The Art of the Troll: How Donald Trump Sent Jeb Bush into a Tailspin
Policy + Politics

The Art of the Troll: How Donald Trump Sent Jeb Bush into a Tailspin

Rick Wilking

Back when the Jeb Bush campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was still unofficial, the political press was busy churning out stories about how the former Florida governor was sewing up all the top talent in fundraising, strategy and policy. Bush, it seemed, was not only loading his team with top operatives, but like the Yankees in the George Steinbrenner years he was locking up extra talent just so nobody else could have it.

In the rush, though, Bush apparently forgot to fill one vitally important position: Special Advisor for Saving Jeb Bush from Himself.

Related: Inside Jeb Bush’s Relentless Downhill Slide

The Bush campaign has, inexplicably, allowed its candidate to get involved in a public slap fight with real estate mogul and former reality television star Donald Trump, who also happens to be leading the Republican field with something on the order of five times more support than Bush.

The issue is the 9/11 attacks and Trump’s public challenge of Bush’s assertion that his brother, former president George W. Bush, kept the country safe during his two terms in office.

Trump, in a television interview last week, took issue with the claim. Bush’s brother was president during the single worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, Trump pointed out. Saying he kept the country safe is … a bit of a stretch.

This didn’t sit well with Bush, who went after him on Twitter:

Trump’s response was pure provocation: I’m not blaming anybody, he said. But Bush was in the White House on 9/11 …

“I don’t know why he keeps bringing this up,” Bush complained to host Jake Tapper on CNN Sunday morning. “It doesn’t show that he’s a serious person as it relates to being commander in chief and being the architect of a foreign policy.”

Related: The Independent Candidate Who Could Be Trump’s Worst Nightmare

Okay, let’s stop for a moment. The “I don’t know why he keeps bringing this up” line is kind of frightening coming from a man who grew up with three brothers. Does Bush really not know?

Let’s break it down for candidate Bush. Trump keeps bringing it up because:

1)      You keep reacting to it. This is schoolyard-level stuff. As long as you get angry every time Trump brings up your brother and the 9/11 attacks, he is guaranteed to keep bringing it up. Trump is a bully. A troll. An annoying brother who knows just what to say to force a reaction even when you know you should just keep quiet. It’s in his nature. And in politics, it’s apparently his gift.

2)      While you may not be his biggest rival at the moment, your Super PAC has a lot of money. Everything Trump can do to tie you to your brother who, like it or not, left office as an extremely unpopular president, is insurance against a late surge from your campaign. Getting you to personally remind people that a Bush was in the White House on 9/11 is just gravy.

3)      You aren’t actually very good at defending your brother. In Sunday’s CNN interview, you were visibly at a loss when asked to describe why your brother shouldn’t be held accountable for 9/11 but President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should be for the Benghazi attacks. (Free hint: There’s a difference between providing extra security to diplomats in an active war zone and defending an entire air transport system against vague warnings about a theoretical attack.)

Unbelievably, the Bush campaign didn’t clamp down on the candidate after his unfortunate performance Sunday, instead allowing him to contribute a Tuesday afternoon op-ed to the conservative National Review going after Trump on national security issues.

Related: Meet the Freedom Caucus, the Group Inflaming Washington

He led, of course, with his brother and 9/11.

“In the latest episode of the reality show that is Donald Trump’s campaign, he has blamed my brother for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation,” he began. “That Trump echoes the attacks of Michael Moore and the fringe Left against my brother is yet another example of his dangerous views on national-security issues.”

To be fair, the “reality show” line was pretty good. But somewhere in the depths of Trump Tower the Donald must be shaking his head in wonder that the candidate who didn’t even make his last name part of his campaign logo keeps voluntarily associating himself with his brother’s darkest moment as president.

Now, there is a school of thought that holds that being attacked by the frontrunner sends the message to voters that the top dog considers your candidate a threat. That’s a good thing, the logic goes, because it elevates a trailing candidate to the same stage as the frontrunner.

Related: Clinton Seizes Control of the Democratic Campaign

Anybody who’s been paying attention, though, knows that with Trump in the race, none of the traditional rules apply.

Trump will go after anybody. He’s belittled Lindsey Graham, whose poll numbers are barely discernible with a microscope. Likewise he’s slammed Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and Chris Christie, none of whom is within hailing distance of him in the polls.

Contrast that with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Asked in the first Democratic debate if she wanted to respond to criticism from former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, her reply was a devastatingly concise, “No.”

Bush has been symbolically cutting back on campaign spending in recent weeks, but he presumably still has a lot of political advisors on staff he’s paying a lot of money.

One of them might want to pass on a bit of Internet-age wisdom to the candidate: Don’t feed the trolls.