If you were to take a wholly objective, clear-eyed view of recent current events, there seems to be no doubt about one thing that is going on in America: Donald Trump is running for president.
Going strictly by the look of things, it really does appear that Donald Trump, aside from being modern life’s most hateful engine of ruthless mischief, is indeed some sort of candidate for president. He has participated in the GOP primaries, won a requisite amount of delegates and became his party’s nominee. They had a big convention and everything to confirm this before our eyes. And now, he is out on the “campaign trail” ostensibly trying to “win votes.”
So it would seem that this is just a fact: Donald Trump is running a completely real and legitimate presidential campaign.
Counterpoint: Or is he?
We bring this up because from time to time, ever since “Donald Trump is running for president” became a thing in our lives, there have been substantial inquiries into whether this is actually happening. Rumors have been whispered. Outlandish conspiracies have been suggested. And everywhere ― even among rational observers ― doubts are being expressed about whether what we are seeing happen before our eyes is really what is happening. What if the Trump campaign is some sort of elaborate con or a cunning plan that went sideways?
Now, this campaign is apparently attempting to “pivot.” By merely saying this, it induces the political press to perform the ancient ritual of acknowledging the pivot. But from what is the campaign pivoting, and where is it heading next? This is an intriguing question, if for no other reason than we never seemed to come to an agreement on whether this presidential bid ever had a fixed point in the first place.
By my count, there are five popular theories on what the Trump presidential candidacy actually is/has been all this while:
So let us consider each of these theories in order, shall we?
Theory #1: Donald Trump actually wants to win the presidential race.
Normally, when someone announces that he or she intends to run for president, we process this information at face value and accept it as truth. Sometimes, of course, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson runs for president and it’s clear that he just wants to sell a lot of books. But this is the exception that proves the rule, let’s say. Anyway! Maybe Donald Trump is actually running for president, and even wants to win.
This is not as crazy a notion as it sounds! In fact, it’s very possible that what we all observe as “crazy” in the context of a Trump candidacy is simply the means by which he hopes to win the election, not the end in itself.
Moreover, the way we have come to view Trump’s bid as abnormal may have more to do with our own bias toward what we have come to accept as the governing fundamentals of our elections. Things like “the party decides,” and “the candidate must make a centrist pivot,” and “it seems weird that this campaign isn’t spending any money or hiring any people.”
But Trump has always presented his candidacy as a sui generis event in American politics, one that’s skeptical of elite institutions and disdainful of hoary convention. He has a unique theory about how he is going to win this thing, to which he has stayed more or less constant. He believes that his celebrity and his reality-show skill set will help him earn free media. He contends that his place outside “the system” will allow him to “disrupt” the stupid old Beltway way of doing things. And he is pretty sure that these factors, combined, will help him turn out hundreds of thousands of voters who have previously stayed at home on Election Day ― which means that all those polls everyone cites, mostly to his detriment ― could potentially be wrong.
To many, these notions seem cracked. But Trump would respond that we just don’t get it, man, and we’re all headed for a rude awakening. Donald Trump is running for president his way ― and his way is going to work.
Theory #2: Donald Trump never wanted this whole presidential campaign thing to get this far, and he is desperate to lose.
Then again, does Trump actually want to win the election? This has, for a while now, been a matter of discussion among those who have observed Trump’s campaign.
And it’s not for nothing they’ve been talking. Trump has been hesitant to do many of the basic things that a traditional campaign does, like spend money on advertising, hire staff, build out a ground game, build out a data team, build out a rapid-response media operation or, really, build anything at all or put campaign funds to productive use. (It looks like this is finally turning around for the campaign, but it’s coming at an awfully late hour ― and only after a torrent of criticism.)
Along the way, Trump has crisscrossed the electoral map, mixing up battleground state appearances with rallies in places like Connecticut, which he is going to lose. And he just can’t seem to stop re-settling the same old scores. He renewed his “Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill Kennedy” conspiracy-mongering the day after the GOP convention ended. He kept his conflict with grieving father Khizr Khan brewing for two unnecessary weeks, rather than simply move past the moment with some polite words. And every time his wranglers seem to get him to stick to a daily message and the tranquilizing effects of the teleprompter, he goes rogue again.
