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Donald Trump Stole Chris Christie’s Brand

There's only room for one loud, obnoxious jerk in the Republican primary

Paul J. Richards/Alex Wong/Getty Images

Chris Christie, the Republican Party's latest presidential candidate, is selling himself as the big bold brand who’s not afraid to say what he really thinks. But how can the New Jersey governor run on this real-talk-from-a-loud-jerk platform when Donald Trump has already been performing a wonderful sendup of it for weeks? The parody is supposed to follow the real thing, not preempt it.

"I get accused a lot of times of being too blunt and too direct and saying what’s on my mind just a little too loudly,” Christie says in a video previewing Tuesday's campaign launch. His rival can relate. Donald Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly earlier this month, “I won't be the nicest. I'm just going to be honest. I'm not going to slash and burn. I'm going to be honest.” Christie’s video, released Sunday, is titled “Telling It Like It Is.” Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network in May, “I tell it like it is and people have to hear it.” When NBC dumped him Monday for his comments about immigration, Trump said, "they will stand behind lying Brian Williams, but won’t stand behind people that tell it like it is, as unpleasant as that may be."

Sure, Christie yells at reporters, occasionally calling them "stupid" or "idiot" or "ignoramus"—but Trump actually prints out reporters’ articles, writes insulting things on them, and then mails them back to newsrooms. It might be refreshing to hear Christie call his opponents clever insults like “numbnuts,” but I actually prefer Trump's fresher, more nuanced, and less phallocentric phrase "haters and losers." For the moment, voters agree: nationally, Trump is polling just ahead of Christie in Real Clear Politics polling averages. In New Hampshire, Trump is in third place to Christie's sixth.

This is the problem when style is your substance. An actual television star can swoop in and do your bit better than you can. Donald Trump has proven that it's not that hard to express conventional conservative positions with more sass and call it bold fresh thinking. Last September, Christie said Vladimir Putin wasn’t afraid of President Barack Obama, but, “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment… Let’s leave it at that.” In his O’Reilly interview, Trump suggested he, too, would be able to bend the Russian president to his will by the force of his personality. “Putin has no respect for our president whatsoever. … We have a president who is absolutely, you look at him—the chemistry is so bad between those two people," Trump said. "I would be willing to bet I would have a great relationship with Putin. It's about leadership.”

I've argued that, despite the possibly fake nature of his campaign, Trump is actually a wonderful addition to the presidential race, because his every word is genius parody of what passes for serious political debate. Christie's candidacy only makes that more obvious: Stephen Colbert is to Bill O'Reilly as Trump is to Christie. Christie is a northeastern blowhard convinced of his own macho toughness despite going to extreme lengths for the sake of his vanity, and Trump is that with more orange hair. In his campaign launch speech, Trump mimicked politicians who ground their political positions in some heartwarming tale of family struggle by claiming to have humble origins as a real estate heir in New York's outer boroughs before making it to the "big leagues" in Manhattan. The conversation, per Trump's recollection, went like this: "Dad, I gotta go into Manhattan. I gotta build those buildings. I’ve got to do it, Dad, I’ve got to do it." Likewise, in his campaign video, Christie says he's blunt because his Sicilian mother taught him to be, and that on her death bed she said there were no words left unspoken between them. It is a touching story. One that Christie is rather crassly exploiting to justify screaming at people who dare question him at town halls. 

Anyone who's labored in a toxic work environment knows the quickest way to build team spirit is to create a common enemy. There is evidence this works really well in politics, too. Political scientists from Emory University have found that people are increasingly basing their voting identities not on love for their own party but hatred for the other one. People are more likely to vote if they strongly dislike the opposing party, Pew Research Center data shows. And when he ran for governor in 2009, just as the Tea Party backlash to Obama was congealing, Christie fit perfectly into the politics of rage and loathing. He dared his opponent to "Man up and say I'm fat." Glenn Beck loved Christie. On his radio show in May 2010, Beck asked his producers to dim the lights and put on Barry White, because he was going to play some smokin' hot Chris Christie clips. "I used to say, like, 'conservative porn,'" Beck said. "I just think this is all, like, America porn. I don’t think this is conservative, this is common sense porn.” Common sense porn meant yelling at reporters. The erotic audio was Christie responding to a reporter who asked if he was too confrontational. Christie said, "You must be the thinnest skinned guy in America. If you think that’s a confrontational tone, you should really see me when I'm pissed." Beck confessed, "I want a little Chris Christie porn, common sense porn, everyday."

"Chris Christie porn" was a recurring subject on Beck's show for a while, until Christie's great Obama hug heresy. Now Beck calls him "a fat nightmare." (In fairness, Beck doesn't like Trump either: "Donald Trump coming in and doing this to the Republicans is going to make all of us look ridiculous.") 

Trump is already winning the approval of bored moderate pundits who demand candor (conflict) and who would have fueled Christie's candidacy. "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough said of Trump this month, "If he's on the debate stage and he turns to Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush and hits them with something, not mean spirited, but searing and truthful that nobody else in polite political society would say, it can shape a race." With Donald Trump and Chris Christie standing side-by-side on the debate stage, it will be hard to tell which one is the tough-talking serious contender and which one is the joke. Never forget: A candidate for president of the United States once made a blow job joke on stage at a large official campaign rally—and it wasn’t Donald Trump.