When T.S. Eliot wrote that the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper” he may have been alluding to the unsuccessful Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but he might as well have been writing the epitaph for Jeb(!) Bush’s star-crossed presidential campaign. In what was a far cry from the “Mission Accomplished” days of his older brother, a tired and defeated Jeb appeared on TV late Saturday night and announced the end of his once promising bid for the White House. His departure leaves a field of five candidates, winnowed down from a record 17 aspirants just a few months ago.
This column, however, is not about Jeb(!). We all knew why Jeb fought. The Republican Party has not won a presidential election without a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket since 1928, and while neither name brings to mind the proudest moments in American history, the Bush name just edges out Nixon in terms of acceptability. As the pundits of early 2015 said, it was Jeb’s destiny to continue the family business. No, this is not a column about Jeb, but rather a look at the man who launched a gold-plated torpedo at the Bush flagship.
Everyone has their own theories as to why Donald Trump fights for the nomination: he’s power-hungry, he’s an egotistical megalomaniac or he’s been driven insane by the chemicals he uses to style that dead fox on his head. The list goes on. Like him or not, however, the man has successfully built himself an empire. He has the money. He has the mansions. He has the trophy wife. Life can only get so much better for the Donald. The last thing a man like Trump, who is so accustomed to the unilateral power of a chief executive office, would want or need is the stress, heartache and the measly $400,000 salary that comes with the White House. So why do it? Why subject yourself to the rigors and potential fallout from a presidential campaign?
For months, I too struggled with the Donald’s decision to enter the fray. Then, a week ago it became all too clear why he fights. It’s not for the glory. It’s not for the money. It’s certainly not for the fame. No, it’s for something far more boring: Jeb Bush.
Jeb “low-energy” Bush? That guy? Why would such a titan of industry like Trump care about a man who more resembled a frustrated substitute teacher than the leader of the free world? What could Trump possibly have against a man who has to follow up the most passionate lines in his stump speech with a plea for the audience to “please clap?”
The answer can be found in last week’s Republican debate in South Carolina. After a slow start, the conversation turned to national security. Trump called into question Jeb’s brother George’s decision to invade Iraq, and Jeb responded, in golly-gee indignation, that he wished Trump would stop attacking his family, and that President George W. Bush had “kept this country safe.”
And then it happened. Seven months after he glided down that escalator like a majestic golden peacock, Donald Trump showed true emotion. Yes, the Donald had shown anger, indignation, and spite many times before, but this time was different. This time, there was a vulnerability and rawness that doesn’t come in a gold-plated variety.
“I lost hundreds of friends.” Donald Trump, proud New Yorker, stood on that stage in South Carolina, and finally let Bush in on why he was running. Trump’s campaign wasn’t a play for political power. The campaign was a revenge killing. Trump, by that point practically assured victory in the state, was able to stand over the body of his once-mighty rival and twist the knife, knowing full well that Jeb would not be able to recover from his impending defeat later that week.
“How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center came down?” Over the boos of the audience, Trump forcefully and personally condemned the Bush family. This was is not a politically savvy move. George Bush is still popular in Republican circles and in South Carolina. That said, Trump clearly blames him for the deaths of his colleagues, and Trump’s insistence on making a campaign issue about it speaks volumes about why he was in the race to begin with.
Back in the spring of 2015, the media had quickly and unanimously dubbed Jeb as the “presumptive front-runner.” After Team Bush successfully elbowed out Mitt Romney, it looked as if Jeb had a clear shot at the nomination. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was an afterthought, Chris Christie was in disgrace, and everyone assumed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would stay on the sidelines in deference to his mentor. Jeb’s super PAC was raising money at a feverish pace, and it seemed as if America were headed towards yet another Bush v. Clinton showdown. Cue the Donald.
Nobody builds like Trump and nobody destroys like Trump either (and I’m not just talking about his bankruptcies). This is a man who made a career for himself firing people on national television. This campaign, at least at the outset, was no different.
The goal was never to win. The goal was to beat Bush. The goal was to be so outrageous, so overly aggressive and belligerent so as to bully Jeb out of the race. Analyses of Trump’s prolific online commentary in the second half of 2015 indicate that he attacked Jeb three times as much as he attacked the other 15 candidates combined. He repeatedly went out of his way to attack and belittle Jeb during the debates, and he relished at seeing the former governor squirm under his relentless teasing.
No one will ever be elected president on Trump’s outrageous platform, but that was never the plan. The plan was to be the anti-Jeb. Where Jeb was soft, Trump would be rock hard. Jeb has a Mexican wife? Let’s build a wall to keep the Mexicans out. Jeb thinks we need to reach out to the Muslim world? Let’s ban all Muslims from coming into the United States. Jeb’s a Catholic? Let’s engage in a fight with the Pope. Everything Jeb did, Trump did opposite and ten times louder.
Twenty-four years ago, another eccentric billionaire took on the Bush family. H. Ross Perot structured his third-party campaign in 1992 on his opposition to Bush’s North American Free Trade Act, and he used his populist economic message to win almost 20 percent of the popular vote and deny George H. W. Bush a second term. Some historians allege that Perot too was motivated by a personal vendetta against Bush. As vice-president, Bush had cut Perot out of Reagan’s efforts to rescue POWs in Vietnam, and during the campaign, a Perot associate was quoted as saying that “if Perot denies Bush the presidency, he’ll be on top of the world.”
Like Perot, Trump poured enormous resources into his campaign and relied heavily on force of personality to further his cause. Like Perot, Trump too has succeeded in stopping a Bush from becoming the next president. That is why Trump fights. Or, at least, that is why Trump fought. At the beginning, winning was not the goal, and no one thought it possible. Now it is not only possible but also probable. This election cycle has been one of the most unpredictable in history, so it doesn’t do much good to try and divine what the future holds for Trump and the gang, but one thing is for sure: it’s gonna be yuuuuuge.
Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] The Jacobin appears alternate Mondays this semester.