GUEST WORDS--During his throat clearing at the 2011 White House Correspondents dinner in Washington, D.C., comedian Seth Meyers delivered a prophetic critique of the political ambitions of Donald J. Trump.
The mogul, touting a run in the 2012 race, sat scowling at his table as the comic quipped:
“Donald Trump has been saying he’ll run for president as a Republican, which is surprising as I just assumed he was running as a joke.”
Five years on and Trump is not only the Republican nominee but also the de facto leader of the Party. Yet Meyers’ insight remains pungent.
The West has inspected Trump’s rise with morbid fascination, as if it were gazing at a smoldering crash site, the charred wreck of the GOP circled by the ashen corpses of its passengers -- Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie et al.
Cultural sneering abounds from Europe: “Look at what those silly Americans have got themselves into now.” Only British snobbery has waned, the country chastened by its vote to hobble economic prosperity in protest at Polish car washers.
International perceptions of Trump were revealed in recent polling. Asked if the businessman would do the right thing once in the White House, only 14 percent of Canadians said he would. Some 12 percent of Britons expressed confidence in the mogul, along with nine percent of French respondents, and eight percent of those in Spain. Only three percent of Greeks welcomed a Trump presidency.
Donald will have seen those numbers -- surveys are the one election tool he regularly consults (around 10 percent of Trump’s personal tweets push data).
So the nominee is also aware of his historically bad polling inside the U.S. -- he’s unfavorable with 88 percent of African-Americans, 87 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of white voters. Even his own party doesn’t like him, with 51 percent of Republicans saying they’d prefer a different nominee.
And polls still matter. Brexit data showed the “leave” and “remain” camps tied for much of the campaign. Election night revealed a narrow win for “leave.” Polling put Trump way ahead of his rivals in the primary. He won that race months before the convention -- all while Nate Silver, the political seer du jour, gave Trump only a two percent chance of winning.
As Politico reflected, the GOP nominee is “setting modern records for political toxicity.” So unpopular is Trump that David Plouffe, Obama’s former strategist, predicted his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton -- herself up to a high waistband in toxic sludge thanks to email practices -- will top 350 electoral colleges on Election Day. That’s ambitious, but Clinton only needs 270 to become president.
There is no mystery to Trump’s tower-high negatives. They are the product of an early campaign in which the tycoon used immigration and the threat of ISIS to exploit a white working class already unmoored by globalization and set adrift by technological and social change. This was Trump’s deal with the Devil — his Trumpian pact.
The GOP historically corralled this constituency by making overtures towards protecting “traditional” values, whether that was a Christian interpretation of marriage or the right to stockpile military grade weaponry next to the bikes in the garage.
The guns remain, but the Republican Party’s inability to arrest social change allied to stagnating economic conditions means the longtime accord between the white working class and the GOP establishment has disintegrated.
Workers have not only lost their jobs but they’re forced to watch on as the society undergoes rapid change, whether that’s the withering of religious superstitions, shifting definitions of the family or transgender soldiers in the military.
All the while anxiety is increased with talk of radical Islamic incursions over the Mexican border and a president in cahoots with Raqqa.
Established Republican politicians have failed so voters look to an outsider, an aging businessman who promises to stop the shifting social sands and protect them from a caricatured threat.
However, promises to “Make America Great Again” while head-butting a jihadi ideology (“I would bomb the shit out of ‘em”) only works for a limited constituency. It is not a trick Trump can pull off in the general election. That con is too long, hence his current deficit of around six points in national polls.
The purpose of a modern presidential run is not to become president but to make money.
And notions of a terrorist attack pushing fearful swing voters to Donald’s cause were dispelled in Orlando in June. His polling barely twitched in the aftermath.
So Trump won’t be tweeting taco bowl pictures from the Resolute Desk come 2017. Like his hidden tax returns, the numbers don’t add up.
Yet none of this will end his campaign. That’s because the purpose of a modern presidential run is not to become president but to make money. The 70-year-old tycoon entered the primary hoping to poll at 12 percent, rack up a healthy delegate count and push some product on the way.
To be part of an Oval Office bid is a money-spinner. It increases a candidate’s profile, which can be peddled after the election by way of book sales, TV appearances and speaking fees. The further you go in the race, the greater the reward.
Sarah Palin’s preposterous “Going Rogue: An American Life” isn’t so much a memoir as a 432-page monument to American idiocy. Yet it spent six weeks as a New York Times bestseller and sold more than two million copies.
After the ‘08 election, Palin landed a lucrative Fox News deal, launched an online media channel and scribbled a library of dimwitted volumes on The Almighty -- all from a burlesque vice-presidential campaign that barely lasted two months.
Why else did 17 Republican candidates run in the current cycle? Certainly not to be president. There are bills to be trousered; there is media to be serviced. There are even TV channels to be set up. As Meyers said, it’s a joke.
Look at the property developer’s campaign spending. In June, Clinton spent $23million on TV adverts in the battleground states. Trump spent $0.
As the Washington Post pointed out, Trump’s expenditure “bears little resemblance to a modern presidential campaign.” That’s not to condemn the Republican nominee for failing to match the granular voter analytics of the Clinton campaign. But his current efforts would barely register as a run for Congress. Less than 50 people are charged with disseminating Trump’s message nationally -- you could squeeze most of his campaign staff into an elevator in the Trump Tower.
The magnate recently looked to professionalize his operation by firing Corey Lewandowski, the press-hating campaign manager (Lewandowski now appears on CNN, looking like a victim unable to shake feelings of affection for his former abductor.)
Why would Trump fire his top guy five months before the election if he were not running a sincere campaign? Why bother? Because the campaign was heading for disaster following a succession of blunders. And there’s a huge difference between losing an election and getting wiped out.
Trump’s brand will be enhanced by a run that ends in a standard defeat. You can already hear him playing the victim, claiming the election was stolen, blaming everyone from the Republican National Convention, to the #NeverTrump movement, to the media, to the donor class, all the way down to a cabal of Syrian refugees smuggled over the border with instructions from ISIS to end Christmas.
Trump can sell that. He can sell being the casualty of a conspiracy to rob the American people of his terrific presidency. “This country would have been so great, believe me.”
What he cannot hawk is being the man who leads to the GOP to an historic clobbering, taking a fleet of Congressmen down with him. The race must be kept respectable if not competitive.
It shouldn’t be hard. The polarization of the country means 45 million Republicans would vote for a pot plant if it said it hated Hillary. All Trump has to do is run the traditional Republican campaign -- casual discrimination, militaristic bombast and the occasional NRA catchphrase -- and tribal voting will take care of the rest.
(Paul Vale is front page editor for Huffington Post where this perspective was originally posted.) Photo: Jeff Mitchell via Getty Images. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.