That was too easy. Hillary Clinton wrapped up the Democratic nomination with big wins in the early June primaries, notably in New Jersey and California, President Obama formally and enthusiastically endorsed her, and Bernie Sanders will keep going but will fight for his ideas, not to defeat Hillary Clinton. He’s more than willing to help her defeat Donald Trump. Both Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden ripped into Trump in devastating speeches, and all was well. The Democrats are united and ready to roll – and suddenly Clinton leads Trump by eleven points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll – so what seemed close wasn’t close any longer. And the week ended with the Republicans wondering how they ended up with Donald Trump.
Everyone knows how they ended up with Donald Trump. Their base was fed up with all the bullshit about lowering taxes on the rich and smaller government and cutting way back on entitlements like their own Social Security checks and Medicare benefits, which they rather like. They were tired of hearing about conservative principles. Those never did them any good. They wanted someone to jump in and stick it to gays and minorities and Mexico and smarty-pants folks with fancy college degrees telling them what to do, and bossy women taking men’s jobs and all the rest. They wanted someone to make America Great Again, by any means possible. Trump said he’d do that. That was good enough for them.
Then Trump hit a wall. It wasn’t the newly-unified Democrats. It was him. As Stuart Rothenberg explains, Trump has no idea of how to win an election:
Unless you are Ronald Reagan running for re-election (“It’s morning again in America”), most competitive presidential campaigns are about a single objective: making the race a referendum on the opponent, particularly if he or she is a long-time politician who has high negatives.
That’s how Barack Obama won a second term. He defined Mitt Romney and ran against that caricature he created (with Romney’s help, of course).
But whether it’s because he really doesn’t understand campaigns, or more likely, that his obvious narcissism makes it impossible for him to see that any topic could be more interesting than himself, Donald Trump continues to make the 2016 election a referendum on his accomplishments, his past statements and his beliefs.
The base had wanted red meat and a pure outsider with a big personality, who would totally humiliate all who questioned him, and by extension questioned them, but of course that meant the only thing to talk about was Donald Trump. Rothenberg notes the obvious missed opportunities:
It’s not as if Hillary Clinton is a politician without political warts. With negative personal ratings in the mid-50s, she looks like an easy target for serious, well-planned, focused attacks on her judgment, character and policies.
Polls show voters harbor real doubts about how forthright she has been about her emails, how successful her years at the State Department were, and whether a professional politician is best suited to run the country for the next four years.
Clinton is so vulnerable that against an uncontroversial Republican opponent who could pass the presidential smell test, Clinton probably would be a narrow underdog in November. After all, Ohio Gov. John Kasich held a lead against her in national ballot tests right up to the time that he left the GOP race with a single primary win under his belt.
Trump really should have paid attention to that:
Kasich’s strength against Clinton wasn’t that he was so well-known, well-respected and well-liked. It was that he was not Hillary Clinton. Voters knew her political baggage but not his. In other words, the former secretary of state couldn’t beat a placebo.
But instead of trying to be less controversial, more welcoming to friends and foes alike, and less of an issue in the election, Trump has done the exact opposite.
Time and again, he has kept the focus on himself by doubling down on defending Trump University and raising questions about the integrity of a federal judge handling the case, by attacking the Hispanic Republican governor of New Mexico and even by criticizing a supporter, former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Trump’s language continues to be coarse and undignified, his sentences rarely complete and often illogical. His temperament is “strong?” He is angry at the media because reporters don’t compliment him? Hillary Clinton is “guilty” even before she has been indicted or convicted?
This is a man lost in himself, and that’s makes him an easy target of mockery, and a man who doesn’t see what’s happening around him:
This year, the Democrats will nominate a former member of the current administration, and any savvy GOP presidential nominee would try to make the 2016 election a referendum on Clinton and even on Obama, though his job approval now stands around the 50 percent mark.
But instead of offering detailed criticisms of Clinton’s record in office or of the Obama Administration’s performance, Trump invariably prefers to make himself the issue. Instead of using the new May jobs numbers to rail against the Obama administration’s failings, Trump spent a weekend talking about the judge in the Trump University case and inviting his critics – and even some friends – to skewer him repeatedly.
