Trump’s Long Game

Donald Trump with a poster advertising his book, Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life, New York City, October 16, 2007
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump and a poster advertising his book, Think Big and Kick Ass, New York City, October 16, 2007

Ever since he entered the presidential race, Donald Trump has been upsetting assumptions. And now the overarching question is whether his approach to landing the nomination will work as well for him in the general election. There’s little point in studying the maps of past electoral college results, in particular that of Obama in 2012, and trying to project from there—an exercise that suggests a likely victory for Hillary Clinton. For one thing, this isn’t 2012 and, quite obviously, Donald Trump isn’t Mitt Romney. (Nor is Hillary Clinton Barack Obama.) Trump’s remarkable triumph in all but officially winning the Republican nomination stems largely from the fact that he has refused to play by the traditional rules. He did it his way, and in doing so mowed down sixteen Republican opponents.

Consideration of the long arc of Trump’s thinking makes it less surprising that the reality television star and wealthy businessman is a nominee for the presidency. The same characteristics that have made Trump a celebrity—the outsized personality, the ability to read and play to the public’s mood—made him a successful candidate for the nomination. On his long-running television show, The Apprentice, the hero was a decisive man (“You’re fired!”) who brooked no nonsense. Millions of people believe those traits could produce an effective president.  

Trump understands the importance of size (“Little Marco”), and his own build—6 feet, 3 inches and bulky—causes him to come across as an imposing figure. (It’s long been said that tall men are the most successful in presidential politics, and while there have been exceptions—Harry Truman, for one, but he started out by inheriting the job—that may not be a myth.) Trump was larger than the other Republican candidates in various ways: he was shrewder, funnier, and more unpredictable. The magnitude of his outrageousness has been a draw: the public waits with some frisson to see what he’ll do next.

In a way, Trump’s fearless: he’s taken chances others wouldn’t have dared to—and several that weren’t to his credit. Observers have already noted that one of the Clinton campaign’s greatest challenges will be that it’s never clear what Trump will spring, and when: he doesn’t telegraph his punches, nor does he warm up. He goes all in; there’s nothing hesitant or nuanced or predictable about him.

But there’s something else, something more elusive, that suggests Trump could be a formidable candidate in the general election. On the night of the Indiana primary on May 3, in which Trump clobbered Ted Cruz 53-37, with John Kasich winning 7.5 percent of the vote, Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, not a Trump man, observed that the challenge for Clinton is whether she can meet Trump’s populist appeal and show empathy, “that sense of being a part of the everyman and woman.” This came naturally to her husband when he ran in the 1992 election, but it doesn’t to her. And then Steele got to another aspect of Trump’s appeal: “that intangible side of him—his personality, his mannerisms, his message that resonates with voters day in and day out.” This side of Trump, Steele said, is “what’s going to make this a very competitive race.”

Because Trump upsets assumptions and makes his own rules, because of those intangibles, he defies conventional political analysis. The thing is, Trump’s a lot smarter than he pretends to be when he identifies with your average Joe who’s been out of work or underpaid or sick of immigrants or simply pissed off at having to be “politically correct.” The rejection of PC has been one of Trump’s cannier moves: it liberates his audience but it also liberates him. That same average Joe (who puts the actual Joe the Plumber, of fleeting fame in 2008, in the shade as a campaign symbol) doesn’t want to have to compete with minorities or immigrants, and he doesn’t want to have to be polite about it. The shocking claim in Trump’s announcement speech last June that Mexico “sends us” rapists and murderers was in fact a considered and critical element of the campaign he was about to wage.

Trump’s anti-immigration talk, coupled with the fantastical wall with Mexico that he apparently has millions believing he’ll build, with Mexico paying for it, are examples of how adept he’s been at sussing out the grievances of his core constituency. Like Bernie Sanders, he understands that trade agreements have destroyed jobs and caused considerable anger. Like several Republican candidates before him, he’s played not entirely subtly to racial hatred. Trump’s pre-candidacy “birther” obsession—his tall tales about “investigators” he’d sent to Hawaii to dig up the real story of Barack Obama’s birthplace and the “absolutely unbelievable” material they’d turned up (but he never revealed)—was about race. Trump plays a plutocratic Archie Bunker.

