by Felix Veritas
I’m officially declaring that Donald Trump is the GOP’s Bobby Knight. At least for 20-25% of the GOP.
Case in point: in his first 10 years as Indiana University’s basketball coach, Bob Knight was (among other indiscretions) arrested in Puerto Rico for striking a police officer, fired a starter’s pistol (blanks) at a sports writer, and got into a shoving match with an opposing fan during the 1981 Final Four.
He also won six Big Ten and two NCAA titles during the same period. His players’ graduation rate also exceeded the regular IU student population’s graduation rate, and he never ran into NCAA trouble in a sport known for shady operations. His success and coaching skill were undeniable, and his program-building skills were quite laudable.
To IU fans, his glowing positives outweighed his glaring negatives.
They embraced Knight and echoed the refrain “That’s just Bobby” every time he flung a chair across the court, received an NCAA fine for rude behavior, or made an awkward comment like “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it” — as he did in a 1988 interview with Connie Chung. Knight still won games, and players (who didn’t transfer out) usually graduated. Still a net positive. In fact, the more the media and those outside IU attacked Knight, the stronger Hoosier fans supported him.
It became an emotional, personal attachment for Indiana basketball fans. External opinions and piling bad PR didn’t matter.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the GOP presidential campaign. Trump’s personality and his supporters’ devotion is amazingly similar to Knight’s relationship with Hoosier fans. An unquestioned business success, Trump’s verbal gaffes (McCain comment, Megyn Kelly dustup) didn’t hurt his poll numbers; in fact the numbers continue climbing. Ask a Trumpian about The Donald’s less-than-genteel comments, and you’ll likely get “I wouldn’t say that, but that’s just Trump.”
He’s still a net positive in their eyes. In fact, the boorishness almost becomes part of the attraction. Knight lit up more than one reporter he felt stepped across the Proper Question Line, and you see the same thing with Trump. Except Trump’s legions go further. They encourage the verbal smackdowns while Hoosier fans shrugged and accepted Knight’s; and any subsequent criticism only tightens Trump supporters’ embrace of their candidate. It’s an amazing comparison.
The real question is, will Trump keep pushing the envelope until it falls off the table, as it eventually did for Knight at Indiana? Certainly Trump’s past policy positions conflict with the GOP base, but the inconsistency may not matter if Trump’s opponents continue trying full-frontal attacks.
Much like with Knight, direct assaults on Trump fail like spears off a castle wall. Trump’s demise — if there is one — will have to be his own creation.
As with any strong emotional connection, the holder (IU fan/Trump voter) must voluntarily open their hand. The more someone tries ripping the object of desire away, the tighter their grasp clings to it. Same with Trump.
Attack him, and his supporters come to his rescue because the attachment is more emotional than logical. To be fair, the genesis certainly was Trump’s strong illegal-immigration policy position, but his uncompromising tone and unapologetic defense created the “He ours, and we protect our own” allegiance. Most of us have similar situations in our own lives and can relate, whether its a wayward family member, friend or even political party.
Those in the “Anti-Trump” camp must allow voters to voluntarily change their minds. Otherwise they likely won’t. At least that’s what Knight’s history teaches us. How that strategy manifests itself is up to smarter minds than mine, but should be fun to watch the next six months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
NOTE: This is the next installment in our series of contributions by a mysterious denizen of Mobile, Alabama, named “Felix Veritas.” I promise that I am not Felix and Felix is not I. In fact, there will surely be times when I disagree with Felix. In this case, I agree with much of Felix’s diagnosis and his comparison of Trump to Knight. But to be clear, Bobby Knight did actually possess the virtues attributed to him, amidst all his other flaws. Trump’s virtues, however — as far I as can tell, after studying his history — are entirely illusory.
Anyway, Felix is very thoughtful and a terrific auto-didact, with a great sense for “the big questions” of culture and politics. I am delighted to have his contributions to this site. Please be on the lookout for more, in the coming months. — Quin