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Trump: The Descent

Donald Trump on a video screen, Bismarck, North Dakota, May 26, 2016
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Donald Trump on a video screen, Bismarck, North Dakota, May 26, 2016

Usually we don’t know an election’s turning point until after it’s over. It’s then that exit polls and pundit analyses give us a sense of when the race was decided. Yet it’s altogether possible that for the 2016 contest that time is now. The old division of elections into segments, with the presidential part not beginning until Labor Day, is kaput. This election has been national for a long time. The most significant fact, for worried Republicans as well as for his own campaign, is that Donald Trump’s poll numbers have steadily dropped: whereas in May he’d effectively been in a tie with or a couple of points ahead of Hillary Clinton, he’s now running from three to twelve points, or an average of six, behind her; it’s not impossible that his numbers could sink to a level at which victory becomes irretrievable.

In mid-June, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that an unprecedented 70 percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably (with 55 percent feeling that way about Clinton, but that’s another story). Further, rather than “pivot” to the presidential election and “presidential” behavior, Trump has if anything exaggerated the combative traits he showed in the primaries. And he’s presided over a campaign organization so locked in internal warfare that it’s been virtually paralyzed; and he’s done almost nothing to turn his campaign structure into anything like a recognizable presidential effort.

Anxious Republicans had been giving up on the idea that Trump would transform himself in the general election. It will be a while before we can see how the firing of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, a man with no prior experience in national politics, will affect Trump’s conduct. Lewandowski, who was by Trump’s side when he traveled and blocked others from reaching the candidate’s ear, was an advocate of “let Trump be Trump,” though what worked in the primaries isn’t in order in the national contest. The audience is wider and different, and as opposed to being up against sixteen largely ineffective opponents Trump now faces a formidable, well-funded, and well-organized candidate in Hillary Clinton. The latest reports had the Trump campaign nearly broke at the end of May; they also showed that the campaign paid more than a million dollars for services by companies owned by Trump—who repeated recently that he could fund his run for the presidency.

The worst mass shooting in US history, in Orlando on June 12, in which a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed forty-nine people at a gay bar and wounded as many, led Trump to make his wildest statements yet. He suggested that President Barack Obama was colluding with ISIS—“something is going on.” A couple of days before he said that American soldiers were siphoning off American money to be distributed in Iraq—Trump’s office later explained that he meant the Iraqis were taking the money, which made no sense, but increasingly what he is saying makes no sense. The “later explaineds,” claims that he hadn’t meant what he’d said, keep multiplying. After Trump was criticized for saying that the massacre might have been prevented if customers at the gay bar had also been armed—which even the NRA said was out of line—Trump tweeted, “I was obviously talking about additional guards or employees,” though that wasn’t what he’d said.

These statements and others, on top of his earlier comments about the Indiana-born “Mexican” judge, set off new panic among elected officials and the largest effort so far to head off Trump’s nomination at the July convention. The fear, among top Republicans and donors, that Trump’s almost crazed reaction to Orlando not only has hurt him electorally but could damage the prospects of Republican candidates down the ballot—more than the questionable morality or wisdom of what he was saying—has broadened the move to deny him the nomination. (Not that Orlando will necessarily be the last event to whang into this election.)

It’s never a good idea to try to read the mind of a public figure, but just as he changes the rules on so many matters, Trump’s recent behavior demands consideration of what on earth he’s doing. He’s been going against the advice of some of his advisers, of officials of the Republican National Committee, and of the Republican leadership in Congress. All of them, plus his family, have been urging a calmer, more positive and stately campaign, that the candidate for president act more “presidential.” But Trump did it his way in the primaries and it worked. What do the others know? Trump doesn’t do stately. He hasn’t yet adjusted to the fact that he’s now appealing to a much larger and more diverse group of voters—and perhaps he just doesn’t want to. It’s not yet clear within the campaign which constituencies Trump hopes to win to reach an electoral majority, but his primaries base obviously isn’t enough to get him elected—there are only so many angry white working class men in the country.

