Trump campaign. Bossie has been cagey about his loyalties throughout the primary but one thing is crystal clear: if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, he doesn’t care what it takes to defeat her, he’s for it. He has been her archenemy since at least 1994.

The Sherman exposé contains a number of delicious tidbits such as the fact that Trump seems to have some juicy blackmail material on Fox News’ Roger Ailes resulting in the oddly docile treatment of Trump by the network even in the face of Trump’s outrageous insults toward its star Megyn Kelly. He and his team are also apparently exhausted by the rigors of campaigning which is rich considering Trump’s endless insults toward Clinton (and Jeb Bush as well) about not having “the strength and stamina” to be president. He has often looked as though he’s clinging to the podium at his events like he was hit with a tranquilizer dart, so he’s not one to talk. One thing you can be sure of: when Trump accuses someone else of something, it’s almost always a sign of something he’s insecure about in himself.

Sherman’s profile is the first to go inside his campaign in such an intimate way and reveal the strategy behind this most amazing, unorthodox presidential campaign in modern memory. And it comes down to this: Trump studies the right wing political environment and understood early on that he needed to wage a scorched earth negative campaign like nothing we’ve ever seen before. As Sherman memorably puts it: "Trump openly stoked racial tensions and appealed to the latent misogyny of a base that thinks of Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.” The result is that the racial tensions are now in full effect and the misogyny is no longer latent. His plan, so far, is working like clockwork.


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