Trump’s Secret Weapons

My prognosticating powers were going great for a while, anyway. As I correctly thought months ago, Donald Trump's bogus finances and his complete indifference to organization would undermine his chances in the fight for loyal delegates going to Cleveland. After Cruz’s big win in Wisconsin, the knock-out punch was coming in Indiana. Trump himself admitted he was in big trouble, having to spend weeks there to turn around his fortunes. But then he unleashed his secret weapon, Bob Knight, the former IU coach, who normally supports Democrats.

If you don’t understand college basketball (i.e. you’re not from Kentucky) Bob Knight is a churlish and overrated basketball coach, who nonetheless is pretty good at military psyops. For years he managed to bully referees into believing all the pushing, grabbing and tripping his outmanned teams did was just “heady defense”. But it didn’t stop there; through countless temper tantrums directed against sportswriters, players, students, and anybody else in shouting distance, he waged a kind of psychological warfare against the whole state of Indiana. When he was finally fired, the poor, naïve Hoosiers were just lost, kind of like Tina Turner craving another beating from Ike. Knight kept up the act even from long distance, pointedly boycotting a reunion of his 1976 championship team earlier this year. So campaigning with his kindred spirit in the primary was a natural move, and Trump snagged the nomination.

But it got me to thinking, a lot of what explains the Trump phenomenon is easily observable on the modern sports scene. For example, the ersatz billionaire is a common item in professional sports ownership. Consider John Spano, the Texas conman who almost bought hockey’s Islanders in a scam, and wound with 10 years in prison for his trouble. Or the happier case of Frank McCourt , the Boston conman who bought the Dodgers no-money down, proceeded to plunder the team's assets, then put them into bankruptcy. The MLB was so embarrassed they paid him hundreds of millions to just go away. Or Sam Zell, who claims to be a billionaire, yet looks like a hobo. He bought the Cubs and the Tribune Company in another no-money-down scheme that went south. Badly burned shareholders will tell you Zell really is a hobo, no matter what Forbes says. And there is, of course, Wall Street’s favorite thief, Bernie Madoff, financier of choice to the Mets.

Trump himself took a star turn in team sports with the old USFL. Trump bought the New Jersey franchise in 1984 for a song, then convinced the other struggling owners he was their savior, who would force a merger with the NFL by moving their season to the fall. Instead, of course, the league quickly folded. To be sure, the USFL was already failing, and Trump was selling hopes and dreams to people who were already desperate.

I think that’s Trump’s real secret weapon -- he has a bottomless well of tall tales and big promises for anyone; customers, investors, voters, whoever. He may not have any real idea how to “Make America Great Again” but just uttering this proud boast shows a confidence far too rare in the GOP.

Contrast with recent Republican nominees for president, and the way they sell their candidacies. Mitt Romney for one, really was a self-made billionaire, but he seemed ashamed of the fact. Instead of boldly proclaiming his financial success and promising he knew exactly how to turn things around for the ordinary guy and gal, he campaigned like the Lord of the Manor, expecting the presidency as a birthright. Paul Ryan, his running mate, was no better, seeming to be running for Bookkeeper in Chief. It’s a cliché that politicians make promises they don’t keep, but the Republican message for regular voters seems to be "you'll get nothing and like it!"   

Trump on the other hand, has at least has figured out, if you want to be president, you need to make promises to the voters they actually care about. That’s his ultimate secret weapon. And who knows? By November, the United States the country may be in as bad of shape as the United States the football league. 

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, KY.