Trump has been trying to win the general election the same way he won the nomination: by the seat of his pants with a few themes in mind; with a skeletal staff and scarce advertising, and spending as little as possible. Presumably we’ll see soon how much this was Trump and how much Lewandowski, but Trump has said that he doesn’t think he needs a large national staff and he’s been unwilling to put a lot of money into his campaign—his own or raised from others; he’s been running for president largely on the basis of his mouth. His determination to dominate every news cycle—at which he’s been quite successful—has forced him to become more outrageous by the day. The impression he gives is that he doesn’t much care what he says, or its implications, or whether it makes sense, as long as it gets attention.

Trump has often seemed off stride in the weeks since he effectively locked up the nomination in Indiana in early May. While Clinton’s staff prepared her to respond authoritatively to unfolding events, he failed to capitalize on, for example, the State Department Inspector General’s stinging report on her email server. Anyway, he knew he was smarter than his advisers. (This isn’t unusual among candidates; many of them over the years have said to staff members, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you running?”) Trump clearly sees himself as a successful businessman who knows his way around, and the fact that politics and business are very different and call for different traits doesn’t seem to have penetrated. The businessman is boss whereas the candidate needs to rely on collective action. The head of a company often knows more about the business than his employees do, but Donald Trump knows little about running for the presidency and gives only a passing nod to the issues. The businessman’s company either makes money or it doesn’t; the candidate has to go begging to individuals and groups for support. This is something Trump clearly hates to do. But unless he’s willing to pay for his campaign—which he hasn’t been and possibly isn’t in a position to—Trump has to raise money. That could, in turn, vitiate one of the rationales for his initial appeal­—that he’s so rich that he doesn’t didn’t need to raise money from others, making him “incorruptible.”

Since in Trump’s case one has to allow for all sorts of new possibilities, it could be that just as he invented a different way to win the nomination he may be onto a different way to win the presidency. But it’s also possible that by failing to make the transition to presidential candidate, and by failing to build a real campaign or raise money, Trump has guaranteed that he’ll lose. One mystery about elections is when impressions of a candidate congeal in the public mind. In Trump’s case a congealing of negative impressions might well have taken place in this recent period. 

Like his response to the crash of the EgyptAir flight in the Mediterranean Sea, Trump’s comments about Orlando underscored the serious questions that were already in play about his judgment. Trump’s instinct is to go for the ethnic characterization, if not slur, to explain matters. (Slurs were very popular with the audiences at his primary rallies.) Trump referred to the shooter, Omar Mateen, as “the Afghan”; and when it was pointed out that Mateen was born in Queens of Afghan refugees, Trump suggested that the parents shouldn’t have been allowed to emigrate here. He expanded his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US to include “immigration from areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or allies.” (France? Belgium?) He also reiterated his calls for Muslims in the US to help stop terrorist acts on the iffy theory that others in their community know when an act is being planned; and called for surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods and mosques—a sure-fire way to alienate Muslims across the country.

Mateen’s connection to ISIS may have been simply rhetorical—by all available indications it seems to have been mainly a hate crime on the part of a self-radicalized,  angry young man with personal problems. But this didn’t deter Trump from conjuring an ISIS connection to the tragedy and diving into his insistence that the president and Clinton use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” which Obama has eschewed so as not to seem to be condemning an entire religion. (Clinton this time met Trump part-way, by using the words “radical” and “Islamists”—why get caught on a semantic nicety?—but went on to say that “the vast majority of Muslims” are “peaceful and tolerant people.”) Then, Trump went a step further, saying that if the president didn’t use the term he should resign. This was largely overlooked by the press probably because it was ridiculous, as opposed to the linking of Obama to ISIS, which was merely outrageous. (Unsurprisingly, one of Trump’s earliest tweets about Orlando was about himself: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”)

One has to ask whether Trump’s rebellion against all the norms of running for president stems not from his originality as from the position he’s now in—and to seriously consider that he doesn’t want the job. That would be understandable. For a man accustomed to getting his way, the limitations on the presidency (if he understands them yet) would probably drive him crazy; the details of governing would bore him, as would the long meetings and international conferences, all of which he couldn’t avoid. Trump’s aides have said that as president he would delegate a lot of the job but there’s a lot a president can’t delegate.