Now, as The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reports, GOP insiders aren’t sure that Trump isn’t actively trying to tank this thing. They may be a little late to the realization. A few weeks ago, former Obama adviser David Axelrod pointed out on CNN, “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.” Back in June, Real Clear Politics’ Carl Cannon took the measure of Trump’s effort and concluded that he was “looking for a way out.” As early as March, Stephanie Cegielski, the former communications director of the Trump-supporting Make America Great Again super PAC, wrote an essay for XOJane in which she warned Trump’s followers, “I don’t think even Trump thought he would get this far. And I don’t even know that he wanted to, which is perhaps the scariest prospect of all.”
And, you know, maybe he fears the possibility as well. For the longest time, Trump’s political act has been to play the potshot-firing gadfly, happily enumerating all the dumb losers in Washington. Becoming president might be his worse nightmare, because then the roles would be reversed ― only he’d have an army of critics waiting gleefully with knives out. It’s tough to go from being the guy who always pointed out everyone else’s failings to being the man with the target on his back ― and while he would never publicly cop to them, Trump is fully aware of his own limitations.
It’s a basic question: Does Trump want to win or lose? But before you get too hung up on figuring out that answer, let’s consider some more specific ― and, perhaps, crazier ― theories.
Theory #3: Donald Trump’s “presidential campaign” is just an elaborate setup to an exciting second act in his life as the mogul at the center of a media empire.
In a recent interview with the Portland Press Herald, Trump was asked, “What was the best deal you ever made?” ― to which he responded, “Maybe the West Side Railroad Yards on the west side of Manhattan.” Strictly speaking, that deal was an utter disaster, on which Trump lost scads of money and, ultimately, the right to develop the site.
But Trump’s unrealized ambitions for that parcel still speak volumes about his self-conception. What he had wanted to do was build a new home for NBC to replace its Rockefeller Center haunts. Depending on what version of his proposal you’re reading about, his name for this dream development was either “Television City” or, perhaps more properly, “Trump City.”
Trump has, deep down, always been a creature of the media. His ascent into Manhattan’s high society was paced by his constant feeding of the media beast ― which he did with zesty deftness. Becoming a reality-television showman ― for NBC, natch ― was a logical stage in his evolution. It got him jacked to the thrilling rush of ratings success, and it taught him a valuable new set of media tropes to deploy. So it is perhaps no surprise at all that, as the GOP primaries were winding down, Trump’s rumored focus was not on the White House, but on the klieg lights and the camera lens. As Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison reported in June:
According to several people briefed on the discussions, the presumptive Republican nominee is examining the opportunity presented by the “audience” currently supporting him. He has also discussed the possibility of launching a “mini-media conglomerate” outside of his existing TV-production business, Trump Productions LLC. He has, according to one of these people, enlisted the consultation of his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who owns The New York Observer. Trump’s rationale, according to this person, is that, “win or lose, we are onto something here. We’ve triggered a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.”
Trump, this person close to the matter suggests, has become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself. Such a situation “brings him to the conclusion that he has the business acumen and the ratings for his own network.” Trump has “gotten the bug,” according to this person. “So now he wants to figure out if he can monetize it.”
Flash-forward to today, and Trump is replacing Paul Manafort, a professionally focused campaign manager, with Breitbart News boss Steve Bannon, whose own journey from the world of business to the media stage saw Bannon catching the same bug and learning to love the same dizzy thrills. Bannon’s ascension to the top of Trump’s campaign suggests, to some, that Trump has already accepted he’s not winning the election, and the time is ripe to put together the next act.
Subsequent reporting by The New York Times pointed in one particular direction:
As comfortable as Mr. Trump may feel with Mr. Bannon’s style of politics, their unconventional alliance, and the possibility that the coming weeks could resemble a conservative publicity tour more than a conventional White House run, fueled speculation that Mr. Trump was already looking past November.
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.
So that’s what this may all be about. Of course, there are crazier theories still!
Theory #4: Donald Trump’s presidential bid was cleverly engineered as a Clinton master plan to destroy her conventional GOP opponents and win her the White House.
As we have previously noted, a lot of people are of the mind that Donald Trump is now actively trying to lose the election. The popular version of this theory holds that he’s doing so simply because he never meant to get as far down the road to the White House as he has, and he’s desperate for some sort of off-ramp.