Call him flamboyant or unhinged, unconventional or unschooled in campaigns, Trump seems unlikely to change his demeanor and unwilling to do the work necessary to take advantage of Clinton’s many vulnerabilities.
Rothenberg sees a candidate like no other. Trump’s unique strength is also his real weakness:
If a new Donald Trump appeared tomorrow (maybe a bit like the one who spoke on Tuesday night), would anyone seriously believe that that would be the “real” Trump?
It’s a lot easier to call your opponent names and brag about your own successes than it is to prosecute a political campaign that exposes your opponent’s weaknesses and holds her responsible for the last eight years.
But for Trump, nothing seems to be as much fun as talking about himself.
Chuck Todd and his crew at NBC’s First Read frame that a little differently:
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if Marco Rubio, not Donald Trump, were the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee. There would be considerable more attention to the Hillary email story, which still hasn’t gone away. We’d be highlighting how Bernie Sanders still hasn’t quit his race, creating a fissure inside the party. And we’d be fixated on Clinton’s all-time low favorability numbers. Instead, the current stories are Trump attacking a federal judge, how the Republican Party is truly divided over its presumptive nominee, and Trump having even worse favorability numbers than Clinton. Bottom line: This 2016 presidential race could have been a referendum on Clinton and the Obama White House, even with the president’s 50%-plus approval rating. Instead, it has turned into a referendum on Trump.
For Republicans, that’s a hard race to win:
In almost a blink of an eye, President Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Vice President Joe Biden all endorsed Hillary Clinton, and Warren (a potential VP possibility) meets with Clinton this morning. What’s more, it sure sounded like Bernie Sanders – maybe next week, perhaps the week after – will join them in support of Clinton. Now compare that with:
George W. Bush, the last GOP president, whose family is sitting out 2016;
Mitt Romney, the last GOP presidential nominee, who is firmly against Trump;
Ted Cruz, who still hasn’t endorsed Trump;
John Kasich, ditto;
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who took almost a month before endorsing;
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said on a Bloomberg podcast that Trump needs to pick an experienced VP “because it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues”;
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” left open the possibility of backing Clinton;
And Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) who this week un-endorsed Trump
Todd keeps saying that the party that is less united usually loses. That’s what he sees now, and Greg Sargent sees this:
Time Magazine serves up a fascinating look at Donald Trump’s evolving campaign strategy in which Trump and his top advisers leave little doubt that they think they can win mainly by dominating the media environment, in a way that will smash all the old rules of politics.
The piece recaps several recent episodes in which Trump was able to suck up all the media oxygen simply by being himself, and details some frustration in the Clinton camp with the same. But the Clinton team thinks that this dynamic doesn’t necessarily work in Trump’s favor, because much of that media attention is negative, such as when his attacks on a Mexican-American judge exploded across days of critical coverage. All that media focus is only deepening his hole with key general election constituencies. Besides, Clinton is breaking through at key moments, such as when she delivered her recent speech dismantling Trump as dangerously unprepared for the presidency, in part by drawing a sharp contrast between the two candidates’ policy preparedness or lack of it.
Time lets us know that the Trump team really doesn’t care:
“Hillary’s campaign is crazy,” [Trump] continued. “I look at her staffing, and I mean she’s got the United States government there.” He even mocks her focus on putting out so many policy proposals, a longtime tradition for major party nominees. “She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper.” (The Clinton campaign counts that paper as a point of pride: 73,645 words of policy and counting.)…
“My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care,” Trump says. “They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”…
Trump and [senior adviser Cory] Lewandowski believe they can succeed simply by replicating the media domination that lifted the campaign to a primary victory.
The idea is that Trump won the GOP primaries by putting on a great show, and now Trump and his advisers are explicitly betting this will work in the general election, mostly fueled by his ability to dominate the media – and policy is just an afterthought to that far more important factor….