What the great majority of people didn’t understand when Trump rode down that escalator and announced he was running, and in the early weeks of his candidacy, when some dismissed him as “a buffoon,” is how long-sighted he is. New York has a number of very wealthy builders, but none of the others are celebrities. In fact, it was when his business was stumbling in the first part of the early 1990s that Trump switched his focus from building to making himself a brand and selling that. People in numerous states have been excited by the spectacle of his plane (with gold seat buckles), his name emblazoned on the fuselage, whooshing in for a landing. Whatever degree of narcissism lies behind it, Trump’s pasting his name on everything he can get his hands on has had a long-term political as well as economic purpose. Trump is the first brand to run for president.

As long ago as 2000, in an interview with Bob Guccione Jr., Trump applauded the fact that figures from celebrity culture—athletes, movie stars, and businessmen—are considered for public office.  He attacked “the hypocrites [who] argue that a man who loves and appreciates beautiful women…shouldn’t become a national leader.” He said then that he believed that a citizen politician “is smart enough and gifted enough to lead this great country,” and he concluded, “If things go well, I’ll have a chance to demonstrate that fact.”

Trump has also been successful at branding his opponents. He knows how to do that: pick a perceived weakness, give it a name, and repeat, repeat, repeat, ad infinitum. Toward the end of the primaries he had his audiences cheerfully chanting “Lyin’ Ted,” and soon enough they’ll be saying “Crooked Hillary.” (Trump toyed with “Incompetent Hillary” for a while, but then alighted on the sharper and more damaging appellation.) To my knowledge, no previous presidential candidate has done this.

The slogan of the Trump campaign, “Make America Great Again,” was born of the mind of a great salesman; he affixed it not to baseball hats but to truckers’ caps. Can anyone say what Hillary Clinton’s slogan is? Clinton sees the complexities of the world; hers isn’t a bumper-sticker mind. Trump is a master simplifier, which is very useful in politics. (JFK, who also understood complexities, ran in 1960 on “Get This Country Moving Again.”) Trump’s message is more sophisticated than it appears: it gets at the sense of his followers that America has slid—economically, militarily. He says, “We can’t defeat ISIS;” he asserts that other countries “don’t respect us.” Many Republicans paint Obama as both power mad and a wimp.

The admitted formerly licentious figure presents himself as a settled family man and his closeness to his children can’t be faked. Trump neither drinks nor smokes and doesn’t do drugs, and he brought up his kids not to do these things, either. He’s oddly prissy—he just had to talk about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a debate but he found the concept “horrible”—a word he also uses frequently, pronouncing it “harroble.” Trump’s a noted germaphobe.

Then there’s his handling of religion. Early on Trump cultivated Jerry Falwell Jr., and spoke at Liberty University: “Two Corinthians, 3:17. That’s the whole ballgame.” For a while he brandished the family Bible. The populace Trump appealed to had heard the warnings of Falwell and Fox News that Christianity was under attack. And thus Trump repeated on the night of his victory in Indiana—a state with a substantial Evangelical community—what he’d said earlier in the campaign: “We’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”  Liberals may wonder, Why is he saying a silly thing like that? But Trump understands that many of his would-be followers have been drilled with the thought that Christmas is truly in danger: after all, there have been all those court battles about whether a crèche can be displayed on government property.

During the nominating contests Trump’s most unnatural state was when he tried to look “presidential”—as in his foreign policy address at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on April 27. It was if he was wearing an ill-fitting suit. Trump complains about his treatment by the media, but in addition to giving him huge amounts of free air time during the nominating contest (for ratings), it’s often played into his hands—as it did in this case. (At least as much attention was paid to the fact that Trump for the first time used a teleprompter—not particularly well, but he may learn.) The foreign policy speech was, like most of its genre, a campaign document, though it was also aimed at the foreign policy elite. (The Russian ambassador was in the front row; Trump and Vladimir Putin have been flirting.) It’s not clear whether Trump was aware of the implication of his America First theme—its Lindbergian, isolationist, anti-Semitic heritage.

