In trying to make sense of the zany GOP presidential race, one tends to veer from political analysis to psychoanalysis. That’s because Donald J. Trump, the front-runner for nine months, continues to be such a dominant, divisive and erratic force.
No one can calculate how this demolition derby of a nomination race ends. Who will crash and burn: Trump, Ted Cruz and/or the GOP? Norman J. Ornstein, a veteran political analyst, offered five scenarios for how the convention could go. There are too many X factors to forecast the actual outcome.
But with Cruz winning Wisconsin and other delegate battles recently … with California polls indicating that Trump is not likely to sweep there ... with Trump campaign turmoil … and a dramatic drop in his favorability rating in national polls … it appears the Trump train has stalled. It hasn’t derailed. It’s not going off a cliff. But it seems like it won’t arrive at the convention with enough delegates as passengers. Trump is expected by most delegate-counters to come up short. In that case, he’ll need to practice “the art of the deal” in negotiating with an opponent or two, or with “establishment” power brokers, or individual delegates, to secure the 1,237 votes needed for nomination.
That is political analysis. But so much hinges on the unpredictable decisions of "The Donald." And to speculate about that, we must turn to psychoanalysis.
Trump may be narcissistic, demagogic, thin-skinned, short-tempered, misogynistic, unprincipled, arrogant and foolish. (Even his ardent fan Ann Coulter complained recently: He’s "mental!” And she should know.) But Trump can also be a savvy manipulator of media and public opinion, charming in private, persistent in his ambitions and chameleon-like in pandering. Regardless of how you view him personally, you must admit that he is quite the showman. He knows how to entertain, bamboozle and divert attention. It’s revealing that he didn’t mind being compared to P.T. Barnum.
So what will Trump do to stop the slide he’s suffered recently and put his two remaining opponents — “leftovers,” as he refers to them — on the defensive? If he were a conventional politician, one could easily predict what he’d do. He would have stopped tweeting insults, stopped ranting at rallies and stopped alienating GOP officials and conservative leaders. He would have become the new Donald — conciliatory, unifying and more “presidential.” But those steps would have been taken months ago, when he seemed to be building an insurmountable lead in delegates and could have plausibly acted like a magnanimous presumptive nominee. Now he’s in trouble so acting like the presumptive nominee would just seem like acting and presumptuous.
All this time, his campaign has been based on four words: “Let Trump be Trump.” His candidate-worshipping campaign didn’t bring in the kind of staff that could have changed course. So the candidate continued to be a loose-lipped cannon — retweeting mockery of Heidi Cruz, flip-flopping repeatedly on abortion, going overboard in defending his campaign manager after he was charged with battery against a female reporter. The “campaign” was basically a defensive, improvisational PR operation trying to rationalize the antics of its pompous candidate.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a media commentator who has been supportive of Trump, advised him to become a more serious candidate and do his homework on issues before doing more interviews. Other outside advisers undoubtedly suggested the same — including Trump’s old friend, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said he’d vote for Trump. However, Trump apparently believed his own mythology: that he was invincible despite any gaffe, and had unerring instincts about what “the people” wanted to hear from a fearless populist leader.
But, after two weeks of backlash and growing support for the #NeverTrump movement, the evidence of Trump’s decline was too obvious for the candidate to ignore. He is now trying a mid-course correction. He’s brought in an experienced convention manager, and will be putting his name on detailed policy pronouncements. He’s also taken a respite from media interviews and rallies. However, being “presidential” is not an easy re-invention for the boastful billionaire. And he can’t erase offensive statements he’s made in the past; for example, maligning women.
In imagining how Trump might change further, we again should turn to psychoanalysis. Can Trump stop insulting those who dare criticize him? Can he stop attacking the media and whining about his supposed mistreatment? Can he refrain from strutting on stage like Benito Mussolini? Can he study issues enough to sound like he cares about ideas and real-world accomplishment? Can he convince GOP public officials and conservative leaders that he’s not going to lose his temper and say something that will embarrass all who support him? Can he admit error when he makes a mistake and apologize when he goes too far?
It’s hard to imagine that Trump can change his instincts, and addiction to media coverage, enough to feign being “presidential.” As GOP strategist Stuart Stevens pointed out in a tweet, “Ask any female what are the odds a 70 year old male will suddenly change.”
And Trump is not just any old man; he is, in his mind, a brand and legend, perhaps destined to be president. If he’s not a megalomaniac, it’s not because he hasn’t tried to be.
It’s hard to say exactly what is in his mind, despite his supposedly speaking his mind for so long. But clearly his recent decline is due to his own self-destructive, obsessive nature.
Some wonder whether that is because subconsciously he suspects he is unworthy, unprepared and too low-energy for this demanding office. If his political unraveling continues, one thing is predictable: He will blame the establishment, the media and even foreign countries for his defeat. Some people will then think he sounds paranoid, but really he’ll just sound like the old Trump.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.