The crowd of Republican golf course big shots turned their heads skyward toward the sound of a helicopter, descending like a Close Encounters of a Third Kind vision in a refinery-clear Somerset County, New Jersey sky, absent the Orson Welles voice-over.
When the chopper landed, billionaire tycoon Donald Trump alighted on the green with his wife and made his way in to the fundraiser for Gov. Chris Christie, whose recent trip to Mexico signaled his unmistakable designs on the presidency.
Trump wouldn’t amplify himself to the crowd that night. It was his golf course. He owned it. That and the helicopter entrance spoke for themselves.
For his part, Christie reserved the right to dominate the microphone, a careful piece of stagecraft meant to highlight the fact that as long as the governor occupies a room, so too does he hold the alpha male privilege to hold forth unencumbered by the voices of other power players.
But such dominance wouldn’t last at the national level for the already scandal-wounded Christie in the face of Trump, who four months later would kick off his presidential bid, six months in advance of the New Jersey governor’s own campaign launch.
Back then, in late 2014, the establishment crowd at that golf course sitting and watching Chris and Donald in close proximity wasn’t thinking Trump would be a stumbling block to Christie’s presidential ambition. They saw Jeb Bush as the problem. Jeb in the race would lock up the Republican establishment that Christie had labored so hard to get on his side when he served as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA).
Well, Trump was not a serious candidate, ran the assumption by the very crowd that sat at those tables and politely applauded as he made the rounds.
No one stopped to consider back then the larger terrain, and that if indeed the American angry male had reached his apotheosis, if – in the harshest of internal country club diagnoses of the advanced public condition – Cro Magnon had devolved to Neanderthal and Neanderthal to Peking Man, and technology had progressed just as fast in the other direction, from newspapers to Twitter, and the abrogation of manners and good taste and the virtues of modesty and proportion at last received an improper burial at the hands of our constant, unrelenting and voracious streaming ego, then…
The Apprentice outdid scattered YouTube hits;
routinely calling people “loser,” bested “get the hell off the beach,”
someone who didn’t hold public office (for weren’t those people kind of losers, after all?) trumped someone who did;
and – in the flat plains of scared Middle America, wasn’t the guy who wanted to blockade the country off from intruders superior to someone who had nuanced views on immigration and campaigned for reelection with Democrats?
It turned out – and those same establishment types sedately eating steak alongside Trump and Christie never saw it coming – it wasn’t Bush who was the threat to Christie. It was Christie. Or rather it was Trump, who did Christie better than Christie.
The “Telling it like it is Tour” was the right idea. But it didn’t beat bread and circus’s and Ringling Brothers and 14 prime time seasons on network. How could 250 teary-eyed sit-downs with Neil Cavuto compete? If Christie had a Star Trek geek-like fixation on The Boss, Trump was The Boss. New Jersey attitude, and this may have been the most painful revelation of all, didn’t beat an activated Big Apple. New York on steroids made New Jersey look…
No, it was too difficult a confession.
But all these months later watching Trump onstage standing with the scars of 911 around him, rising like holograms of pure energy in the face of Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s values attack, even produced a strange sort of Nixon in China moment; as though only the Republican front-runner for the presidency dragging a million accusations of nativism could finally, back against the wall, stand up for New York in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
And then turn around and insist on a Muslim ban.
That was a feat Rudy Giuliani couldn’t pull off in 2008.
Just couldn’t do it.
Even before Trump commanded the lead in poll after poll and smothered most of the other candidates, Christie, getting back to his earliest days on the trail, looked like the purveyor of a less than winning campaign in the summertime when he kicked off in Livingston. His Asbury Park boardwalk event felt stilted. Mood wrong. One could picture Jerry Lewis walking out on stage and calling for sexy lights. Something. Anything. Whatever it took to create a more electric atmosphere. There were bodies in Convention Hall. But they didn’t look like people who believed they were going to the White House. There was a lesson there, the most zen-like observers sought to impart. Yes,one needs ego in politics. But too much ego causes people to do foolish things, like run for president long after their due date, which, as every expert delighted in repeating and repeating, in Christie’s case had been 2012. Bridgegate was a factor, but maybe not as much as boredom. Christie had uttered his outlandish phrases and had become predictable to a public craving the next political personality.
And anyway, unscathed by scandal, good son Bush – the cocktail party revelers insisted – would undoubtedly deep-six Christie. In the middle of summer last year, still riding what appeared to be an indestructible national narrative, the former Florida senator confidently, tan and tall with an accessible southern twang in his voice showed up at a Monmouth County country club looking different from the discarded hay bale prop he would transform into over the coming months. The scion of a great political family (Democrats can insert laugh track here, but the Bushes did create two presidents), Bush would turn into a pumpkin, almost literally, over the course of the next six months.
Christie ally turned avowed Bush backer state Senator Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) welcomed the future president.
“Things happen in threes,” said one astute analyst of the situation, referring to George Herbert Walker, W., and now Jeb.