But there’s another version of the “Trump is trying to lose the election” theory, and that’s the “Trump is trying to throw the election to Hillary Clinton, because that was the plan that he and the Clintons dreamed up in the first place” theory.
The Hill’s Brent Budowsky summarized the elements of that suspicion: The Trumps and the Clintons have a long history of mutual support ― including a past in which Trump praised both Clintons, funded their campaigns and gave some boodle to the Clinton Foundation. It has been put out that Donald and Bill had a lengthy and cordial discussion back in 2005 ― after which Trump suddenly jumped into the GOP primary field to presumably execute what Gawker’s J.K. Trotter called a “false flag” campaign, replete with positions on issues that Trump had never previously expressed.
Surely this notion is nuts, right? As Peter Weber wrote in The Week:
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,” Weber wrote, “here we are.”
Could it be? Suspicious conservatives have rather famously retweeted one man’s take on the matter into a popular refrain:
But what if Hillary Clinton is not Trump’s co-conspirator?
Theory #5: Donald Trump is the unwitting agent of a Russian plot to deform American political norms and destabilize our democratic institutions.
Finally, we come to the most incendiary ― and let’s face it cockamamie ― theory of them all: Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are, on some level, authoritarian cuddle-buddies. Perhaps Putin simply recognizes the way Trump has destroyed America’s political norms, and he wants to exacerbate this dynamic. But maybe, more darkly, the two man are in cahoots in an effort to actively assist Putin’s regional ambitions! What’s that in the mirror? Or the corner of your eye? What’s that footstep following, but never passing by?
The public fascination with Trump’s potential connections to Putin has found a home in respectable circles. As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote back in July:
Donald Trump is not a Russian agent in the sense that Philip and Elizabeth from The Americans are Russian agents. There’s no hidden radio in his laundry room where he transmits secrets to the Kremlin. But his relationship with Russia is disturbing and lends itself to frightening interpretations.
Franklin Foer has detailed the connections between the Republican nominee and the Kremlin. In short, it includes a long series of economic and social ties, which fit the pattern Vladimir Putin has used to infiltrate and undermine governments elsewhere — including in Ukraine, a coup Putin pulled off through Paul Manafort, who is now Trump’s campaign manager. Michael Crowley and Julia Ioffe have both described how the Russian propaganda apparatus has thrown itself behind Trump’s campaign. As Foer notes, Trump’s lack of creditworthiness makes him unusually reliant on unconventional sources of financing. This makes him vulnerable to financial leverage by an unscrupulous foreign entity.
What gives this theory its lift is the same thing that now may presage its decline ― the influence of dictator-curious Paul Manafort on the Trump campaign. Manafort, as of this week, is presumably much less influential, having resigned his campaign post.
There’s no denying that while Putin’s Ukraine-fixer was atop the Trump operation, things got fixed in ways favorable to Putin. During Manafort’s tenure, Trump made NATO skepticism a recurring theme in his campaign speeches. He frequently spoke about how great it would be to be on friendly terms with Putin’s regime. At one point, he even importuned Russia’s state-sponsored cyber spies to intercede on his behalf. And during the convention, the GOP platform’s language on Ukraine ― which had called for aggressively supporting the anti-Putin forces in that country ― was watered down considerably.
That Manafort departed the Trump campaign the same week that he became embroiled in a Ukraine-related lobbying scandal is a combination of events that fuels these suspicions while also suggesting this theory’s time in the sun may be coming to an end. But who knows? Those who have watched the Trump campaign’s odd flirtations might still point out that Manafort’s deputy, Carter Page, remains with the campaign and as curiously connected to Putin as ever. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Clinton campaign continues to aggressively push this conspiracy as a convenient, self-serving distraction from their candidate’s own ties to foreign powers.
So maybe the notion that Trump and Putin are all twined with one another will persist in the background of this election. Perhaps it will fade from view, replaced by some newer, crazier theory. It’s also possible that we all have to revise our standards for what constitutes a “crazy theory” in the first place.
One day, maybe we will learn what intentions and ambitions drove Donald Trump to run for president in the first place. Perhaps whatever this coming “pivot” is will helpfully reveal that truth.
But if I had to wager, I’d say that in all likelihood we’re just going to end up sucker-punched by some weird twist we never saw coming. Brace yourselves!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.