Opinion

Trump vs. the Trump campaign

No one can control Donald Trump. Not even his own campaign.

People who work on political campaigns toil incredibly hard, often for modest pay. Yet the one with the toughest job is undoubtedly the candidate him or herself. Not only does he put in the long hours, he has to constantly perform in public, putting on a show while the cameras roll. And there are always moments when the candidate and his staff come into conflict. The candidate doesn't want to spend his time "dialing for dollars," the soul-destroying hell in which he has to sit in a chair calling one potential donor after another to ask for money; the staff begs him to put in more hours so there are enough funds to keep the enterprise going. The candidate, who may have far less experience than some of his staff, has strategic ideas that the staff find misguided, so he has to be talked out of them. The candidate makes mistakes the staff has to clean up. The staff doesn't do what the candidate wants so he has to set them straight.

It happens to one degree or another in every campaign. But has there ever been one where the guy whose face is on the posters is engaged in the kind of unending battle with his advisers, not to mention his party, that Donald Trump is?

Although my knowledge of the day-to-day workings of Trump's company is limited, I'm guessing that he isn't used to people telling him that he's wrong. Unlike most politicians, Trump has no longtime political advisers who have been through multiple campaigns with him and so can candidly tell him when he's failing and needs to make changes. His children seem to fill that role to some degree — but none of them have political experience, either. And Trump himself plainly feels he needs no one's advice. Recall that when he was asked in March who he consults on foreign policy, he replied, "I'm speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain."

That's probably why it takes so long for Trump to realize when he's hurting himself — either no one's telling him what he's doing wrong, or he refuses to listen. And there's no way his people don't realize it. Eventually they might get through to him, but only after the damage has been done, as it was when he made a series of racist attacks on the judge in his Trump University fraud case. At one point his staff sent out a memo to surrogates telling them not to talk about the case, which enraged Trump; he overruled them, insisting that everyone join him in going after the judge. "That's one of the reasons I want to have this call," he told the surrogates on a conference call, "because you guys are getting sometimes stupid information from people that aren't so smart." He finally shut up about the judge, but it took day after day of miserable press for him to finally get the message.

So we see this pattern repeat itself: Trump does himself damage, digs his hole deeper, and then long after it would normally happen, he walks back the offending statement or drops the matter altogether. Or he reads a speech someone has written for him, an exercise meant to convey that he's finally learning how to be "presidential" and will be on better behavior from that point on, but within a day or so, he's off saying something else offensive or inane. I picture his staff watching on TV, shaking their heads and saying, "Oh god, not again."

There may have been a shakeup on the Trump staff, with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski forced out, but as they say in the business, the one person you can't fire is the candidate. And Lewandowski's biggest sin was not getting in Trump's way more often. "As his candidate courted controversy, Lewandowski's mantra was 'Let Trump be Trump,'" The Washington Post reported after his firing. It's a turn of phrase one commonly hears in campaigns, usually spoken by someone who thinks that cautious advisers are preventing the candidate's full talents from being displayed to the voters. And while it isn't always good advice, in Trump's case it's positively suicidal.

But just because the guy who wanted to let Trump be Trump is gone, that doesn't mean that the rest of the people around him will be better able to rein him in. Every time Trump does an interview or holds another rally, we see his true self emerge, causing new controversies and alienating new groups of voters. And no party nominee has ever had so many conflicts with other politicians from his own party. There have been plenty of mediocre nominees whom other candidates have distanced themselves from to one degree or another. But there's never been one who comes in for such frequent rounds of condemnation from the politicians who are supposed to be out convincing people to vote for him.

From the beginning, one of the striking things about Trump was how alone he was. Even as he swept over his primary opponents, he got almost no endorsements from other Republicans, and had a fraction of the number of allies, surrogates, and informal advisers presidential candidates usually accumulate. He's had trouble recruiting staff, because so many of the Republican campaign pros who ordinarily would be on their nominee's team don't want to soil their resumes with service on what so many see as a doomed and ignominious effort (his new communication director had to hurriedly delete a bunch of anti-Trump tweets after he took the job). So it's left to that small number of staffers who are there to constrain their boss' disastrous instincts and misplaced confidence.

On the other hand, maybe they aren't trying all that hard. On Tuesday, his campaign chose a gigantic pile of garbage to serve as the backdrop for his latest prepared speech. It was either a hilarious screw-up, or a subtle self-aware commentary on the state of their campaign. If it was the latter, my hat's off to them.

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