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How Do You Trump the Trump?

08/03/2016 12:37 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

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Much to everyone's dismay, shock, and awe, Donald Trump could well be the next President of the United States. This is a man who believes that building a wall between the US and Mexico makes sound foreign policy, that the winter snow in New York shows why we need global warming, and a potential world leader who wants to ban all Muslims from entering the States. It's beggars-belief and most of Europe is now begging America to turn away from the shining light of Trump's coiffure.

But how does one solve a problem like Trump? Every attack that has been laid against him hasn't just bounced off but actually increased his popularity. Understandably, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the only two genuine challengers left to the Trump-mobile, are feeling a little dumbfounded. What approaches are available to them?

They've already tried going on the offensive. In the most recent debate they acted as a tag team, working together to land a series of blows against Trump. They brought his business credentials into question. They attacked his healthcare and fiscal policies (can they be called policies?). But none of this has worked. There's no better way to confirm someone's position as an outsider than by ridiculing them. When Cruz and Rubio bully Trump, they are also bullying his supporters and any voter who thinks that politicians spend too much time talking at them.

Going on the attack in this manner also gifts Trump an open goal. What his supporters love about him is that he "speaks his own mind". Given the chance to insult, talk dirty, or say the unsayable Trump is going to take that opportunity and run. That's why the length of Trump's member, rather than, say, foreign policy, has become a central issue in these debates. For every "oh my god, did he just say that?" Trump appeals to yet more supporters who think that they have finally found someone who is speaking for them.

Option number two is to be like the Trump. In debating parlance this is now referred to as the "I agree with Nick" tactic after Cameron and Brown both tried to bask in the Liberal Democrat leader's glow during the 2010 televised debates. This tactic would be doomed to failure. No one can do Trump like Trump and it would mean playing the game according to his rules. This would see Rubio and Cruz do exactly the same thing that Labour has done in recent years by aping the Tories and trying to appear tough on benefits and migration. Doing so has simply reinforced right-wing arguments and made Labour look like a poor-man's Conservative Party. In short: there is no point trying to mimic someone's else's well-honed strategy.

Option three is to go sober by trying to appear statesmanlike and experienced - everything that Trump isn't. The advantage of such an approach is that it would at least put clear water between Cruz and Rubio on the one hand and Trump on the other. Sadly though this too is unlikely to work. Trump's entire act is built around him being the outsider in a nation that is increasingly tired of political dynasties like the Clinton's and Bush's. That's one of the reasons why Hilary is struggling to shake off Bernie Sanders. Once again such an approach will play into Trump's (as we discovered during the most recent debate) large hands.

I don't envy the task facing Rubio and Cruz but if I were them, this is what I would try. Firstly, we have to look at what it is about Trump that is galvanising so many Republicans to vote for him. Some might argue that these voters are now beyond the pale but we must remember that they are real people with real lives, worries, struggles, and families. Step one in dealing with Donald should simply be: show understanding, build rapport, accept that things are not great for a lot of people in America at the moment.

Next it is important to develop a distinct message and image from Trump. This can only be done by taking the things people care about - inequality, immigration, low incomes - and throwing a new light and solution on it. Appealing to traditions and values (no matter how manufactured) about being a world player, of democracy, of fighting for the little guy or gal: these are things that matter to Americans north and south. Couched in these terms Cruz and Rubio could set their own agenda - rather than trumpeting Trump's tune.

Lastly though, they both have to show they are not identikit politicians. This is especially hard for Rubio who is the Republican establishment's poster boy. But they could counter this by dealing with it head-on: talking much more personally about themselves, why they got into politics, what it means to them to be a part of the Republican movement.

Ultimately the saving grace for anti-Trump Republicans might have to come when either Rubio or Cruz drop out of the race, allowing their supporters to combine rather than split their votes. I'm no Republican but for the sake of the tenor of political debate in America, I hope they are able to find an effective counter to the Donald Dynamo soon.