Donald Trump has proven himself incapable of being a serious presidential candidate for more than a few consecutive days. So at this point, behind in the polls, there is really not much to lose by playing to his dubious strengths and pursuing a relentless core vote strategy
There is a pivotal episode of The West Wing (Season 1, Episode 19) in which the entire administration of fictional President Josiah Bartlet appears to be stuck in neutral, under continual fire from the Republican opposition and simultaneously unwilling to seriously tackle the big challenges yet unable to close out the small ones.
The climax of the episode features a showdown between President Bartlet and his loyal chief of staff, Leo McGarry, who tells Bartlet that he and the entire staff serve at the pleasure of the president and would do anything for him, if only he would shake off his caution and timidity, stop second guessing himself and seek to govern more boldly. The assertive new doctrine that they thrash out: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”.
Remembering this scene prompted me to remark, in light of Donald Trump’s spectacularly awful campaign:
Many times we feel frustrated with leaders whom we believe in, but who seem to falter at the critical moment or lack the courage of their own convictions. While it was before my time, the tentative early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government spring to mind (the struggles of which are brought vividly to life in Kwasi Kwarteng MP’s excellent book “Thatcher’s Trial”, well worth reading), but there are countless more examples of once promising political candidacies which never got off the ground because the candidate failed to ignite as expected. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are two such conservative examples from this election cycle alone.
Sadly, when it comes to Republican Party’s current presidential nominee, there is no inspiring higher gear to which the candidate can shift – as Donald Trump seems determined to prove over and over again, this is as good as it gets. And this represents a real problem for the Trump campaign and for the Republican Party, which has tied its fortunes and reputation to this must unstable (and profoundly un-conservative) of individuals.
The anti-establishment schtick and unconventional campaign techniques which propelled Donald Trump to the GOP nomination are not sufficient, it turns out, to sustain a viable presidential campaign. As the National Review’s Jim Geraghty puts it, the conventional campaign rulebook is reasserting itself, and Trump seems frozen, unwilling (but also unable) to adapt.
With just 81 days until election day and new opinion polls showing Hillary Clinton currently having a lock on the electoral college votes she needs to win the White House in November, there isn’t much time for a reset of the Trump campaign. And even if a thorough, genuine reset were to take place it seems unlikely that many of the voters whom Trump has insulted or terrified on his way to the Republican nomination can be persuaded to put their concerns aside and vote for Donald.
Worse still for Trump’s prospects in November, all past attempts to reset the campaign have failed.
So what to do? It is becoming increasingly clear that trying to get Donald Trump to act like a serious, knowledgeable presidential candidate isn’t working – Trump either resentfully ignores the advice he is given, or old habits quickly reassert themselves despite anyone’s best intentions. The “somebody please stop Trump being Trump” mantra is not working. So could the solution be to do exactly the opposite – to Let Trump Be Trump?
New York Magazine’s Frank Rich thinks so:
Those dreary Trump “presidential” speeches — the “policy” addresses he has lately been reading listlessly from teleprompters — have bought him nothing. Trump is indeed beyond coaching, and, with Manafort sidelined, Trump is free to be Trump full-time again. Bannon and Ailes are both pugilists likely to pump his volume back up to the full Mussolini-Giuliani timbre. It may not make a difference come November, but I’d argue it’s the only way for Trump to go.
As we’ve learned over the past year, Trump’s supporters don’t care about the journalistic investigations debunking his career and ethics, or about his complete disregard for facts, or about his chilling, unworkable, and destructive prescriptions to “make America great again.” When he said that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and still hold on to his hard-core base, he had a point. So he might just as well be as outrageous and noisy as he possibly can. Reaching every conceivable aggrieved white American out there, particularly the “poorly educated” whom he admires and particularly those who might not be regular voters, is his best hope, however faint, for achieving a putsch. (Particularly if some October surprise upends his opponent.) The time for Trump to woo, say, undecided suburban voters by attempting (incompetently) to mimic lunchtime speakers at the Council on Foreign Relations is over.
