“When a man knows he is to be hanged,” Samuel Johnson once said, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Unless, of course, that man is Donald Trump.
Out of the nine presidential campaigns I’ve covered, I’ve never seen anything as absurd as the motley crew of Trump advisers agonizing over how to delicately, in soothing tones, tiptoe up to the proudly uninformed megalomaniac and broach the topic of more rigorous debate prep. Or, even more hilariously, trick him into practicing for the second contest so he doesn’t repeat his oblivious shame spiral.
In a country roiling with fears about terrorism, race relations and economic inequality, Trump managed to get fixated on the fact that a former Miss Universe gained a few pounds – and to gnaw on that issue for a week after leaving Hofstra, while mainlining bacon cheeseburgers. And this weekend, Trump was ensnared in another sensational story about the lascivious way he talks about women.
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The denizens of Trumpworld – and furious and flummoxed Republicans – are dealing with a highchair king who gets huffy when he sees his advisers and allies acknowledging the obvious on TV: that he struggled in the first debate and that he should cease the self-immolating, misogynistic 3 a.m. tweets.
On a Wisconsin conservative talk radio show Friday, the Republican nominee bristled at a question about whether he would have a thicker skin the second time around: “Well, a lot of people thought I did very well in the debate.”
In Trump’s alternate universe, he is always the winner. If he’s not, the system is rigged, the mike is faulty, the media is biased. Narcissists can see only themselves in a funhouse mirror, either larger or smaller than they really are at any given moment, so it is impossible for others to convey a true picture to them.
Members of his team still couldn’t get Trump to do a full-on mock debate, so they lured him up to Sandown, New Hampshire, for a town hall with a two-minute countdown clock that could get him used to the format.
But Trump pulled a Brechtian move, breaking the fourth wall and informing the audience – on two different occasions – that no matter what his staff members had in mind, he did not consider it a rehearsal.
“It’s so disconcerting when you hear, even tonight, ‘Donald Trump is going to New Hampshire to practice for Sunday.’ This has nothing to do with Sunday. It’s like they make you like a child.”
Trump is right. He shouldn’t be compared to a child. As the Texas state representative Poncho Nevárez told me: “It’s not fair to children. Children are awesome.”
Even with softballs from a friendly audience, like, “What is one of your earliest memories as a child?” Trump got distracted by bright, shiny media objects.
He trashed CNBC’s John Harwood and CNN’s John King for suggesting that he was upset that Mike Pence got better debate reviews by acting like a normal Republican and gliding over some of Trump’s wackadoodle stances. This, even though you know the trending words “Mike Pence 2020” must drive Trump mad.
He went on a loony topographical tangent about King, rambling: “I like him on the maps. He does a good job with the maps. . . . That is why a guy like John King has stayed in the same position for like, how long has he been at CNN? I used to say I think someday he'll be an anchor. Guess what? He is still doing the maps.”
We will soon see if Mogul, as he has been dubbed by the Secret Service, will once more take the shiny snares thrown out by Hillary and her crack team of psychologists.
Trump will brook no intense training and mock debates. But, as The Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report, Trump did allow Chris Christie – who prosecuted Marco Rubio so harshly in a debate that Rubio went into a robotic “Westworld”-style malfunction – to try to toughen his thin skin by tossing out some antagonistic questions.
It seems wildly self-destructive not to prepare for debates that will shape not only his future, and the future of his brand, but also the future of his alleged party.
Yet for the ADD Trump, it seems to be part of the thrill to wing it. His preferred mode when I have interviewed him over the years is the lightning round, where he swiftly offers short opinions on a range of subjects. That format doesn’t work so well in a presidential race.
I asked Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist, what bait Hillary might dangle this time to get Trump to lose it like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” and scream, “You WANT me to build that wall!”
“Same bait,” Schmidt replied. “I have a black Lab, and when you show the black Lab a tennis ball, there is fire in his eyes. He is going to get that ball. He'll do it a thousand times. No more than the Lab can’t not chase the ball, Trump can’t not respond. He’s unable to not have the last word.”
Given that Trump has dubbed so many women dogs, there’s poetic justice in comparing him to one.
On Friday afternoon, The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who has been tormenting Trump on ethical issues with Trump’s foundation, tormented the candidate on another vulnerable area: his history of crude remarks about women.
The paper reported on a creepy 2005 conversation between Trump and Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” captured on a hot mike – more trouble with a mike! – when Trump was promoting a cameo on “Days of Our Lives.”
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” Trump says. “And she was married.”
And when the two men see a beautiful actress on set, Trump gets excited: “I’ve gotta use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” He said that, as a star, he could grab women in an erotic zone and “do anything.”
Trump responded to the shocked reaction of his remarks: “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”
All week, Trump had been saying he wanted to talk about policy and not get “into the gutter” in the next debate, and he emailed Richard Johnson from The New York Post’s Page Six that he wanted “to win this election on my policies for the future, not on Bill Clinton’s past.”
But when he got hit by The Washington Post’s story, he couldn’t help himself. He went straight to Bill Clinton and women.
Throw a tennis ball, the black Lab goes after it. But it’s not fair to compare Trump to a dog. Dogs are awesome.