Rubin: Geoffrey Fieger, Michigan’s Trump, on the Donald

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Lawyer and ex-candidate Geoffrey Fieger takes questions outside the federal courthouse in Detroit.

The closest thing to Donald Trump in Michigan politics is also the furthest thing from him.

Lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1998, said he could get Trump elected president — but he won’t, for a list of reasons that includes terms like “shallow” and “severe personality defect.”

Like Trump, who will speak today at the Detroit Economic Club, Fieger had never run for office before he blew past all the predictable candidates and won the nomination.

Like Trump, he was a recognizable figure with a core of devoted followers, but an unfavorability rating measured at more than 60 percent.

Like Trump, he blithely insulted his opponents and the party insiders he needed as allies — though unlike Trump, he did it in complete, articulate sentences.

“I like the fact that Trump is outside of government,” said Fieger, who became nationally known in the 1990s for repeatedly and successfully defending Jack Kevorkian. “I like the fact that Trump is beholden to no one.”

The only problem is everything else.

“I could have advised him early on,” said Fieger, 65, from his office complex in Southfield. “But the first thing he’d have to learn is ‘Shut your mouth and do exactly what I tell you to do’ — which he wouldn’t.”

Fieger as mentor

As campaign coach, Fieger said, he would put Trump through enough courses in governmental processes and foreign relations “to pass the Sarah Palin test.”

Then he’d work on comportment and appearing presidential.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to be deferential,” Fieger said. “Some way, somehow, somewhere, you have to appear vulnerable. And he hates to appear vulnerable.”

For his part, Fieger was not exactly Woody Allen as he campaigned against two-term incumbent John Engler.

“He’s a bully, just like Mike Tyson, picking on people smaller than himself,” he said at one point. “The only difference is that Engler is stupider than Tyson.”

Later, he called Engler “a slobbering, pork-driven man with his head down in the suet” — entertaining to Fieger’s supporters, but strategically uncertain, since the insults gave Engler a reason not to debate.

Fieger said he had to bark to draw attention to a campaign that was ignored by Democratic leaders, who apparently didn’t like being called “wimps and oatmeal.”

But even when he crossed the line, he said, he at least knew there was one. A theater major, he was used to performing for juries and reading his audience.

With Trump, “you start with narcissism and go from there.”

Fieger had been engrossed last week in a scathing column by the right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks, who called Trump “psychologically off the chain.”

“So many of our daily social interactions depend on a basic capacity for empathy,” Brooks wrote, and to his mind, Trump doesn’t have it.

Ahead of his time?

Fieger, in contrast, has made a career — albeit lucrative — out of siding with underdogs.

Former Michigan governor John Engler speaks to the Detroit Economic Club in 2008.

He was one himself against Engler, and he wound up losing by a 62 to 38 percent margin.

As someone who had accused the governor of excessive quaffing from the public tap, he feels vindicated by the last dozen years: while Fieger lives here and was just back from arguing a case in Bay City, Engler bolted the state to become a lobbyist.

“The Republican structure has treated Trump much better than the Democratic structure treated me,” Fieger said. “Had they given me even a modicum of support, I could have been far more successful.”

Fifty-one percent was still probably out of the question against an incumbent who’d never lost an election, surfing the wave of a good economy.

But maybe Fieger was just ahead of his time. Trump has been more contentious than any candidate in memory, and he’ll either wind up with the White House or another high-income reality show.

“Had I known that’s what it takes, I might have run for president this year,” Fieger said. “I could exploit everything Donald Trump did, and do it better.”

More insults. More unnecessary skirmishes. And, one obvious advantage:

“I have way better hair.”