It’s too early to declare the end of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but I think we can begin to see how it’s going to happen.
Wednesday night, Trump initiated a kind of mini-meltdown in response to a comment from National Review editor Rich Lowry. On Fox News Channel, Lowry was asked to comment on Trump’s attacks on Carly Fiorina, who has been surging after a strong performance in last week’s debate. Lowry attributed Trump’s counterattacks to the fact that “Carly cut his balls off with the precision of a surgeon.”
Trump, who had previously declared a boycott of Fox for not treating him well enough, was apparently watching it enough to respond.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2015
Not having any policy advisors—though he promises he will hire the very, very best ones after he’s elected—Trump is not aware that the FCC has no authority over cable television, since it is not broadcast over the airwaves. He followed with this:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2015
Which is amusing because anyone who has heard from Trump’s supporters knows that they make frequent references to his gonads as the central case for his candidacy.
And that’s the problem, because Trump’s reaction to criticism and adversity isn’t quite matching up to the representations he has made about his manliness.
That toothless threat to invoke the FCC, by the way, is no outlier. Just the day before Lowry’s comments, Trump’s lawyers sent a letter threatening the Club for Growth with a defamation suit for running an ad which describes Trump’s previous political positions in favor of raising taxes. This ad, to be exact.
See what just happened there? If Trump had real campaign advisors—rather than just himself—they might have informed him of the Streisand Effect. If Trump hadn’t threatened to sue the Club for Growth, fewer people would have seen his ads. If he hadn’t complained about Lowry’s comments, fewer people would have heard them.
But what’s worse is Trump’s reaction, which makes him look sensitive and thin-skinned. I had wondered whether the debate would be the event that puts Trump on the defensive. That’s clearly what has begun to happen since. I explained why this would be a problem.
Trump’s signature style is the lack of apology (or shame, depending on how you look at it). His strategy is to always be on the offensive, always attacking, never apologizing, never admitting error or explaining himself. I guess I can see the appeal of this, when you consider how much time the Republican leadership in Congress spends on the defensive, apologizing for its existence.
But can Trump keep this up forever? I mean at some point the insults, the bluster, the blatant flip-flops (most recently on Syrian refugees) have got to catch up with him, right? This may just be an act of faith on my part, but at some point, I believe he’s going to end up on the defensive, and that will clash so violently with his whole strategy that it could create a lot of trouble for him.
That’s especially true now that he’s up against two other political outsiders with styles that could neutralize his own. Trump’s abrasiveness could look petty and vindictive next to Carson’s kindly-family-doctor demeanor. It could also backfire when launched against the flinty exterior of Carly Fiorina, one of the few candidates who can compete with him for a brash, tough, outspoken manner.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get everything right, particularly in the damnably unpredictable field of presidential politics. But I guess some of my karma from the dismal 2012 cycle is evening out, because this prediction really looks like it’s panning out.
Trump’s candidacy has been propelled by a kind of macho bluster, with Trump portraying himself as a winner who is amazing—terrific!—at everything he does, who can afford to laugh off all those other losers. And his supporters back him, in part, because it makes them feel like winners who are living in a country that will soon be winning again. And I guess I can see their point, given that the country is currently in a funk of loserdom.
But what if Trump stops winning?
You get the impression, particularly for Trump’s online defenders, that a big part of the fun of supporting Trump is that they get to gloat about all of us pansy loser pundits and our ineffectual hatred of a candidate who keeps rising in the polls despite our irrelevant whining. But what if it’s Trump who’s doing the whining while he drops in the polls? You can bet us pundits are going to want a little payback.
A candidate whose whole case is based, not on ideology or political experience, but on personality is very susceptible to failing when the less appealing parts of his personality are drawn out. So you’re going to see things like this:
Donald Trump: pic.twitter.com/Pz00WSd6fO
— Matthew (@Matthops82) September 24, 2015
Once “he fights!” becomes “he whines!”, you can fold up the circus tent, folks.
— John Ekdahl (@JohnEkdahl) September 24, 2015
After three months of macho posturing from Trump and his supporters, it’s just irresistible. Trump’s campaign has so far been based on the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. But the flipside is that nothing fails like failure.
This is why I haven’t been convinced by those, like Dilbert’s Scott Adams, who claim that Trump is some kind of marketing and branding “clown genius.” I don’t see any evidence of planning or strategy. This is just Trump being who he is, and it has worked for him so far in New York real estate and on reality TV shows. So why not just keep pushing it until it stops working? Which looks to be about now.
It’s possible I’m getting ahead of myself. Trump has not begun to crash in the polls—but he’s tapering off, and he is in a very precarious position. Let’s put it this way. Trump is now exactly at the position in the polls that Rick Perry was four years ago, when he was just starting to decline after topping out at about 30% in the RealClearPolitics average. The two campaigns track almost day-to-day.
For a candidate who has no real campaign organization, who has merely been riding a personality driven fad, this is an ominous sign.
No, it’s not Carly Fiorina who has taken away Trump’s mojo. By whining when the going gets tough, he has emasculated himself.