The splinter is coming: the Republican race is a real life Game of Thrones plot
The political battlefield is strewn with corpses. One man “goes into this thing, he’s competing against senators and governors at the highest level of our nation”, Donald Trump declared of himself in the third person on Friday: “And one by one they get knocked off.”
“Bom, bom, bom, bom. Now I’m left with two guys. Hardly two guys. Maybe you could say one. A half and a half.”
If this were Game of Thrones, the fantasy epic that returns for a sixth series on both sides of the Atlantic on Sunday, Trump would be describing some gory dismemberment. But in America’s Republican party equivalent, the businessman obsessed with gold has slashed his way through a field of 17 election candidates, as contemptuous of foes as Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of Westeros’ most wealthy family.
Lannister, at the height of his powers, met an untimely and unsavoury end on the toilet. And although he put rivals to the sword in the New York primary this week, Trump appears to be looking over his shoulder, fearful of his own political demise.
The candidate addressed reporters at Trump Tower, his gleaming and gilded monument to capitalism. Gone were the tirades about “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. In eight succinct minutes he spoke of making America great and, instead of improvising through questions from the press, let his campaign lieutenants Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort hold rival briefings with reporters.
Trump camp promises whole new candidate
Under tutelage from Manafort, a 40-year veteran of politics who recently served as a fixer for the ousted president of Ukraine, Trump has started to change his tone. He has curbed his addiction to Sunday morning political talk shows, dialled down the tweeting and even begun reading from scripts, a custom he once mocked. The charm offensive is slated to include a foreign policy speech on Wednesday in Washington.
Why is the “chaos candidate”, as one vanquished foe put it, suddenly playing nice? Why change a winning formula? Trump and his vociferous supporters have realized in recent weeks that winning the most votes, which he is now certain to do, does not guarantee the Republican nomination. Indeed, the very attribute that propelled his wildly improbable candidacy – his status as a maverick outsider, an anti-politician – could be his undoing.
Unless he can manage the complex horse trades and fixes of insider politics, the crown could elude Trump even through victories along the north-east Tuesday. The author of The Art of the Deal has therefore hired veteran strategists to try to seal the biggest deal of his life.
Trump needs delegates, which are doled out according to peculiar rules for how each of the 50 states and a few territories vote. In some the winners take all, in others winners split districts, and yet others have unbound delegates or state conventions. The magic number to secure the nomination is 1,237: no Republican can stop Trump if he reaches that bullseye.
If he falls agonisingly short, the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, will be contested, rather than a simple coronation. After the first round of voting, more and more delegates will be freed to vote as they choose – and the wining, scheming and skullduggery to lure delegates has already begun.
We’ll start a coup’
Trump may have mastered some retail politics – gymnasiums and soldiers clubs and diners – but Cruz has so far outfoxed him behind the scenes, even in states where the senator lost the popular vote.
And all the signs so far are that in the ground game of politicking, Trump is being outfoxed by Cruz, who is snapping up delegates even in states where he lost the popular vote. Some pundits already predict that without 1,237, Trump’s failure to win over party regulars will doom him in Cleveland.
There is just one problem with the scenario: the millions of people who voted for Trump. They have thronged his rallies with noise and anger, and are unlikely to accept defeat and go home quietly. Indeed, having spent years feeling cheated and disenfranchised, the sight of their perceived saviour robbed by faceless men in suits could push them over the edge.
“He’s a couple of million votes ahead of Cruz, so how can they give it to someone else?” demanded Edward Blackman, an unemployed 54-year-old from New York, said at a Trump rally in Harrington, Delaware, on Friday. “If they do, that person won’t be my president. We’ll start a coup and overthrow the government. The army is with Trump and will park a tank on the White House lawn.”
Trump supporters’ badges and T-shirts reflect their rage: “Trump 2016: Finally someone with balls”, “Hillary for Prison 2016”, “Donald Fuckin’ Trump!”, “No Bullshit” and “Ted Cruz sucks!”
Blake Jones, 24, outside the rally, predicted said the Republican system is “rigged”. “I don’t want to promote violence but whatever it takes to get the job done. Are we finally going to stand up for ourselves?”
Far away in every sense, the Republican National Committee (RNC) met with foreboding this week in Hollywood, Florida. Everyone agreed that this was the calm before the storm.
Trump, Cruz and John Kasich’s campaigns sent representatives to the event, which Cruz’s campaign manager described as the biggest remaining delegate pool outside California. Both Cruz and Kasich showed up personally.
Instead Manafort and another new hire, Rick Wiley, as well as former presidential rival Ben Carson, came to Florida to try to placate party loyalists. Rather than dwell on the perilous path to 1,237, they instead spoke of the general election as if Trump were a sure nominee.
They held a briefing to top Republican activists over piles of seafood, plates of cheese and an open bar, and insisted that there was a different Donald Trump behind the person on reality TV or preaching to rallies.
Manafort told reporters after the meeting: “We just have to present him in a way that shows all sides of Donald Trump.”
They also took pains to reassure Republicans that they would work with state parties to raise money and support congressional candidates in November.
This marked a sea change in attitude by the Trump campaign. The frontrunner has long bragged, not entirely honestly, about self-funding his run. Attendees responded well. Steve Duprey, a national committeeman from New Hampshire, said he was “more reassured”, and Michael McDonald, chair of the Nevada Republican party, said many were at “more of a comfortable level with Trump”.
“We want to elect a Republican and he’s one of them.”
Cruz’s campaign is already looking beyond what is already expected to be a poor performance in Tuesday’s primaries in north-east states, to May and more favorable terrain. His team has excelled at the byzantine delegate selection process, sweeping contests in Colorado and Wyoming and chipping away at Trump’s lead.
The stakes are so high that the campaigns have descended on seemingly minor contests, and there is the chance that the nomination could be determined by Pennsylvania’s dozens of unbound delegates or territories largely forgotten by politics such as the US Virgin Islands.
A longtime Michigan Republican named John Yob moved to the US territory and put together a slate of delegates, and they all won election – unbound and free to vote as they please. However, the chair of the islands’ Republican party has declared Yob’s crew disqualified on procedural grounds and the fight is now going through both the courts and internal party tribunals. The civil war in the Republican party has become so fractious and intense that islanders now hear negative ads about would-be delegates.
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, only 17 of 71 delegates are tied to the the popular vote. The other 54 are elected one by one, without the name of the candidate they support on the ballot. The Cruz campaign is already handing out instructions about their preferred slate of delegates in individual congressional districts.
But if Trump achieves large enough wins in Indiana and California, the two remaining primaries that appear close, he could reach 1,237 and end the suspense. He urged his voters to “knock ’em out with volume of votes”.
“Right now I have millions more votes than Cruz, millions more votes than Kasich,” he continued. “I have almost 300 more delegates than Cruz even though it’s a crooked system and he goes around, they’re taking them out to dinner, they send them to hotels: it’s such a crooked system it’s disgusting.”
Trump becomes less “presidential” and more keen to rouse the rabble outside of major cities. The route to Friday’s event led past a Confederate flag and a store named Hunters’ Haven. Under a big fairground tent, Trump whipped the crowd into a frenzy with chants of “Build that wall!” and generous helpings of “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “Crooked Hillary Clinton”.
“When they [Cruz and Kasich] get out, we will start on Hillary Clinton like nobody’s ever seen before,” he warned menacingly. “Nobody.”
He did not sound like a man who would be taking any prisoners, but rather one who had embraced this bleak truth: when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.