The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton will soon realize Donald Trump is very hard to run against

Donald Trump. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The prevailing wisdom in political circles following Donald Trump's emergence as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is that he has very little chance of beating Hillary Clinton in the fall election. That she and her team of experienced operatives will carve Trump up like a Thanksgiving turkey, using his many controversial remarks to build a case that he is fundamentally unfit for the office he is seeking. That her political experience will turn him into a blubbering fool, both on the campaign trail and on the debate stage.

Might happen. Could happen. But Clinton would do well to study the 16 Republican candidates who held that same belief and watched as Trump systematically destroyed them on his march to the nomination. If we learned anything about Trump during the primary campaign, it's this: He's very, very difficult to run against.

The best way to explain Trump is through pickup basketball. (Pickup hoops is the best way to explain lots and lots of things in life. I have long maintained that I can tell what kind of person someone is in their life by playing two games of pickup basketball with them.)  In any pickup game, there are usually one or two excellent players — guys who played at some level in college who know the game, know how to get their shots and just make it look easy. Those guys aren't easy to guard — they're athletic and good after all — but, if you play against them enough, you can develop a strategy on how best to slow them down. Crowd them. Make them drive. Deny them the ball. Make them work on defense. Whatever. There is a game plan that can be built against them, because while they are good, they are predictably good — they usually do the same good stuff in roughly the same way over and over.

Then there is the one guy who plays super unorthodox. It's usually someone who is a good athlete but has never played organized hoops in his life. He jumps off his right foot to shoot a right-handed layup. He takes shots from all sorts of weird angles that go in. He passes when he should shoot. He shoots when he should pass. That guy, weirdly, is harder to game-plan for than the predictably excellent guy, because you have no idea what he's going to do next. He might pull up from 30 feet and shoot. He might try some weird up-and-under layup move. And somehow it works for him in a way it wouldn't for someone who spent 15 years playing organized basketball. He breaks rules he doesn't even know exist, even as you are trying to defend him within those rules.

That's Trump as a candidate. He touts his own unpredictability as an asset, and in the context of a campaign it absolutely is. The likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz could never develop a consistent plan of attack against Trump because he was, day in and day out, not only doing and saying things no "normal" candidate would but also changing up what he said and how he said it constantly. Bush always seemed somewhere between bemused and alarmed at Trump during the campaign. Why? Because Bush is the classic example of a pol who wants to know the rules of the game, commit them to memory and then play as hard as he can by them to win. He has no idea what to do with a guy who laughs at the rules and is willing to do whatever it takes to win.

Low energy! That face! Ban Muslims (temporarily)! Build a wall! Make Mexico pay for it! Renegotiate our trade deals! All of them! Lyin' Ted! Little Marco! Hand size! The best words! Uncaptured war heroes! Megyn Kelly! Rafael Cruz as JFK assassin accomplice! New Jersey Muslims cheering!

Using his massive social media presence, his command of cable television and his willingness to say and do almost anything, Trump functions as a sort of political machine gun. He fires out so many attacks in so many different directions on any given day that to respond to all of them would take up all of Clinton's time (if it could be done at all). Trump dominates news cycle after news cycle because no one — at least no one so far — can match his productivity in churning out potential negative narratives or effectively push back on them all simultaneously.

That's the challenge ahead for Clinton and her team. How do you decide what Trump attacks to swing at and which do you just ignore? How can you tell what might turn into a mountain and what is assuredly a molehill? What if you ignore something Trump says that finds traction somehow (Cruz is Canadian!), and by the time you are forced to address it, it's too late and the damage is done? And how do you avoid spending all of your time playing defense against a never-ending series of rhetorical bombs thrown your way? How can you push out a message — any message — that can break through the swarm of those Trump releases daily?

To return to the basketball comparison: Trump doesn't play the game in a way that suggests he's had years of training in the best practices of where to run on the court and when. That leads people who "know" the game to write him off. It's also what makes him so dangerous to Clinton.