To Donald Trump’s supporters, the real estate mogul-turned-presidential candidate is a refreshing reprieve from politics-as-usual, a man who shuns political correctness and the status quo.
To Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican political consultant who has spent the past few months waging war on Trump’s candidacy, The Donald is something else entirely. In Wilson’s words, Trump is a “cancer,” an “epic douche canoe,” a “statist” with “a little delicious hint of fascism in the mix” whose presidential nomination will spell apocalypse for the Republican Party.
And that’s just the printable stuff.
The rise of Trump has many in the Republican establishment screaming that his nomination would spell disaster for the party in 2016. Perhaps the loudest screamer is Wilson. Since Trump took the lead in the Republican presidential primary, Wilson has embarked on a personal and professional crusade to convince conservatives that Trump is not one of them.
“He’s an existential risk, not only to the conservative movement, but to the Republican Party,” Wilson told CNN. “We have reached a point now where we could abandon or lose limited-government conservatives for a generation if we replace it for this statist nationalism and Trumpism as a doctrine for our party.”
His persistent antagonism has made Wilson one of the most vocal anti-Trumpers within the party. But to Trump’s supporters who have encountered him, he represents everything that’s wrong with the party’s establishment wing.
They view him as a typical political operative who’s merely doing the bidding of well-connected Republicans like Jeb Bush. (Wilson has not taken a presidential candidate on as a client this cycle, but he has informal ties to Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s networks as a veteran operative in the state.)
Wilson, however, lives nowhere near the fever swamps of Washington. Instead, he is about 900 miles south, among the actual swamps of North Florida. Nestled on a green pasture surrounded by marshland filled with alligators and snakes, Wilson resides and works from his home—which doubles as a political war room– with his family, three dogs, a cat and a small arsenal of carefully stored recreational weaponry.
Between conference calls with political campaigns, interviews with reporters and, more recently, bouts of digital strength with Trump supports, Wilson regularly shoots skeet in his backyard with his shotguns or coyotes with his hand-built AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. When he needs to travel for work, he flies his own small plane from a nearby airfield.
Wilson got his start in politics in the 1980s as a field director for George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. It was there he received a political education from the campaign operation run by the infamous Lee Atwater, a vicious political tactician—many remember him as a notorious dirty trickster—who changed the face of modern politics. Atwater was responsible for the controversial “Willie Horton” ad against Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis.
There are hints of Atwater in Wilson’s work. Over the past three decades, he’s worked as a GOP ad man. Some of his greatest hits: In 1997, he made an ad for Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaign that revolved around sex shops. In 2002, he crafted an ad against former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland that included images of Osama bin Laden to suggest he was undermining the war on terror. And when then-Sen. Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, Wilson organized a television campaign about his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
“I love a good negative ad. I’m never going to shy from them,” Wilson told CNN. “I don’t take any of the, ‘Oh, you’re so negative’ stuff to heart. Yeah, you bet. It’s still a tool that works.”
With Trump on the rise, he wants to see more Republicans using such tactics against the Republican front-runner—and sooner rather than later.
“There’s an awful lot of interest now in making certain that Donald Trump doesn’t lead to the inevitable election of either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden by a number of interested conservative outside parties,” Wilson said. “This has to be like shark attacks. Nip. Nip. Blood. Nip. Blood. Blood. Blood. A feeding frenzy.”
He declined to provide specifics about plans from other presidential candidates to go after Trump, but said they were coming. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has already started releasing videos targeting Trump online, a possible preview for what is to come. Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
Wilson’s outspoken—and at times indecent —rhetoric aimed toward Trump and his ilk has made him a prime target for the campaign’s defenders, particularly with writers and editors of Breitbart.com, a conservative news site.
Breitbart’s writers pounced particularly hard when Wilson referred to Trump supporters as “low information voters.”
“Rick Wilson has openly and publicly trashed Donald Trump’s supporters. He makes his living as a Republican strategist, but what kind of a strategy is it to call upwards of 25% of Republicans ‘low information voters’ and nativists?” Breitbart News editor-in-chief Alex Marlow told CNN. “He knows that if Trump is not the GOP nominee and even a fraction of his supporters stay home on general election day, the Democrats will keep the White House, yet he alienates them anyway.”
He also found himself in hot water with parts of the conservative base when he made a vulgar remark on Twitter implying that Trump pays for sex with conservative writer Ann Coulter. Wilson told CNN that he sometimes goes too far, but declined to say more about it. Coulter did not return a request for comment.
But it hasn’t stopped him from pushing the envelope in his quest to keep Trump from becoming the GOP presidential nominee.
“Donald Trump is basically conning conservatives. I underestimated how powerfully they want to be conned by this guy,” Wilson said. “They want to be told they’re still going to be loved and respected in the morning. They want the big alpha male to sweep them off their feet and treat them roughly. They want that out of this guy.”
For more, watch the video above from Wilson’s home in Tallahassee.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the origin of the “Willie Horton” ad. It was sponsored by an independent group, the National Security PAC.