Donald J. Trump reminds me of George Armstrong Custer.
Both men enjoyed being brash, and boastful, about their early, surprising success. Each was famously vain — proud of his long, blond locks.
Trump astonished the world by winning many small battles (primaries) against many foes (GOP candidates), and earned the glory he craved: the GOP nomination. Similarly, Custer won many battles during the Civil War as a cavalry commander and earned many promotions, ultimately attaining the rank of major general.
During Custer’s military career, he often bragged about his success. After the Battle of Gettysburg, he wrote in a report, “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.” Trump, of course, was equally immodest about his success during the Republican primary contest.
After the Civil War, Custer joined the 7th Cavalry Regiment as a lieutenant colonel, and went west to fight in the American Indian Wars. Like Trump after winning the GOP nomination, his self-confidence and ambition made him all the more arrogant and rash. When his scouts found the encampment of Native American tribes at Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, he didn’t want to wait. Custer attacked. His 210 men, greatly outnumbered, were outflanked and killed. The battle is known as “Custer’s Last Stand” and the defeat was so total that it eclipsed his early military accomplishments.
Trump is in a similar position. Polls, not scouts, tell him he is surrounded. The majority of American voters are hostile to Trump and Trumpism. Like the coalition of Native American tribes that vanquished Custer, most voters have a negative view of the blond, brash, boastful man seeking greater glory. And any analysis of demographics reveals that most voters are not in Trump’s core demo: older, white, less-educated, angry men.
Trump must feel surrounded now, but not just by voters who want to see him lose. He likely feels surrounded by Clinton surrogates, media critics and GOP leaders who have refused to ride to his rescue.
Worse, he must feel surrounded by a reality of his own making. After the GOP national convention, he chose to continue attacking Republican rivals. He chose to attack the Gold Star family of a fallen soldier; and he chose to hire as campaign CEO Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News whose controversial support of the “alt-right” will keep Trump on the defensive on the issue of racism.
And it was Trump who recently chose to divide his own forces — as Custer divided his forces — by “softening,” “hardening,” retreating, denying and delaying on his main line of attack: the issue of immigration and deportation.
So now if Trump retreats on the issue, some of his supporters will lose respect for him, and they won’t be motivated to work for, and help fund, his campaign. If he continues his hard line attack, he may earn the nickname once given to Custer for his stamina in the saddle — “Hard Ass” — but the opposition will be even more relentless in attacking him. If he denies changing his views, or delays a decision on what policy he supports, both critics and supporters will continue to press him … and when he finally states a definitive position, it will be too little, too late.
He will have made his last stand.