Coming Apart

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 10.26.55 PMLet’s start with a simple premise: the Trump campaign is not about running for president. It is about product placement. With the eyes of the world on Great Britain as it voted on one of the most consequential matters in recent memory, Donald Trump positioned himself at one of his golf properties in Scotland, not to comment on Brexit but to discuss his resort’s amazing amenities. Where a real presidential candidate would have held a press conference to address Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, Trump offered the press an extended infomercial about his resort, never mentioning the vote or its consequences. And when asked in the subsequent Q&A about the disastrous effect of the Brexit vote on the pound, Trump would only address the positive effect it would have on his business.

We have long said that Donald Trump’s campaign is about Donald Trump. He speaks relentlessly and exclusively about himself and offers himself as the answer to all political problems. But we now have ample evidence that Trump is not running a campaign at all. He has no staff. He has no campaign infrastructure. He has no money and, apart from a peculiar fundraising appeal to foreign legislators that violates federal campaign finance laws, he has shown little interest in raising it. Despite the abrupt dismissal of his campaign manager and reports of a campaign shake-up that would allow Trump to pivot cleanly to the general election, the candidate continues to ad lib his way to November. He has no message discipline. He has no personal discipline. He has no knowledge of national affairs. He has no knowledge of world affairs. He has no interest in hiring policy experts and he probably has less interest in listening to them. It should now be clear that nothing can straighten out the Trump campaign. You can’t straighten out something that isn’t there.

Let’s set aside coverage about whether Trump is hurting his cause by acting in ways that appear bizarre to political reporters. Such coverage assumes Trump is actually running for president rather than promoting branded merchandise. The more relevant question is what this will mean to the Republican Party, which now finds itself on the verge of nominating someone who both repels voters outside his base and shows no interest in doing anything about it.

While Donald Trump continues to bask in the glow of countless millions of dollars of free publicity for Donald Trump, the Republican Party heads to its convention unable to coalesce around its absentee nominee. Some are trying to prevent the nomination from being consummated in Cleveland, and while this latest iteration of #NeverTrump faces gigantic obstacles, not the least being the absence of a consensus alternative candidate, you have to believe it has the sympathy if not the silent support of Republican elites who wish this daily nightmare would disappear. They just won’t get on board because they recognize the outright chaos a successful effort to block Trump’s nomination would cause.

Yet it it is also apparent that Trump’s formula is generating rapidly diminishing returns as the necessities of running a national campaign are forcing the candidate out of the natural market for what he is selling. It all worked so well with primary voters and their ready appetite for Trump’s brand of grievance, eager to embrace his message of dominance and willing to swallow the fiction that Donald Trump is a credible choice for president. That’s where the scam should have ended. Trump promised victory and he delivered, winning primary after primary and ultimately claiming the big prize. His supporters could feel validated and vindicated. They could proudly purchase and wear Trump gear and vacation at Trump resorts. But in matters of this sort it’s always best to get out of town before people start seeing through the illusion. That time came in mid-May, when Trump vanquished his last primary opponents. Instead, Trump is trapped in a dilemma of his own construction, because the prize he won obligates him to keep making his pitch to people who see through the facade.

He has not figured out how to adjust. It’s becoming clear that a campaign of dominance doesn’t play when you’re losing, making it impossible for Trump to present himself as a perpetual winner like he did in the primaries and grow his brand accordingly. Absent a dramatic change in fortune, he risks ridicule on the largest stage in the world. Yet he is too invested in his own superiority to back away without a pretext.

As a business proposition, the best outcome for Trump is to be overthrown at the convention. Nothing would enrage his supporters like the validating prospect of the elites he railed against for a year deposing the popularly selected nominee in a fit of arrogant outrage, enabling Trump to perpetuate his campaign of indignation through November. Just imagine all the merchandise he would sell. But this would be a nuclear outcome for the party, which would be unrecognizable after the explosion.

Therein lies the sad irony of the Republican Party. Its leaders would benefit if they could rid themselves of Donald Trump and Donald Trump would benefit if he could rid himself of the obligation to keep running, but neither side can bear the cost of what it would take to make it happen.