Trump Just Can't Help Himself

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio August 15, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

It's Monday, so Donald Trump just stood up in front of the cameras and read another speech off a TelePrompTer. For the second week in a row, this is supposed to present Trump as being a serious-minded candidate who can manage to "be presidential" when required. But if the past is any prologue, by the end of the week nobody's going to even remember this speech, because by then Trump will have had at least two or three blowups out on the campaign trail -- which will become the story, instead.

"TelePrompTer Monday" will fade into "Outrageous Statement Tuesday," and then into "Damage Control Wednesday," to be followed by "Just Being Sarcastic Thursday," in other words. Of course, I could be wrong about that, but at this point it's the smarter bet. Trump just can't help himself.

Donald Trump is who Donald Trump is. At this point, does anyone really still believe he is even capable of "pivoting" to being some other incantation of Trump who avoids the obvious rhetorical pitfalls he continually finds himself at the bottom of? Trump, from all reports, responds to pressure (from just about everyone with any experience in running or winning political campaigns) by agreeing to give one of these scripted speeches prepared by professional speechwriters. But as can clearly be seen by watching one of these speeches, he considers it a boring chore to get through before he gets to go back out and have fun at his rallies.

Trump, from all reports, considers all the Republican advisors as pointy-headed types who just can't quite grasp the genius of his freewheeling campaign style. As far as he's concerned, he did just fine in the primaries by ignoring all such advice and just winging it. He beat 16 contenders who all had such advisors whispering in their ears, proving that his campaign strategy was one that couldn't be beat by traditional campaign strategies. He is right about that -- look at the mountain of money Jeb Bush spent against Trump, to almost no avail. Trump's style did win the day for him during primary season, this is now historical fact.

What Trump can't seem to figure out (even though everyone around him must be begging him to realize it) is that the general election is not the same game as the primaries. When you're pitching to an audience that is weighing multiple candidates against a backdrop of party purity, the more extreme and outrageous your statements are, the better. Since the party (and its base) is all largely agreed upon certain ideas, it is easy to outdo all others by tossing the reddest meat you can from the stage.

General elections, however, are a choice between two major candidates, voting for minor candidates who have no chance of winning, or just staying home to watch television rather than voting. This election determines who will lead the country, not who the party nominates, and the pool of people voting is a lot deeper and wider. But Trump is content to splash around in the shallower end of this pool, much to the delight of those who already agree with him. Trump is doing almost nothing to reach out to anyone else, because he really thinks he can win just by holding big rally after big rally, and occasionally sending out scathing tweets. Hey, it worked in the primary, right?

This is where a more literal interpretation of "Trump just can't help himself" becomes operative. If Trump continues on exactly the same course he charted during the primaries, he shuts himself off from all the voters who might be persuaded to vote against Hillary Clinton. Trump has a floor of around 38-40 percent, at this point. This has been holding pretty steady for months now -- no matter what he does, he doesn't drop much below 40 percent in national polling. The problem for Trump, of course, is that 40 percent is not going to win him the election.

This election could require a lot less than 50 percent to win, it's worth pointing out. Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein are both pulling in a lot more support than most third parties manage in presidential campaigns. Whether or not this early support will translate into votes is an open question (people often tell pollsters they're supporting third parties only to either stay home on Election Day or vote for one of the two major candidates). But if Johnson and Stein combined pull in a range of 5-to-10 percent of November's vote (a fairly reasonable assumption at this point), this means that either Clinton or Trump could win with a national vote total as low as perhaps 46 percent. That's only six points higher than Trump's floor, so it shouldn't be completely out of reach for him.

But Trump can't seem to help himself. If he refuses to even make a concerted pitch towards the independent or undecided voters who aren't already on his side, then he's never going to close that gap. No matter how many speeches he reads off TelePrompTers.

It's only mid-August, and already there are large portions of the Republican Party who have all but given up on Trump's chances of winning the White House. That's astounding. Not so much that Republicans are giving up or panicking, but the fact that it is happening so incredibly early in the process. Such things have happened before (during Bob Dole's run in 1996, for instance), but they usually happen around mid-October. Not two months earlier. If Trump continues to ignore all advice to even attempt to change his campaign strategy, more and more Republicans -- including the big donors -- are going to make a bottom-line decision that Trump is already toast.

The wheels haven't totally come off Trump's campaign yet. He does still have an opportunity to turn things around. Most Americans are barely paying attention to the race right now. So Trump could indeed recover.

But to do that, Trump would have to be the one to help himself. Nobody is even capable of making this change right now other than him. A good measure of whether this is even possible will be how the rest of this week goes. If Trump stays on message and makes the entire week's theme what was in his speech today, then maybe he has woken up to the fact that he's tanking in the polls. If, however, Trump steps all over his own message with some off-the-cuff statement in front of an adoring crowd -- a statement so outrageous that it becomes the story for days on end -- then there may just be no helping Trump at all. Sure, his campaign team can (metaphorically) bring him down with a tranquilizer dart each Monday, then prop him up and force him to read some prepared remarks -- but if everyone's forgotten the speech by Wednesday, then it's not going to do him a whole lot of good in the end. TelePrompTer Monday is all fine and good, but if Trump is out there being Trump for the other six days of the week, few are going to pay much attention. Six days which cause independent voters to recoil in horror just can't be offset by a weekly speech delivered in a monotone in an effort to "appear serious."

Again, the safe betting is on Trump not being able to help himself. At this point, the safe betting is also on "how big Hillary Clinton's electoral landslide will be" rather than whether Trump even has a shot at winning. And it's only mid-August.

 

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