It could be that Trump’s presidential run is his grandest branding effort of all, and that he’s calculated that he’s better off losing than winning. Trump has said that he looks for business opportunities in various situations. There’s been an unconfirmed press report that Trump has asked his children to look into the possibility of his starting his own cable channel after the campaign. There’s one problem with that theory: Trump doesn’t like “losers.” How will he handle the idea that he might be one? It’s likely that should he lose, Trump will figure out a way to blame anybody and anything other than himself. A few days ago, rationalizing his drop in the polls, Trump told The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, “I haven’t started yet.” One cannot know if he believes that.

Trump’s descent into wildness put the Republican congressional leaders in a deep quandary. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are loath to be the instruments of Trump’s securing the nomination—or, more important, to be seen as such. Both men have publicly left themselves room to rescind their endorsements. Ryan also told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he wouldn’t urge any delegate to vote against his conscience; as the forthcoming chair of the convention, Ryan said, he couldn’t take a position. Not that he’d want to.

As it happens a mode for heading off Trump’s nomination urged by a group of delegates—currently reported to include thirty in fifteen states—is that the delegates should be free to vote their conscience rather than be bound to Trump. Inured as we’ve become to the strangeness of this election, the evident openness of the leaders in Congress to Trump being denied the nomination is an amazing development. (Other Republican members of Congress have taken to simply running away from reporters seeking their comments on Trump’s latest statement.) Such is the spread of concern about Trump that, according to a CNN poll released on Tuesday, 48 percent of Republicans now wish that he weren’t the party’s nominee. 

The way to unhorse Trump is evident: have the delegates vote on a resolution that releases them from their commitment to vote for the candidate they’re pledged to support on the first ballot. This can be done in various forms and requires a proposal out of the convention’s rules committee, though one leading rebel argues that a “conscience clause” is inherent in the party’s rules. As it happens, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has named as the co-chairs of the committee two people with no loyalty to Trump. One big reason that party elders tiptoe around the idea of trying to deprive Trump of the nomination is that he’ll at least apparently have the largest number of delegates at the convention and he has continued strong backing—even if he’s sinking in the polls. Also, there remains the very large question of who would replace Trump. The rebels have deliberately chosen not to address that at this stage, so as to gain the broadest possible backing. Largely overlooked in all the speculation is that the candidate with the next largest number of delegates is Ted Cruz, who has maneuvered to be the second choice of a number of delegates ostensibly for Trump and to have a strong presence on the Rules Committee. A number of the rebels oppose Trump because they think he’s not a true conservative, but the ultra-conservative and unaccommodating Cruz is no more acceptable to many Republicans than Trump is.

The tipping point on whether to try to deny Trump the nomination could occur, high-placed Republicans say, if his poll numbers also seriously threaten to take down members of Congress. Dan Senor, formerly spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and now a New York businessman and confidante of Ryan, offered a revealing explanation on Bloomberg television’s With All Due Respect last week. It was a master class in political realpolitik. Speaking carefully, Senor (who opposes Trump) said,

There are a number of people who are brainstorming on whether or not we can capitalize on right now—I do feel that we’re in a little bit of a flexion point right now—there’s genuine concern among a lot of Republicans, among Republican elected leaders, among donors, and among activists, and among many delegates who are attending the convention. There is this moment when people are saying, “Wait a minute.” And, by the way, it’s directly correlated with Trump’s collapsing poll numbers…. There’s a direct correlation between tolerance for the insane things Trump does and the insane way he behaves and good poll numbers; the moment those poll numbers drop tolerance goes down.

In other words, Republican leaders and numerous other elected officials want to dump Trump but they aren’t sure whether they can get away with it.

Now that Paul Manafort, the experienced strategist whom Trump brought into his campaign at the end of March, but who’d been embroiled in a running feud with Lewandowski, is in charge of the campaign, it’s an open question how willing Trump will be to take direction from him and to become a more conventional nominee–or whether he’ll want to. For now, the apparently unhappy candidate and anxious Republican leaders are stuck with each other while the political world waits to see whether a man accustomed to acting on his own instincts can change.


Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.