In fact, there are already some signs that this is exactly what the Donald Trump campaign now intends to do. Rather than show any evidence of outreach to wavering undecided American voters, Trump has continued playing to the gallery of his true believers with his unprecedented and intemperate attacks on Hillary Clinton. Rather than appearing with Republican politicians who are respected on a bipartisan basis, Trump continues to cement his public image by appearing with partisan carnival barkers like Rudy Giuliani, now a small, aged and perpetually frightened shadow of his former self.
This was cemented by yesterday’s announcement that the Trump campaign will hire Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon as new campaign chief executive – elevating somebody from the loud and unapologetic conservative media with no experience in political campaigns.
From the Washington Post:
Donald Trump, following weeks of gnawing agitation over his advisers’ attempts to temper his style, moved late Tuesday to overhaul his struggling campaign by rebuffing those efforts and elevating two longtime associates who have encouraged his combative populism.
Stephen Bannon, a former banker who runs the influential conservative outlet Breitbart News and is known for his fiercely anti-establishment politics, has been named the Trump campaign’s chief executive. Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster who has been close to Trump for years, will assume the role of campaign manager.
[..] Trump’s stunning decision effectively ended the months-long push by campaign chairman Paul Manafort to moderate Trump’s presentation and pitch for the general election. And it sent a signal, perhaps more clearly than ever, that the real estate magnate intends to finish this race on his own terms, with friends who share his instincts at his side.
Dreher thinks we have entered the world of farce:
Frankly, I think American politics crossed over into The Onion territory some time ago now – this latest news is barely a ripple in the sea of absurdity. But from a strategic perspective, in which a political campaign has to make its best shot with the resources available to it, what else is the Trump campaign to do?
I recently described the Trump campaign’s problem like this:
It’s not that Trump chooses not to surprise everyone and confound expectations by playing the policy wonk and actually taking the time to read up on issues before running his mouth off on live television – it’s that he is physically incapable of being a mature, intellectually curious potential leader, even if he wanted to be. And even when despairing aides hold their make-or-break “interventions” in an attempt to set him on the straight and narrow, Trump simply smiles and nods, and two days later he is back off the Teleprompter again, picking another unwinnable fight or pursuing one of his many personal vendettas.
So more of the same then, from now until November. The Republicans had better hope that there is an entire army of low-information, first time voters willing to put on pants and leave the couch for the first time in 30 years to vote for their man, because otherwise Hillary Clinton will be taking the oath of office on January 20th.
This really is Trump’s only shot at winning. Generally I refrain from making any comparisons between the Donald Trump phenomenon and Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union – mostly because Brexit and the campaign to reclaim nation state democracy is something pure and noble, while authoritarian Trumpism is the antithesis of those high ideals. But it must be noted that the EU referendum campaign here in Britain revealed a sleeping army of people who had in some cases not voted for multiple decades, but who were spurred to action by the gravity of the decision being put to them in the form of Brexit.
Donald Trump needs to hope and pray that there is a similar sleeping army of typical non-voters – made up of the economically left behind, the alienated white working classes or whatever other label one wishes to ascribe – lying dormant in America, ready to spring to life and to the polling booth at his campaign’s command.
And those of us who abhor Donald Trump and his nasty, un-conservative brand of grievance-based authoritarianism need to hope and pray that there is no such army, or at least that Trump fails to find their collective “on” switch before November 8th.
But from Donald Trump’s perspective, there is nothing to lose. The New York demagogue has no precious poll lead to squander and no reputation to protect; he is congenitally unable to portray even the facsimile of a humble, temperate, intellectually curious and ideologically rooted leader. Trump’s only chance of victory – short of Hillary Clinton’s campaign detonating over one of the many scandals which stalk the Democratic Party nominee, or some big extraneous shock like a major terror attack on American soil – is to double down with the strategy which brought him thus far, and to surround himself (as he is now doing) with campaign staff who are willing to go with the flow rather than work against the grain of his personality.
In short, the Republican Party’s last, best hope of winning the White House is to stop fighting electoral gravity and simply let Trump be Trump.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will have to trust that what worked so well for President Jed Bartlet in The West Wing does not work miracles for Donald Trump.
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