Michael Brodkorb was a junior campaign staffer at a local Minnesota parade when he came face-to-face with Jesse Ventura.
It was 1998, and Ventura, former wrestler, talk-show radio host, and action figure extraordinaire was running for governor as a barnburning outsider, and Brodkorb was a skinny kid working for the wrong campaign. Ventura had some words for him.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” the gubernatorial candidate shouted across the parade, according to Brodkorb, as the crowd cheered.
A few months later, he was elected governor.
Ventura’s victory came seventeen years before Donald Trump launched his fame-fueled bid for president last June. But the former Minnesota governor’s provocative campaign in many ways presaged Trump.
Like other celebrity-politicians, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger among them, Ventura grew stronger with bombast, chest-beating and provocation. He was underestimated and ridiculed by his opponents—and then he won.
“The normal type of things you’d expect to trip up a candidate never seemed to stick to Ventura,” recalled Brodkorb, who went on to be the deputy chair of Minnesota’s Republican Party. “People were very much enthralled with Ventura because of his personality, his style, his pointing of the finger, his willingness to go after the politicians.”
“It was very Trump-like,” Brodkorb said.
Like Ventura and Schwarzenegger, Trump has a brand identity that has allowed him to coast past more orthodox politicians to success in the Republican presidential primary.
Those campaigns are a warning to Clinton, who is about to face a prolonged and nasty battle against Trump. She will have to contend with a celebrity who has so far been insulated from harm: at least in the Republican primary, Trump’s most far-fetched and brazen statements have only seemed to help his candidacy.
Clinton’s aides believe that Trump’s celebrity brand will not shield him from attacks in a general election campaign. In recent weeks their attacks have been a buffet of messages: Clinton has called him bullying, divisive and dangerous and the campaign ads have suggested he is clownish and clueless.
Clinton’s allies have already opened planning a barrage on the real estate mogul, pointing to a litany of focus groups and research they say show anti-Trump ads are effective with a general electorate. The pro-Clinton super-PAC, Priorities USA Action, will release advertisements in Ohio, Florida and other swing states on Wednesday attacking Trump and targeting his statements on women.
“We recognize the fact that Donald Trump isn’t a conventional candidate and we have to be able to pivot and run an unconventional campaign at times,” said Justin Barasky, communications director for Priorities USA Action. “But our overall strategy for Trump remains the same as it would be for anybody else: to aggressively contrast his record with Hillary Clinton’s.”
But strategists in both parties say Clinton will need a different playbook to beat a celebrity opponent.
So far, Trump has been immune to the kinds of attacks that would sink a more traditional candidate. He dispatched a field of 16 Republican candidates, all of whom underestimated his appeal and believed he would eventually be disqualified by his comments about women, Muslims and the disabled.
During California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall and the subsequent 2006 race Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seemed similarly immune to fallback. The bodybuilder and star of Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator survived a front-page Los Angeles Times story in October 2003 that recorded numerous instances of the actor groping and fondling women. A 1981 interview surfaced in which Schwarzenegger explained to Johnny Carson how he and a buddy would purposefully destroy people’s chimneys and ask the homeowners for payments to do repairs.
After he won the recall, Schwarzenegger was berated after he said of a nurses’ union, “I kick their butt.” His Democratic opponent in his 2006 reelection, Phil Angelides, attacked the governor on numerous controversies.
But neither Schwarzenegger’s apparently admiring comments about Adolf Hitler in the 1970s, recorded in a screenplay and reported years later in the New York Times nor his comments about “mulattos” and the female form seemed to matter.
“People already know that these folks are scoundrels, that they don’t live a normal lifestyle,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist in California who closely watched two failed campaigns against Schwarzenegger. “They’ve done things that an average person can’t do and done things that only a celebrity can get away with,”
“And I think Trump has a little bit of that inoculation with respect to his background,” South said.
That’s why more traditional attacks on Trump, like targeting his philandering, his factual errors about the United States’ trade deficit with China or his exaggerated poll number may not work.
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