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Can you bully a bully?
Chris Christie is going to try.
The best way to understand Donald Trump is as a sort of super bully.
He has an intuitive grasp of weakness and insecurity — and once he finds it, he goes at it relentlessly. And he doesn’t stop until he’s destroyed you.
He did it to Jeb Bush. And Ted Cruz. And Marco Rubio. And Rand Paul. And, yes, Hillary Clinton.
And he’s in the process of doing it to Ron DeSantis right now.
What’s fascinating is that in all of his time in public life — eight years and counting — no one has really tried Trump’s trick on him.
Yes, Rubio spent 48 hours on the campaign trail telling anyone who would listen that Trump had small hands. And, yes, after Trump called his wife ugly, Ted Cruz briefly went off — calling Trump a “sniveling coward” and “utterly amoral.”
But, generally speaking, those were one-offs. The general strategic thinking as it related to Trump was to a) ignore him or b) take the high road — based on the idea that the American public wanted something different (and better) in its leaders. (How wrong we were!)
That all changed on Tuesday, with the entrance of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the race.
Christie wasted zero time in making clear that he is going to go right after Trump — and hard. Here’s the key bit:
Let me be clear, in case I have not been already: The person I am talking about, who is obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault and who always find someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong, but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right -- is Donald Trump. And if we don't have that conversation with you, we don't deserve to ask for your vote.
And Trump, because he is Trump, hit back:
“How many times did Chris Christie use the word SMALL,” Trump posted on his Truth Social website. “Does he have a psychological problem with SIZE? Actually, his speech was SMALL, and not very good. It rambled all over the place, and nobody had a clue of what he was talking about. Hard to watch, boring, but that’s what you get from a failed Governor (New Jersey) who left office with a 7% approval rating and then got run out of New Hampshire. This time, it won’t be any different!”
In case you are from a different planet, Trump is invoking the fact that Christie is overweight. He has also taken to referring to the former New Jersey governor as “sloppy.”
The question now for Christie is whether a) he keeps up the attack and b) whether it actually works to slow Trump’s momentum in the race.
Let’s take that second point first.
There are a few reasons to believe that Christie is uniquely suited to a sort of kamikaze mission against Trump.
He has known Trump for decades — and knows his soft spots better than anyone
Christie has run for president before, meaning he won’t be cowed by the moment
Christie is a skilled and able communicator who thinks quickly and well on his feet.
Christie has ZERO to lose. This will be his last bid for president — or any other office.
That’s a potent mixture! And one that not one of the other candidates in the field have. (Christie told the audience in New Hampshire on Tuesday that the other candidates in the race treat Trump like Voldemort — they are afraid to say his name. Which is sort of true! And bonus points for a Harry Potter reference!)
And, Christie’s message — at least so far — is right on. I would describe it as a emperor-has-no-clothes argument, the idea being that Trump is maintaining an illusion of strength and success that is simply not born out by reality.
The one issue I have with Christie as the messenger , however, is that Republican voters really, really don’t like him.
In a CNN poll conducted last month, Christie took just 2% of the vote. And, far more daunting for his ability to be a believable, anti-Trump messenger, 60% — yes 60%!! — of Republicans said they would, under NO circumstances, ever back Christie for president.
So, at least among a chunk of Republican voters, Christie’s message will fall on deaf ears — no matter how effective a case he makes against Trump.
The real question for me is how Trump reacts to an extended attack from Christie. He is notoriously thin-skinned and can’t resist hitting back when attacked. In fact, earlier this week, he revealed why he does what he does:
Many say don’t “punch down” when talking about people like Chris Sununu, “Sloppy” Chris Christie, “Aida” Hutchinson, or others, but sometimes it’s necessary to talk badly about those that, for no reason other than politics, speak badly about you. You have to put them in proper perspective, you have to put them in their place!
There’s a world in which Trump becomes obsessed with destroying Christie — taking his eye off of more serious challengers like DeSantis.
Such a move by Trump wouldn’t make much strategic sense — Christie’s path to the nomination is virtually nonexistent — but the former president rarely operates on traditional political wisdom.
Christie succeeds in the race if he draws Trump’s attention for an extended period of time. That would mean Trump has taken his eye off the ball — and would create opportunities for the more viable candidates in the race to make up ground, which they have struggled to do to date.
No one has tried to bully the bully. Christie is aiming to change that.
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