As the pundit class gets to work pre-writing their obituaries for Donald Trump’s political career, they’ve been hotly debating its legacy. Will it be remembered for destroying the Grand Old Party? Accelerating the rise of the alt-right? Launching the glorious era of Trump TV?
Come on. It’s so much more obvious. Take it from Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and star of the reality TV hit “Shark Tank.”
“His ability to get the nomination clearly reflects the fact that voters are fed up with politicians,” he told The Washington Post in a recent email conversation. “That does open the door for people like me who would like to run.”
People like him? Sure, why not! Voters have demonstrated their thirst for the Big Gulp, an outsize figure who can provide a sugary rush not normally found in politics. Maybe it will be someone who has stood shirtless in a wrestling ring, or pitched a playoff baseball game in a bloody sock? Or the billionaire shouting obscenities from the NBA sidelines?
“Trump’s approach,” Cuban said, “was the right approach by the wrong candidate.”
Cuban has since walked back the idea of his own campaign, but would there even be anything surprising about him running anymore? Ronald Reagan was a movie star before he was president, Al Franken was a “Saturday Night Live” player before he was a senator, and Sean Duffy was on “The Real World” before he joined Congress. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse “The Body” Ventura have each served as governor of major-league states. And political consultants are always on the hunt for recognizable and independently wealthy candidates to run for office.
A household name can be one of the most valuable assets for a candidate — and one of the hardest to achieve, noted Rick Tyler, who worked for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Several months ago, the Cruz campaign polled Trump supporters on who their second-choice candidate might be. The conventional wisdom had suggested that if Trump left the race, his voters would flock to Cruz. (Why else would the staunchly conservative senator spend so much time praising the ideologically fluid reality star?)
The results surprised them: Only 4 percent of Trump supporters picked Cruz as their backup. In fact, among all the candidates in the race, there was no clear winner.
“It was almost completely randomized,” Tyler said. “It told us that everyone knew Trump’s name, and nobody knew anyone else’s.”
Professional Republicans are quick to tamp down talk of a second coming of Trump. (Which, if you’ve kept score of Beltway predictions over the past two years, is the best evidence yet that it could actually happen).
“Keep in mind Donald Trump is the unicorn of candidates,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. “It’s not something that can be replicated.”
And even if it could, Spicer said, name recognition only gets you so far. For all the talk about “Teflon Don,” it turned out that bad stories do stick to Trump. There’s a reason he’s the least popular candidate in history.
“If I said I was going to unload a truckload of babies with a pitchfork at noon, I could draw a crowd,” said Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and a vocal Trump critic. “It’s idiocy to say all publicity is good publicity. ISIS gets a lot of publicity — is it good? Michael Jackson’s doctor became famous.”
But when Never Trumpers were on the hunt for an alternative to the Republican nominee, one of their original ideas was to recruit pro wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The man has an eyebrow more famous than your average politician. He’s half black and half Samoan, has one of the best smiles in show business — and just happens to be a registered Republican.
“He has an enormous presence and a base level of charisma that’s very appealing,” says Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP strategist now working for Evan McMullin, the long-shot independent candidate. The Rock “exudes strength,” Wilson said, “and not just physically.”
The Rock, meanwhile, has called the prospect of running for president “alluring.” Which means the 2020 cycle could have people asking questions like: Was the candidate being homophobic when he accused a backstage announcer of trying to “check out The People’s Strudel?” Was it hate speech when the nominee nicknamed another announcer “Hermie,” short for hermaphrodite?
Already, former major-league pitcher Curt Schilling seems to have boarded the Trump Train in hopes of boosting his own career. He’s hosted at least one sparsely attended Trump event, signed on to work for Breitbart News, and is flirting with the idea of running against Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. His hope would be that there are more Red Sox fans who remember his playoff heroics than there are pointy-headed liberals who don’t enjoy his anti-Muslim Facebook posts.
But will any of these people actually run? There are plenty of politically active celebrities — the George Clooneys and Ben Afflecks, the Ashley Judds and Angelina Jolies — who get mentioned as pipe-dream candidates every so often. But will anyone actually take the plunge? (Kanye West doesn’t even have an exploratory committee yet!)
Cuban recently explained that there is “no way” he would run for president. He simply has no interest in putting himself or his family through “that Shinola show.” Which, of course, is exactly what an outsider would have to say four years out from an election. And just a few months ago, he was singing a different tune.
“I would only run if politics continues to be tribal and partisan to the same debilitating extent it is today,” he said.
Sounds like a plan!