Sargent wonders about that:
Is Trump right that in the general election, this media dominance will matter more than anything else, while the specifics of his – or Clinton’s – policy proposals won’t?
I think this will turn out to be wrong. And the reason for this turns on the very thing that Trump cites, rightly, as the factor that enabled him to get as far as he has.
Trump did win the GOP primaries largely through media dominance. But this dominance was not created solely by his crazy antics and penchant for insulting everyone, though those things did matter. It was also created by his actual policy positions. Trump demonstrated an uncanny gift for commanding media attention by – yup – talking about policy, or, more accurately, by proposing policy positions that were so outsize and outlandish that they cut through the clutter and actually were heard by a lot of Republican voters. I’m talking mainly about his call for mass deportations; his vow to build a wall on the Mexican border; and his vow to temporarily ban the entry of Muslims into the U.S.
That worked wonders in the primaries, but may fall flat now:
The problem for Trump lies in two factors: Their garishness, and their emotional clarity. These things helped him in the primary. But those factors may now be poised to work directly against him.
“Trump has taken positions that resonate strongly with a majority of Republican primary voters,” political scientist Alan Abramowitz tells me. “But in the general election, a large majority of voters disagree with those positions. They also will help to unify Democrats in opposition to Trump. A huge majority of Sanders supporters will strongly disagree with what Trump has proposed.”
Abramowitz adds that the outsize nature of Trump’s proposals will make it particularly hard for him to escape them later in the eyes of swing voters. “Trump has taken some very clear positions,” Abramowitz says. “They are beyond extreme positions – they reveal someone who is running on a campaign of hate.”
That’s the problem. There’s no way to soften these positions. That would make him someone else, not a candidate like no other candidate we’ve ever seen. He’d be just another guy, and Sargent describes the trap this way:
It is incredibly easy to understand Trump’s proposals – they tell a powerful emotional story. In other words, the very thing that enabled Trump to succeed in the primaries – his ability to hatch wild schemes that cut through the noise and commanded media attention for him – will now work against him.
That’s a relief, but Jonathan Chait offers A Trump Presidency Just Got a Lot Less Likely – and a Lot More Terrifying:
In one sense, and one sense only, the events since Donald Trump became his party’s presumptive nominee have been reassuring. The ensuing weeks made clear that Trump has absolutely no idea how to run a presidential campaign and lacks the most rudimentary grasp of its basic elements, like having a reasonably sized staff, adequate funds, and knowledge of which states to campaign in (he cannot be disabused of his belief that he can win in overwhelmingly Democratic California and New York, a state where he has actually spent some of his sparse funds on a dedicated pollster). A Trump victory is plausible only in the case of a gigantic external shock that overwhelms his incompetence: the onset of a recession, perhaps, or an indictment of Hillary Clinton.
On the other hand – and it is a big other hand, with long fingers – we have learned that if those or other nightmares do transpire and Trump prevails, his presidency would be far more dangerous than seemed imaginable not long ago. A Trump presidency has become a lower-probability but higher-impact event, its risk profile looking less like another George W. Bush presidency (unlikely; very bad) and more like a gigantic asteroid striking the Earth (quite unlikely; catastrophic).
Chait doesn’t like what he saw in the Republican Party:
In late February – to take one time-capsule moment of mainstream conservative thought – the columnist Ross Douthat predicted, “If Trump is the nominee, neither Rubio nor Cruz will endorse him.” By spring Rubio had indeed endorsed Trump, and it is just a matter of time before Cruz follows suit. Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who had tried to organize a super-PAC to stop Trump during the primaries, has since declared that he is organizing one to help elect him. Trump’s Republican opponents had once vowed to wage a vigorous independent right-wing campaign against him, becoming a kind of Republican Party in exile, perhaps led by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse or even Mitt Romney. By the end of May, a leader was identified: David French, a blogger for National Review with no experience in elected office and who withdrew from consideration shortly thereafter. Officials who had once called Trump “a madman who must be stopped” (Bobby Jindal), less qualified to be president than “a speck of dirt” (Rand Paul), and “our Mussolini” (Congressman Chris Stewart) have since endorsed him.
