Is Donald Trump Actually Trying to Win?

Nate Silver, “Trump Is Doubling Down on a Losing Strategy”:

So it’s not surprising that Trump has undertaken a major shakeup of his campaign, hiring Bannon and promoting the pollster Kellyanne Conway. Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort has effectively been demoted. But rather than make a much-expected “pivot” toward general election voters — as Manafort had reportedly been pushing for — the new plan is to “let Trump be Trump,” doubling down on the strategies that Trump used to win the nomination, including an emphasis on nationalism, populism and “brutal fights with Clinton”. […]

If you trust the polls, this seems like a fundamental strategic error. Trump is running worse than Mitt Romney among almost all demographic groups; white men without a college degree are the most prominent exception. But there aren’t enough of those men to form a majority or really even to come all that close.

It’s a crazy strategy if his goal is to win the election. But what if Trump doesn’t want to win? Back in March, former Trump strategist Stephanie Cegielski wrote an eye-opening piece for XO Jane, claiming the goal was never to win:

Even Trump’s most trusted advisors didn’t expect him to fare this well.

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% and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50%. His candidacy was a protest candidacy.

Even if this is true, I disagree with describing him as a “protest candidate”. He is, fundamentally, a self-promotional candidate. He’s doing it to promote the Trump brand and increase his personal celebrity. His support comes from people who see him as a protest candidate, but Trump himself cares only about Trump, not immigration or Middle East foreign affairs or who’s nominated for the Supreme Court. The evidence is that his positions on those subjects have been all over the map.

I found Cegielski’s bold claim credible right from the start. That could be wishful thinking on my part, because I don’t want him to be president. It’s easy to believe what you want to be true. That’s the sort of thinking that led a lot of Mitt Romney supporters (including Romney himself) to believe that because of “skewing”, Romney was going to beat Obama in 2012 despite the fact that all the major polls showed him losing. The basic idea is that U.S.-based polls are “skewed” in favor of Democratic candidates, and that when “unskewed”, you could see that Romney was actually winning. But there was never any actual evidence that the polls were skewed — Republicans bought into it simply because they wanted it to be true.

But to my mind, Trump’s entire campaign strategy makes more sense in this scenario. I think Trump finds being a candidate for president to be a lot of fun. He loves the big crowds and the sound of his own voice. He loves being on the TV news non-stop, and on the front page of every newspaper, every day. I think he’d find actually being president to be terribly boring. By all accounts, it’s a lot of work, even for presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush, who delegated smaller decisions and seldom concerned themselves with the intricacies of policy details.

[Update: As proof that Trump knows the job itself would bore him, note that The New York Times reported the following:

One day this past May, Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., reached out to a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who left the presidential race just a few weeks before. As a candidate, Kasich declared in March that Trump was “really not prepared to be president of the United States,” and the following month he took the highly unusual step of coordinating with his rival Senator Ted Cruz in an effort to deny Trump the nomination. But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?

When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.

Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?

“Making America great again” was the casual reply.

Kasich himself confirmed the phone call in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. That’s an extraordinary offer, but admittedly, not the same thing as not wanting to win the election. It’s certainly on the spectrum, though. I suspect it hinges on cognitive dissonance — Trump doesn’t want to lose (and certainly not in an embarrassing landslide), but also doesn’t want to perform the job of president.]

Michael Moore, writing yesterday for The Huffington Post, claims to know for a fact that Trump doesn’t want to win. He’s only trying to get a better TV deal:

So, on June 16 of last year, he rode down his golden escalator and opened his mouth. With no campaign staff, no 50-state campaign infrastructure — neither of which he needed because, remember, this wasn’t going to be a real campaign — and with no prepared script, he went off the rails at his kick-off press conference, calling Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers” and pledging to build a wall to keep them all out. Jaws in the room were agape. His comments were so offensive, NBC, far from offering him a bigger paycheck, immediately fired him with this terse statement: “Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBCUniversal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump.” NBC said it was also canceling the beauty pageants owned by Trump: Miss USA and Miss Universe. BOOM.

Trump was stunned. So much for the art of the deal. He never expected this, but he stuck to his plan anyway to increase his “value” in the eyes of the other networks by showing them how many millions of Americans wanted Him to be their Leader.

Moore does not reveal his source for this information, but hints that it comes from someone at NBC. Take it with a grain of salt. But it jibes perfectly with Cegielski’s claim that they only wanted to finish second and do a lot of showboating along the way.

Where I’ve struggled with this scenario is Trump’s intended end game. If it’s true Trump doesn’t want to be president, how does he get out of this while saving face? As Nate Silver wrote above, if he wanted to try to win, or least wanted to make the election as close as possible, he’d be campaigning hard to the center. Instead he’s running hard to the right.

What if Trump’s goal, now that he’s the Republican nominee, remains the same as it was a year ago when he announced his candidacy? Not to become president, but to be on TV and make a lot of money doing it. But now, instead of being the star of a show on someone else’s network, he could own a channel of his own. (Or in typical Trump fashion, own a minority stake but put his name all over it.)

Jeet Heer, writing for The New Republic, lays out the case, in the wake of Trump naming “media firebrand” Steve Bannon to run the remainder of his campaign:

But if the Trump campaign is an epic disaster, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In fact, by cementing ties with Breitbart and seeking advice from disgraced former Fox News head Roger Ailes, Trump has sent his strongest signal yet that long-held suspicions about his media-mogul aspirations are true. He’s using the election to develop an intensely loyal audience that occupies a special niche: those who think Fox News is too mainstream. Who better to help him cash in on such an effort than Bannon and Ailes?

The idea that there is sufficient demand for a media outlet to the right of Fox News is extraordinary, but Trump’s sizable minority of supporters suggests that there might be. Fox News is the network of the Republican Party. (Or as Bush speechwriter David Frum remarked in 2010, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”) Trump voters support him not despite the fact that he’s touting ideas that are almost completely contrary to traditional Republican policies; they’re supporting him because his ideas are contrary to traditional Republican policies. It makes sense these same people would be dissatisfied with the traditional Republican news network. There aren’t enough of them to win the Electoral College, but there are more than enough of them to form the audience of a successful media outlet.

The New York Times reported yesterday:

In recent months, Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have quietly explored becoming involved with a media holding, either by investing in one or by taking one over, according to a person close to Mr. Trump who was briefed on those discussions.

At a minimum, the campaign’s homestretch offers Mr. Trump, who has begun to limit his national media appearances to conservative outlets, an opportunity to build his audience and steer his followers toward the combative Breitbart site.

(Kushner is publisher of The New York Observer.)

In short, Trump isn’t trying to appeal to more people, which is how you win elections. He’s trying to appeal more to the people who already support him. That’s how you might build an audience for an “alt-right” media company.

The idea that the Republican nominee for president doesn’t actually want to be president is outlandish. But Donald Trump is outlandish. And what I find compelling about this scenario is that it does not imply that Trump is stupid. Here is a short list of adjectives I personally would use to describe Trump: reprehensible, bigoted, reckless, obnoxious, selfish, incurious, under-informed. But one word I wouldn’t use is stupid. Ignorant, yes, but not stupid.

If Trump is trying to win the election, what he’s doing the last few weeks doesn’t make any sense. But if his goal is not to win, then maybe he’s crazy like a fox. A fox with no regard whatsoever for civil discourse, the stability of our republic, or the future of the Republican Party — but a fox nonetheless.