Sometimes it looks like Donald Trump really doesn't want to be president of the United States. The unconventional nature of his campaign — dependent on free media, self-financing, and attention-grabbing — seems more and more like a kind of calculated malpractice or negligence. When he should be consolidating his hold over the party, he is instead repelling endorsements and muddying his own message. It makes you think he wants this road show to end — and soon.
Trump's campaign is designed on the premise that he never needs to buy attention that he can just take for free. And so he doesn't buy commercial time. Trump has also taken a long break from campaigning hard in the last few weeks. Meanwhile Ted Cruz's campaign is doing lots of legwork in trying to master the delegate selection process, and using organizational pressure to take delegates from Trump by any means possible. Trump's response is to threaten to sue. Or to make noise about withdrawing his pledge to support the nominee. None of these things are actually productive.
Earlier in the campaign, Trump seemed to be stumbling onto a politically coherent challenge to conservative and liberal orthodoxies: European-style nationalism. But over the past two months, he has slowly backed away from or disavowed his own policy agenda on immigration or trade. He has described his own rhetoric on these issues as a kind of opening gambit in a larger negotiation, rather than the announcement of some kind of principle. He has telegraphed over and over again that he doesn't intend to deliver, that these bold positions were merely an expediency toward standing out from a crowd of 17 candidates.
The lack of principle extends to his campaign. Trump has promoted himself as a man who isn't going to be bought by the special interests because, to this point, he has been self-funding his campaign. But that is not his strategy for the general election, according to reports in The Washington Post. Much of the money Trump has spent on staging rallies and flying around the country has been loaned to the campaign from Trump. That means if Trump begins fundraising in earnest for a general election challenge, Trump will direct donated campaign money back to himself. And yet, according to a detailed look inside the Trump campaign by Gabriel Sherman, Team Trump has barely organized a financial committee or fundraising operation. Either Trump is expecting Republicans, in desperation, to build him a fundraising apparatus from scratch or he expects that free media will be enough in the general election. Or perhaps he doesn't really anticipate being the nominee.
Trump doesn't even bother to understand the positions he takes cynically. See the mess he made of abortion. He has praised Planned Parenthood in the past. Then last week he told Chris Matthews that women should be punished for having abortions, a position most pro-lifers strenuously oppose themselves. Then he said that the laws allowing abortions should remain. Overall he took five positions in three days. He also begged off answering Maureen Dowd's question on whether he had ever been involved in an abortion himself. This level of incompetence suggests something deeper, like the way an amateur who is failing on stage at the Apollo would look to the wings, hoping that the Sandman would come out and dance him off the stage.
There is other evidence that Trump never wanted this. The former communications director for the short-lived Trump super PAC confessed that the campaign started out as a vehicle for protest, not for the White House itself:
Almost a year ago, recruited for my public relations and public policy expertise, I sat in Trump Tower being told that the goal was to get The Donald to poll in double digits and come in second in delegate count. That was it.
The Trump camp would have been satisfied to see him polling at 12 percent and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50 percent. His candidacy was a protest candidacy. [xoJane]
Alas, if it is a protest, it has gotten to the point where Trump's campaign will almost certainly doom Republican hopes in November. He either becomes the nominee, the most broadly unpopular one in several decades, or he loses the nomination to someone that Trump's fans deem a schemer or interloper. Disaffection is the only result.
There is a lifelessness to the Trump campaign lately, a kind of refusal to stand up and do the hard work of reuniting a party that he has shattered or building an organization that can mount an effective national campaign. There is no reason to doubt that Donald Trump sincerely wanted to shake up this election. But there are now too many reasons to doubt he really wants to win it.