The consolation of endorsing your Mussolini is that you figure at least he’ll be your Mussolini. A version of this scenario inspired Republican leaders who nervously endorsed their new leader on the premise that the party would restrain his barbarism. “The House can be a driver of policy ideas,” Speaker Paul Ryan noted, insisting that “when I feel the need to, I’ll continue to speak my mind.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised, “He’ll have a White House counsel. There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”
Don’t worry, folks, we’ll control him? That’s absurd:
The disintegration and debasement of his internal enemies, many of whom submitted after he belittled them, seems to have only confirmed Trump’s confidence in the soundness of his methods. His megalomania has soared to new heights. “I will give you everything,” he told a crowd of bikers over Memorial Day weekend. “I will give you what you’ve been looking for, for 50 years. I’m the only one.” Here he was suggesting he might sic government lawyers on the corporate holdings of Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, which had covered Trump in ways that displeased the candidate. There he was launching a racist tirade against the “Mexican” judge (born in Indiana) in the fraud trial of Trump University.
The latter comment created a minor crisis for his colleagues. Trump’s bigotry was so unvarnished, and its target so crucial to his party’s long-term demographic survival, that few members of his party could excuse it. Ryan, appearing at an unfortunately timed event in Washington, D.C.’s poor and heavily black Anacostia neighborhood to promote his party’s alleged concern for minorities, conceded that Trump’s slur was “sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” However, Ryan insisted, “at the end of the day this is about ideas. This is about moving our agenda forward.” Ergo, his endorsement of Trump stood. Later, Ryan clarified that his denunciation applied to Trump’s statements but not to Trump himself, whose values he was not judging. (“I don’t know what’s in his heart.”) It was just a thing Trump said – many times – for some reason nobody in his party could figure out.
Republican voters, on the other hand, were judging Trump’s diatribe – and far more favorably. A poll found that, by a three-to-one margin, Republicans deemed Trump’s comments not racist. Once again, for all the nervousness he has engendered among the conservative elite, the people who vote Republican side with Trump.
Now imagine him as President Trump:
History suggests that the most important limits on a president’s abuse of power come from the objections of his fellow partisans. When Franklin Roosevelt proposed to pack the Supreme Court with additional seats that he would fill, conservative Democrats rose in outrage and blocked him. Nixon was driven from office in large part by the dissent of Republicans like John Dean (who testified against him) and Barry Goldwater (who told him his support had collapsed).
But these events took place in a very different political atmosphere, among ideologically heterodox parties with deep traditions of bipartisanship. Trump would ascend to the presidency in a polarized country. The inevitable conflict over his abuses would take the form of a partisan will to power. And yet if he wins the presidency, Trump will own the party he is currently leasing, and his influence over its members will spread. He will enjoy not only the trappings and formal powers of the office but also the heartfelt, cult-of-personality loyalties that presidents command from their supporters (which run especially deep on the right wing, with its elevated concentration of authoritarian personalities).
Trump’s authoritarianism is one of the few consistent aspects of his worldview, expressed over many years and through his various jaunts across the ideological spectrum. He has praised leaders in Russia, China, and North Korea for crushing dissent. He regards all criticism as corrupt and illegitimate.
Chait knows what comes next:
For all the fearful commentary this has inspired, we have mostly contemplated Trump in his familiar context as a bellowing tabloid character or renegade candidate, and not in his prospective role as the leader of a governing party. When (not if) a President Trump sets out to crush his enemies, tens of millions of Republicans will thrill to his cause and demand he prevail.
That’s a bit frightening, but it’s unlikely that there will be a President Trump. He really does have absolutely no idea how to run a presidential campaign, and given his proud self-regard, he’ll take no advice from anyone at all about that. Hillary can screw up too, big time, again and again, and this guy will rant about how he’s being treated unfairly in some other civil suit – by some other Mexican born in Indiana – or he’ll pick on reporters for reporting what he actually said about this or that, which he didn’t really say, even if they have it one tape. It’s all about him. He’s like no other. Now we know that’s a good thing.