Trumpism arrives at Liberty University on January 18, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the first convocation of the New Year to the student body. The GOP frontrunner's main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, used the same forum last year to formally enter the Republican contest.
The students need to be prepared. Why? Trump's appearance will underscore the reason he could be the Republicans' next Richard Nixon.
In 1967, Democrats were certain Richard Nixon would not win the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. But sure-loser Nixon did both by building a coalition he called the "silent majority."
For eight years, a Democratic president reigned as the nation underwent the greatest changes to its electorate since the Civil War. Voters grew unhappy with a war strategy deemed hesitant and hopelessly unable to defeat our North Vietnamese enemy.
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Nixon's campaign proved long on exploiting doubts, short on solutions. But voters were hungry for change.
A half-century later, Trump is reprising Nixon's strategy. The MO is simple: Trump fires off a vague charge and hopes others will follow up by putting political red meat on the bones. In this way, he doesn't have to actually take a definitive stand. If the charge falls politically flat, he simply makes another one. And another one.
When Cruz began rising in the polls, Trump hinted at the need to question the Texan's professed religious beliefs. According to Trump, Cruz's Cuban ancestry was inconsistent with being a true evangelical Christian. What did one have to do with the other? Nothing. But Christian evangelicals are a key voting bloc in Iowa.
The charge didn't stick. He next called Cruz a "maniac," perhaps to raise doubts about the Texan's mental state, or at least to question why the Cruz seemed unwilling to compromise. That charged failed.
With Cruz now ahead in most Iowa polls, Trump needs a more powerful, a more Nixonian, ploy.
He found it. Trump is now raising doubts about whether Cruz is eligible to serve as president. Channeling his best Nixon, Trump says he is only raising this issue to save the GOP from disaster. He likes Cruz personally. But Trump, calling himself an expert in litigation, says nominating Cruz will lead to endless Democratic lawsuits. The legal wrangling would guarantee Democrat Hillary Clinton's election.
Do Republicans, says Trump, want that on their conscience?
Cruz was born to an American mother, a U.S. citizen by birth, temporarily living in Canada with her non-American husband. The U.S. Constitution restricts the presidency to a "natural born" citizen. Thus, Trump seems to have a logical point. Isn't Cruz a naturally born Canadian?
But Trump knows the constitutional term "natural born" means a citizen at birth. In most cases, children born to an American mother temporarily in a foreign country have long been considered citizens and treated accordingly.
What supporting legal theory does Trump cite? It's called constitutional originalism, a controversial branch dangling from the legal tree.
An originalist says the Constitution must be interpreted as embodying only the law at the time of its conception: no exceptions. That leaves either the then-existing Law of the Soil or the Law of the Blood to decide the Cruz citizenship issue.
Under the former, you are a natural-born citizen of the country in control of your place -- the soil -- of birth. Canada isn't ours.
As for the law of the blood back then, the mother didn't count. A child's citizenship flowed naturally from the father. Cruz's dad didn't have American citizenship.
Trump cites Harvard constitutional scholar Larry Tribe -- one of Cruz's old law professors -- as saying originalism is a recognized point of view.
But Trump fails to add that Tribe mocks originalism and that he says Cruz is eligible to be president, although pointing out the Supreme Court has never issued a definitive opinion.
But the billionaire is being clever like a Nixon. Cruz has often called himself a constitutional originalist to defend opposition to Obama administration policies. How can the Texan say Trump is being unfair in pointing out the originalist's point of view here?
When asked, Trump doesn't say whether he believes Cruz is eligible. For the students of Liberty University, Trump's visit, then, isn't just a media event. He's a history lesson best understood by brushing up on Nixon, once a favorite president of the school's founder.
Norman Leahy is an editor of bearingdrift.com and producer of the Score radio show. Paul Goldman is a former senior adviser to governors Doug Wilder and Mark Warner.