Let’s compare Trump’s and Rubio’s Linguistic Kill Shots from the Republican debate last night.
I’m ignoring Cruz today because he seemed to be arguing his case to a bored jury. He wasn’t terribly interesting last night. He seemed lawyerly.
Rubio showed a new feisty side at the debate, going after Trump for hiring illegal Polish workers 35 years ago through a subcontractor, pointing out Trump’s notable business failures, saying Trump would be selling watches in Manhattan if he had not inherited wealth, and mocking Trump’s healthcare plan that is light on details. Rubio also called-out Trump for repeating himself during the debate. Trump seemed on the defensive more than usual.
Rubio’s debate grade: A+
That was all good stuff. I don’t know if Rubio got a new advisor or just decided this was the time to put it all out there.
Robot Rubio? Gone. He was replaced by feisty Rubio. That’s a big deal, and well-executed.
Trump had his worst debate in terms of how much time was spent on topics that are bad for Trump. In the past, Trump’s magic involved making the public focus on the weaknesses of his opponents. Rubio flipped that around with his flurry of quotable attacks.
Now for Trump.
Trump tested a new Linguistic Kill Shot for Rubio, calling him a “choke artist” for freezing up on stage at the last debate. As always, Trump’s engineered kill shots have the following qualities:
1. The insult is a type you haven’t heard before in politics. I call it a fresh field insult. That allows Trump to imbue it with his own meaning. The words “choke artist” do not remind you of anyone else in politics.
2. Adding “artist” to choke makes you think past the sale. The sale is whether Rubio is a choker. Your brain accepts that truth in order to process whether or not Rubio is an artist at choking or just a regular choker. (I’ll bet you missed that.)
3. It took about ten seconds for Twitter users to realize that “choke artist” reminded them of a sexual act that sometimes happens after the foam party at the gay nightclub. And let’s say the “artist” in this case is not the one standing upright.
In the interest of context, you need to know that bad people on the Internet have been trying to get the Rubio-is-gay rumor going for months. I’ve avoided that topic until now because you can’t write about it without becoming part of it. For the record, I doubt Rubio is gay, but maybe he experimented with some Koch contributions in college. Personally, I think having another gay president would be kinda cool. Lincoln did okay. But the gay rumor about Rubio might have an impact on Republican voters who are not aware of how much their beloved Abe Lincoln loved logs.
4. Deniability. Trump didn’t say Rubio is gay. All he said is that Rubio got sweaty and froze up during a debate. Any other interpretation is your own. As far as you know.
Now let’s compare Rubio’s and Trump’s linguistic kill shots.
Rubio went after Trump’s strength, which in this case is Trump’s reputation as a skilled business operator. That was good strategy and he did it well.
Trump, however, went after Rubio’s weaknesses, by mentioning his choking under pressure. Trump’s Linguistic Kill Shot – as always – matches the physicality of his opponent, not exclusively his behavior. (Rubio attacked only Trump’s behavior.)
Trump also alerted the press and the public to be looking for any examples of future Rubio choking. Now that we are looking for it, we are likely to find it even in places it does not exist. If Rubio makes even the smallest speaking miscue – as all people do – we are primed see it as choking. Advantage: Trump.
In summary, Trump’s Linguistic Kill Shot has weapons-grade engineering (as usual) whereas Rubio’s attacks were a festival of A-B testing. Rubio threw everything at Trump and waited to see what would stick. Phase 2 will be hitting the sticky stuff hard.
You can’t compare Rubio’s A-B testing to Trump’s finished Linguistic Kill Shot. That’s apples and oranges. But Rubio did set himself up to get stronger once he knows what works best.
Most observers, including me, believe Rubio’s good night was a case of too little and too late. I think that’s probably right. But the one thing we know for sure is that Rubio will not be Trump’s VP choice. That option died last night.