Donald Trump is the first major-party nominee whose basic motive is the subject of sincere curiosity. Every other figure who secured the nomination of one of the two main governing parties clearly did so as part of a plan to get elected president. It is possible that this is Trump’s plan, too. But it’s also possible that it’s not, which is one of the things that makes his candidacy, or perhaps his “candidacy,” so unusual.
It is increasingly clear that Trump’s actions are inconsistent with any rational plan to become president. He is unpopular on a scale that defies historical precedent, utterly loathed by overwhelming majorities. Some people believed Trump was merely playing the part of a right-wing provocateur in order to stand out from the field and win his party’s nomination, and would “pivot” to the center afterward, but these hopes have been dashed. Trump has only become more hated. Nor is he doing basic tasks required of a nominee. When he was asked to call two dozen major Republican donors, Politico reports, Trump called three of them and then packed it in.
It is entirely possible that Trump is simply in way over his head — he wants to be president but doesn’t know how to go about it, and he trusts his own instincts far too much. The alternate possibility is that he has a different motive. In this scenario, Trump is not completely incompetent, but is shrewdly, or at least rationally, following a plan to enrich or otherwise gratify himself. The trouble has always been discerning what such a plan could be.
Trump’s campaign has not helped his branding business. To the contrary, it seems to be doing enormous damage. He has lost clients already, and will probably continue to do so. If your last name is synonymous with racism and misogyny, you can’t sell your name to golf courses and restaurants, which have dropped him left and right. Being adored by 30 percent of the country and hated by the rest is a recipe unsuited either for winning nationwide office or selling consumer products.
What it could well be is a plan to launch an independent media organ. Sarah Ellison reports that Trump is exploring the possibility of a television or other media venture that would cater to his loyalists. “According to several people briefed on the discussions, the presumptive Republican nominee is examining the opportunity presented by the ‘audience’ currently supporting him,” she writes. “He has also discussed the possibility of launching a ‘mini-media conglomerate’ outside of his existing TV-production business, Trump Productions LLC.” According to Ellison, Trump chafes at the way media have been able to make money off his antics without him getting a cut — a piece of reporting that happens to comport with Trump’s frequent public boasts about the ratings he commands and the money others are making off him.
And if this is Trump’s plan, it makes sense. Perhaps he grasps a truth the official Republican Party has refused to acknowledge: The conservative base is a subculture. It is a numerically large subculture, but a subculture nonetheless. It rejects the moral values of the larger society and wallows within its own imaginary world, in which Barack Obama is a foreign-born agent of anti-American interests, global warming is a lie concocted by greedy scientists or perhaps the Chinese, and hordes of foreigners are rendering the United States unrecognizable. The greater the gulf between the reality perceived by Trump’s supporters and the reality experienced by the rest of the world, the worse for the Republican Party, but all the more profitable for the media that can cater to their delusions. Figures like Rupert Murdoch, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh have grown rich doing so. Trump may have figured out that there’s no reason he should work for them when he can cut out the middleman.