The speech received praise from conservatives and political journalists afterward for including in his speech a demand that allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany pay for their own defense rather than rely on US help—a sure applause winner. This was seen as smart politics. In fact, all of these countries contribute heavily to the maintenance of US troops or, in the case of Japan, a fleet and a naval base. Trump pulled off the political feat of leaving his listeners convinced that he would substantially build up our military capacity but be loath to use it.

Hardly anyone noticed that Trump continued to play on anti-Muslim feeling, blaming our “senseless” immigration policies for the alleged influx into the country of a large number of practitioners of “radical Islam.” He dropped some of his wilder, more noxious earlier proposals: the temporary ban on Muslims entering the US; that South Korea and Japan should have nuclear bombs; or that illegal torture methods “beyond” even waterboarding should be reinstituted. In an interview with Lester Holt, of NBC, on the day after he’d become the “presumptive nominee,” Trump resurrected the ban on Muslims—which has been supported by 60 percent of Republicans in every every state measured on the matter–and the idea of deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants. One myth Trump has been perpetuating with virtually no press pushback is that he opposed the Iraq war. He criticized it when things didn’t go so well, but there exist several recorded statements of him favoring the invasion of Iraq at the time.

Following the awkwardly formal foreign policy speech, Trump quickly returned to type. In fact, he publicly bristled at quotes that leaked out of a meeting of his new big-time political adviser Paul Manafort with the Republican National Committee in which, revealing the breathtaking cynicism of the Trump campaign, Manafort said that Trump’s seemingly unrestrained behavior at rallies simply meant that he’d been playing “a part,” that the private Trump had a different personality. Manafort said, “The negatives are going to come down, the image is going to change”—though he added, “but Clinton is still going to be Crooked Hillary.” While there’s some truth to what Manafort said, Trump couldn’t allow himself to be understood to be pulling a hoax on his followers or being manipulated by campaign aides. The loudmouth routine had, after all, been the foundation of his success.

But then, on the night of the Indiana primary, the Trump on display in his unscripted speech at Trump Tower was calm and gracious—evidence that his Archie Bunker persona was indeed an act. He was especially conciliatory to Cruz, whose unexpected withdrawal from the race a little earlier all but officially sealed Trump’s nomination. He praised Cruz as “one tough competitor,” and “a smart, tough guy.” Lyin’ Ted had been retired as no longer useful. Trump may not be a professional politician but he’s accustomed to rough negotiations followed by the warm handshake when the deal’s been done. He has some sorting out to do in the general election, now actually underway: Will he play the gracious competitor or the rough and profane contender? Or can he pull off the feat of being both? I wouldn’t rule that out. In the Indiana speech, Trump segued from the diplomatic, positive figure to one who hit Clinton hard: “She will not be a good president. She will be a poor president. She doesn’t understand trade.”

No one doubts that Clinton is in for rough treatment from Trump on everything from Bill Clinton’s sexual wanderings (and Hillary’s being the “enabler”) to her using her own private email server during her years as secretary of state. Clinton doesn’t have to be indicted—which most expert observers don’t think will happen because the prosecutor would have to prove her “intent” to violate the law—for Trump to go all out on the subject. It’s likely that the server issue damaged Clinton during the nomination contest and is part of what led to increasing numbers of poll respondents, even Democrats, saying they found her “untrustworthy.”

Trump could also shake up assumptions about the general election in a different way: he could refashion the electoral map. On the night of the Indiana primary, Politico published a story about the Clinton campaign’s long, careful planning in the traditional “swing states”—Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada. But reports have it that Trump will seek to overturn recent Democratic advantages in industrial states such as Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012. These  states have suffered economically; so Trump will pitch his appeal to working-class voters. Trump’s campaign is reported to have been slow to set up infrastructure in electorally important states, which could matter more in the national race than it did in the primaries and caucuses.

The supposedly formidable governors and senators who ran against him for the nomination weren’t very strong candidates. Ted Cruz was by far the best organized of Trump’s opponents, and his technical campaign received considerable praise from political observers. But the “ground game” run by Cruz’s campaign manager turned out to be more effective than the candidate, who appealed only to the party’s most conservative wing. Moreover, Cruz was grim and pompous: he didn’t speak, he declaimed, with dramatic pauses between phrases. Cruz’s was the rhetoric of fire and brimstone while Trump entertained. Cruz may have campaigned as Savonarola but when he picked Carly Fiorina, probably the next most disliked candidate, as his “running mate” he became a comic figure.

