By Matthew E. Milliken
April 5, 2016
Eight days ago, a hitherto obscure public relations expert and New York University adjunct professor named Stephanie Cegielski generated a great deal of attention when she wrote an open letter explaining why she would no longer support Donald Trump’s run for president. The most notable thing about the letter was its author — specifically, the fact that Cegielski had worked for several months for the Make America Great Again political organization, an unofficial adjunct to Trump’s campaign.
The next few days went poorly for Trump: He suggested breaching the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture, among other things; said he was for punishing women who illegally obtain abortions before changing his position on the matter several times; continued an aggressive defense of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even after Florida police charged him with manhandling a female reporter then associated with a conservative “news” outlet; and gave the latest in a string of interviews in which he seemed arrogant and disjointed. (Asked by The Washington Post’s Robert Costa what strategy he had for converting former Republican rivals into allies, Trump said, “I think that’s overrated, what you’re saying, about bringing them into the fold. At the same time, I think I would be successful with many of them. I don’t know that I’ll be successful with Jeb Bush.”)
Now several pundits are questioning whether Trump is sabotaging his own campaign, consciously or otherwise, because he doesn’t really want to be president. By way of example, today, we had Michael Brendan Dougherty writing for The Week; on Monday, there was Robert Becker writing for Salon and three editors writing for The Huffington Post; on Friday, Sean Illing in Salon and John Fund in the National Review. On Saturday, A Prairie Home Companion ran a “Guy Noir, Private Eye” skit in which a faux Donald Trump orders his staff to find a way for him to wreck his lead in the nomination campaign. On Sunday, Chris Wallace began an interview by asking Trump, “Are you in the process of blowing your campaign for president?”
But the idea that Trump wasn’t a serious candidate is hardly a new one. In the summer of 2015, both before and after Trump officially declared his candidacy, many pundits speculated that the Donald’s candidacy was an initiative meant to enhance either his ego or his brand, if not both. Andy Kroll wrote in July that his magazine, National Journal,
had planned to take the high road and ignore his presidential campaign, they explained, but the frenzy he had created and his strong standing in the polls were making the silent approach seem less noble than clueless. We had to say something fresh, something insightful about Trump — but what, and how?
Newsrooms everywhere appeared to be pondering the same question, with responses running the gamut from schizophrenic to cheeky to despairing. Earlier this year, CNN president Jeff Zucker instructed his producers to ignore Trump’s antics as he publicly flirted yet again with the idea of running for president — but from the moment in mid-June when the billionaire officially jumped into the race, the network has covered his campaign as if it were a disappeared Malaysia Airlines flight. At Fox News, Rupert Murdoch was reportedly feuding with chairman and CEO Roger Ailes over the network’s wall-to-wall Trump-tracking. By contrast, another leading voice of the Right, Glenn Beck’s radio show, decided to become a Trump-free zone. “I just can’t do another show about it,” producer and guest host Stu Burguiere told listeners.
The Huffington Post responded to Trump’s campaign-as-publicity-stunt with a stunt of its own, announcing that it would cover him under the “Entertainment” banner, rather than in the political section. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” editorial director Danny Shea and Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim told their readers. “We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
In The New Republic, Elspeth Reeve declared that “Donald Trump is America’s Most Gifted Political Satirist”:
The artist’s intent, after all, doesn’t matter. Take, for example, today’s dramatic escalator entrance before he launched his presidential campaign from inside his Trump Tower in Manhattan. Was it meant as an absurdist sendup of the way our dear leaders project gravitas while campaigning inside modest swing state shopping malls? Who cares! It was the funniest thing that was happening in the entire world at that exact moment. And, of course, there’s the grander question: Is he really running? Donald Trump makes us ask ourselves, what is really real anyway?
Does hiring experienced political operatives in Iowa make one a real presidential candidate? What about filing paperwork? Trump has 120 days to file with the Federal Election Commission a real financial disclosure, not the summary he gave reporters claiming a net worth of $9 billion. In April, paperwork for the “Donald J Trump Presidential Exploratory Committee” was filed with the IRS as a 527 group. (A 527 group has to report donors and expenditures less often, but still has to abide by campaign donation limits.) Maybe a real presidential candidate is something more than paperwork — you feel in your gut, a seriousness, a gravitas.
Others have gone further, speculating that the entire GOP slate was campaigning for ulterior motives. In October, Erin Gloria Ryan asked “Do Any of the Republicans Running for President Actually Want to Win?” in a Jezebel post that compared the campaigners to the protagonists in Mel Brooks’s immortal 1967 musical farce, The Producers.
At any rate, the Republican Party now has two main options, both unappetizing:
• Trump might win the nomination, either because he clinches a majority of delegates through primary and caucus results or because he outmaneuvers opponents at a contested convention; if this happens, the GOP establishment must either unite behind him or run a third-party candidate. This is unappetizing to many conservatives; they dislike Trump, doubt his conservative bona fides, fear that his high negative ratings among general-election voters could result in big losses up and down the ballot.
• A rival, potentially U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) could win the nomination thanks to clever politicking at the convention. If Trump is really bent on self-destruction, consciously or not, this would probably be better than having the Donald win the nomination.
Unfortunately for mainstream Republicans, Cruz is widely disliked by his Senate colleagues, and his negatives with voters are also high. Also, if this happens — whether Cruz or someone else, such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, gets the nod — Trump might break his pledge and run his own third-party candidacy. Even if Trump ran a slipshod effort fueled entirely by spite, such an initiative would almost certainly benefit Democrats.
It will be fascinating to see what happens. But for conservatives, it probably won’t be pretty.