Conspiracy theories are almost never true, and they're fun only to the extent that people don't actually believe them. That said, it's hard not to consider David Axelrod's assessment Thursday on CNN, following a rocky week for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee: "If Donald Trump were trying to lose this election — and I'm not saying he is — but if he were, I'm not sure he'd behave any differently than he has in the last few days."
There has been mostly-in-jest murmuring since Trump took his escalator ride down to political stardom last year that he is a plant for Hillary Clinton, perhaps persuaded to run by Bill Clinton to torpedo the Republican Party. It's a preposterous conspiracy theory, especially ridiculous because either the Republican electorate would have to be in on the prank or oblivious to Trump's repeated attempts to disqualify himself.
And yet, here we are. After managing to win the Republican nomination over a large field of governors and senators, despite (or maybe because of) his alienating large groups of Latinos, women, Muslims, African Americans, and most remarkably of all, conservatives, Trump almost singlehandedly turned his post-convention bounce into a polling deficit that, were it to hold through November, would make Walter Mondale and Barry Goldwater feel better about their losses. Even at the convention, his wife plagiarized Michelle Obama, a misstep almost too comically inept to be accidental.
At a time when Republicans are pleading with Trump to focus his attacks on Clinton, he's now at rallies "talking about receiving a Purple Heart from a supporter, promoting his golf club in Virginia, and creating new headlines about his spat with the Khan family who lost their son in the Iraq War," as The Washington Post's Amber Phillips notes. "What is he doing relitigating every controversy from the primary season?" Megyn Kelly asked on Fox News Wednesday night. "It's true the mainstream media now hates Trump," she added. "But must he help them? Must he help them so generously every day?"
Donald Trump has managed to provoke stalwart Republicans into declaring their intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton! It's hard to see how you could do that by accident.
So let's consider the possibility that Donald Trump does not want to be president, as some Trump skeptics have argued all along. Trump appears to genuinely enjoy campaigning for president, unlike his Democratic rival, but actually being president requires hard work, lousy pay (for Trump), and a sharp attention to detail on a broad range of complicated subjects. Unlike a real estate chief executive, a president is constrained by two coequal beaches of government. Unlike on reality TV, you are hated by up to half of the country.
With Trump, meanwhile, "it's impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes," Tony Schwartz, who (at least) co-wrote Trump's 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal, told The New Yorker. "If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it's impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time."
On the other hand, Trump hates to lose and is positively allergic to humiliation. When he was shopping for a running mate, Trump seems to have stumbled on a compromise, with son Donald Trump Jr. reportedly offering potential VPs a portfolio that encompassed foreign and domestic policy, while he, Trump, focused on "making America great again." Maybe sometime in July, however, Trump realized that outsourcing the presidency is untenable.
Along with gleefully alienating entire segments of the electorate and attacking Republican sacred cows (military families and veterans, shrinking Social Security, Russophobia, Paul Ryan, and every GOP nominee or president since Bob Dole), Trump has laid some groundwork for exiting stage right. He is warning of a "rigged" election, for example — why compete if the system is fixed against you? When asked in July, Trump did not rule out quickly resigning if he won the White House. Republican leaders have taken note, reportedly preparing a backup plan if Trump bails.
The truth, as usual, is probably pretty mundane. It's likely that Trump is serious about winning and serving, but is finding that the say-anything strategy that worked with the Republican primary electorate won't work in the general election. If media attention and big rallies aren't enough to beat Clinton, he has a few months left to try more traditional means of winning elections, with a big assist from the Republican National Committee — July was a good omen for that effort, money-wise.
Still, Donald Trump is a man who pays attention to the bottom line. While the increasingly toxic presidential campaign appears to be hurting the almighty Trump brand, especially in the blue states where a sizable chunk of Trump's properties are located, there's also the rumor that he wants to start a cable news network to rival Fox. Maybe like the Mel Brooks farce The Producers, Trump is betting on cashing in on a losing presidential campaign.