While Trump likes to say he’s not a politician, and wears that as a badge, on the day of the Indiana primary he showed he can be as pliable as the best of them. What began as a day out of Götterdämmerung—with Trump pointing to a National Enquirer story alleging that Cruz’s father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald and Cruz calling Trump a “pathological liar” and mentioning Trump’s own earlier admission of a struggle against venereal disease (“my personal Vietnam”)—ended in Cruz’s quitting the race and Trump’s victory speech praising him. Cruz’s withdrawal left Kasich, who’d managed to win only his home state of Ohio, with no choice but to pull out as well. Kasich had entertained dreams of being the convention’s choice and had the qualifications to be a serious contender, but he disappointed as a candidate—he lacked the commanding presence that people expect in a president. The party’s establishment, including the donors, didn’t think he could beat Trump.

Note has to be taken of Bernie Sanders’s victory against Clinton in Indiana, which had been indicated if not widely predicted. This made for a bad day for Clinton, who was campaigning in Ohio and made no election-night statement. Instead, John Podesta, her campaign chairman, issued a statement saying, “While Donald Trump seeks to bully and divide Americans, Hillary Clinton will unite us to create an economy that works for everyone.” Not exactly pithy. 

Clinton’s headache now is that while she wants to focus on beating Trump, Sanders refuses to leave the race even though it’s impossible mathematically for him to overtake her with regular delegates. (Clinton stayed in to the end in 2008, but Sanders is in a weaker position than she was then.) He’s now rationalizing remaining in the race on the grounds that there will be a “contested convention.” Sanders gets to this unusual idea by asserting that superdelegates, the vast majority of whom are pledged to Clinton, will change their minds because of his numerous victories. In the passion of the moment, he may even think that’s likely. Though Sanders has already pulled Clinton in his direction, he wants the party platform to include proposals she cannot accept—such as universal health care to replace Obamacare. Clinton could be facing a difficult convention.

So could Trump. On the night of the Indiana primary, the Republican National Committee raised the white flag but the agony within the party came quickly into view. While some Republicans have come around to supporting him—or at least not continuing to be publicly critical—others, in particular senators up for reelection, have engaged in contortions, a couple of them saying they’ll support him but not endorse him. Some prominent Republicans, including the two presidents Bush, have chosen to remain silent. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has deep policy differences with Trump and whose troops could be endangered by his being at the top of the ticket, said he’s “not ready” to endorse Trump. Several potential vice presidential choices headed for the hills. The super-lawyer and longtime Republican adviser Ben Ginsberg warned on MSNBC the night of the Indiana primary that there are still a number of “traps” for Trump at the convention. A lot will ride on how he handles Cruz, who when he quit the race engaged in the oratory of the cause candidate: he spoke about his campaign as a “movement”—the parallel to Bernie Sanders was noticeable—“We are suspending our campaign but I am not suspending our fight for liberty.” The next day, in response to a question, Trump dropped a hint that Cruz could be in the mix as his running mate. This was the prudent reply.  

Even if Cruz is subdued at the convention that doesn’t mean that the party’s base—the conservative delegates who’ve been attending conventions for a long time—will be. Ginsberg has pointed out that only about a quarter of the delegates are actually chosen by the candidates, meaning that the base can be a force unto itself, irrespective of what happened in the primaries. Trump is definitely not of their world and some of his beliefs are heresy to them: his proclaimed opposition to existing trade agreements, his stated leeriness of deploying the military, his position that entitlements shouldn’t be cut, and the fact that he’s of a moderate temperament on social issues. (Consider Trump’s pragmatic response to the issue suddenly roiling among conservatives of which bathrooms transgender people may use: Is there a problem?)  

Without question, the new challenge for Trump is more awesome than what he faced before. He not only has to contend with vastly more territory, but also, though his nominating campaign wasn’t as self-financed as he claimed, fundraising for the general election is on a completely different scale. 

But there’s no frame of reference for what’s to come. The nation is in for a wild ride.