After weeks of high-profile gaffes eroding Donald Trump’s already weak standing in the polls, the GOP nominee announced a campaign overhaul on Wednesday morning. In order to overcome his catastrophic unpopularity among moderate Republicans and nonwhite voters, Trump decided to make the executive chair of Breitbart News — a leading journal of “alt-right” thought — the chief executive of his campaign. With veteran political operative Paul Manafort sidelined and Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon at the helm, Trump hopes to win over suburban moms in Loudoun County — by becoming less disciplined and mainstream in his messaging. Per the Washington Post:
While Trump respects Manafort, the aides said, he has grown to feel “boxed in” and “controlled” by people who barely know him. Moving forward, he plans to focus intensely on rousing his voters at rallies and through media appearance.
… Trump’s turn away from Manafort is in part a reversion to how he ran his campaign in the primaries with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski’s mantra was “let Trump be Trump” and Trump wants to get back to that type of campaign culture, the aides said.
… Bannon, in phone calls and meetings, has been urging Trump for months to not mount a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable, the aides said. Instead, Bannon has been telling Trump to run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist.
Pundits of all political persuasions found this strategy baffling. The Post’s Greg Sargent derided it as “entirely delusional.” And, on the surface, that sounds about right. It looks like yet another example of Trump refusing to understand that the dynamics of a GOP primary differ from those of a general election.
But, in this case, Trump’s skeptics may be giving the mogul too little credit. Because if Trump isn’t trying to win the election, his new strategy might be the most rational decision of his entire campaign.
And why should Trump be trying to win, at this point? New polls from Quinnipiac — a firm whose results tend to lean Republican — show Trump losing by double-digits in Colorado and Virginia. Earlier this week, a Monmouth poll showed Trump down by nine in Florida. The New York Times currently gives Trump a 13 percent chance of winning November’s election.
Let’s stipulate, for the moment, that Trump launched his presidential campaign with the sincere intention of winning the White House. Put yourself in his shoes.
You can either spend the next two-and-a-half months doing everything the political professionals say that you should: Read the boring speeches off the teleprompters. Go speak to skeptical audiences in the African-American community who will almost certainly boo you. Spend your nights in hotels in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. Recite carefully vetted talking points in interviews. And tell yourself that all these sacrifices are worth it, because they will marginally reduce your probability of losing on November 8.
Or, you can accept the reality that there is (almost certainly) nothing you can do, at this point, to change the outcome on Election Day. Your path to 270 electoral votes was slim to begin with. Even if Clinton loses all of the states that are currently “too close to call” she will still win the presidency. And she’s winning in nearly all of those swing states, anyway. And she has better ground game in all of them.
If your candidacy is dead, then everything is permitted. Your favorite part of running for president has always been riling up crowds of people who love you — and/or being able to share every damn thought that comes into your head on national television, anytime you please. Why not design a campaign “strategy” that allows you to do those things, without being frowned at by your advisers?
This seems like an easy choice. And when you consider the possibility that Trump never intended to be president, it becomes even easier.
On Tuesday, left-wing documentarian Michael Moore wrote that he “knows for a fact” that Trump never wanted to occupy the Oval Office. Instead, Trump launched his presidential bid as a means of increasing the value of his brand, thereby extracting more favorable terms in his negotiations with NBC over the next season of The Apprentice. But the ploy backfired — while, paradoxically, working too well.
Trump’s decision to deride Mexicans as “rapists” and “drug dealers” in his launch speech rendered him toxic to the network — but beloved by GOP primary voters. Soon, Trump had lost a show but gained an unprecedented level of attention and fame. This was tremendous. But also horrible, because it put him in the impossible position of desperately wanting to be the ultimate “winner,” while also desperately not wanting to actually be president.
Elements of Moore’s narrative are backed up by the confession of a former Trump campaign strategist, published by xoJane in March. The story also seems consistent with Vanity Fair’s report that the candidate has been mulling the creation of his own conservative cable-news empire, once the campaign is through. The magazine wrote that “the presumptive Republican nominee is examining the opportunity presented by the ‘audience’ currently supporting him,” and had “discussed the possibility of launching a “mini-media conglomerate.”
So, slip those Trump shoes back on, one last time. Imagine that you launched a presidential campaign to further your showbiz career. After 14 months as a candidate, you’ve realized that you can’t win in November but you can attract an audience of conservative-news consumers who are looking for an alternative to Fox News. How would you spend the last weeks of your campaign?
Perhaps, you would prioritize keeping your prospective audience entertained, above all else. And to do that, you’d make someone with experience in far-right infotainment the chief executive of your campaign. Plus, you might want to seek out an adviser who really knows the cable-news business. Someone like, I don’t know, Roger Ailes?
Let’s dispel with this fiction that Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.