It was painful to have Bush show up in Christie’s backyard among those old establishment Republican allies who presumably would be there for their friend when he ran for president. “It feels good,” Bush told PolitickerNJ when asked what it felt like to be in New Jersey.
Written off as a Bush casualty, Christie over the coming months would show his considerable and well-honed political qualities to fight through the skeptical and hate-tinged and jealous din, to put forward a credible if doomed campaign effort while the son and brother of former presidents from that moment of seeming invincibility forward, shrunk inch by inch like the characters in The Fantastic Voyage.
Yet just as Bush would have his former student, the charismatic U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, hanging around his neck and making it difficult for him to project, Christie the bombast, Christie the showman and artful zinger of populist put-downs, would have to watch Trump climbing, hand over hand, up the sheer surface of the Empire State Building above the dismally scrapping crowd of bunched-up rivals. From the get go, Trump was the bigger and more outrageous player on a stage given over to a ravaged and irritable American political landscape populated by voters seeking a purely populist champion.
Bush sawed brutally into the governor’s money contacts and certainly hurt him, but no one mangled Christie’s brand like the indefatigable tycoon.
Bobby Jindal – a governor with a successful record – was supposed to threaten.
Scott Walker – a populist-acting governor with a Christie-like record of axing public sector unions and no Bridgegate encumbrances – should have been a big headache. Maybe the flanking movement with Bush to finish Christie early.
What can one say about him?
Hardly exciting, Bush sank and sank as Trump and later Rubio (briefly) rose.
Christie stuck, and Christie battled. Christie emoted. But he had the feel throughout of a loser, hobbled by Bridgegate and bad timing and deja vu all over again hovering about his campaign strategist, Mike DuHaime, who had wagered all on Florida for Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and lost early advantages in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Christie would put it all on New Hampshire, everything, and come in a dismal sixth place Tuesday night.
Simultaneously, the Democratic establishment in New Jersey – on lock-down for Hillary Clinton – high-fived with abandon as they watched the inevitable unfold, popping popcorn, racing home early to watch those nightly scheduled Fox and CNN train wrecks featuring unelectable Republicans (and Christie, who, they knew, could be a problem if he got through the primary, but he wouldn’t), delighting in how incredibly daft Republicans had been not to see Trump sneaking up on the party, eager to discuss how reduced the GOP had become and narrow and unseeing and ill-suited… and never saw Bernie Sanders.
Christie gave himself one last moment before final fatal impact, going on on the offensive post-Iowa (where he tanked) as never before. His target was not Trump but Rubio, that scintillating young presence who had humiliated Bush early on the debate stage and now was getting the better of both Christie and Bush with a Republican establishment terrified of Trump and casting wildly for an alternative.
Christie wanted them to take a look at him one more time, or maybe even Bush one more time. But not Rubio. Rubio needed to be stopped, for if Trump ended up as the nominee he could lose against Clinton, and better to vaporize the kid now, Christie reasoned, than have to watch him assume command of the party in time for 2020.
Down in the polls coming out of the Hawkeye State, apparently done but not quite done, and with Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich finding the pulses of their respective campaigns coming alive in New Hampshire, Christie at Saturday night’s debate in Manchester mercilessly bludgeoned Rubio as not ready for prime time. “Don’t make the same mistake twice,” Christie warned voters, a reference to Rubio’s resume likeness to that of Democrat Obama.
He had spent most of this campaign focusing his prosecutorial ire on Obama and Hillary Clinton. For five eviscerating minutes he trained his sites on Rubio. In that brief flash of time period, Christie was all the major candidates combined. He was Trump, the way Trump had decimated Bush. And he was Rubio, the way Rubio had torn apart Bush. He was Cruz: devastating and surgical and scary without losing his cool. And he was Bush, the governor who knew how to manage, an executive skill absent in the sitting president and woefully absent in Rubio.
The attack worked, stopping the Floridian in his tracks, or at least slowing him down and preventing him by the time New Hampshire was all over, from beating Kasich or Bush. But finally the voters of New Hampshire Tuesday night would do to the Christie campaign what the governor of New Jersey did to Marco Rubio: they mauled him. All the town halls – 76 total in New Hampshire – failed to give him that toehold in the hearts and minds of the Granite State.
For all the establishment jockeying, though, pre-New Hampshire, and the post NH scramble of candidates signifying an ongoing struggle for the nomination, what stood forth Wednesday morning, was Trump’s big, intimidating win, and within that context the possibility that by tomahawking Rubio, Christie simply damaged the establishment’s best shot at stopping the billionaire real estate tycoon with their single most intriguing weapon. Maybe at the end of it Christie simply breathed life into candidacies already past dying on the beach, and hastened the addition to that group the one young and vibrant man who might have united them.
Trump, as he descended in that helicopter back on the New Jersey golf course all those months ago, hardly looked like the king of rural Republican populism.That role would come later. But he was, in fact, already a ruler in the GOP establishment. They just didn’t know it yet, or take it seriously, as they politely waited for Christie to dominate a public speaking part, for what turned out to be the second to last time.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media, which owns PolitickerNJ.