WASHINGTON – Welcome to Donald Trump’s banana republic. “We’re going to have protests, demonstrations,” says Trump surrogate and confidante Roger Stone. “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal. If you’re from Pennsylvania, we’ll tell you who the culprits are. We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.”
This is the Trump-world version of a counterpunch. Lose in a delegate-selection process you’ve known about for a year but didn’t prepare for. Respond with brutish threats of mayhem and personal harm.
Some presidential candidates tease out the latent idealism of their fellow citizens. Trump promises to pay the legal bills of followers who assault protesters. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. Those who believe that politics is a low and dirty business are often the ones who make it so. Trump has a genuine contempt for the profession he seeks to join, and he is doing his best to make it contemptible. He is featuring the kind of bullying vindictiveness that Richard Nixon took great pains to conceal. We don’t need to subpoena the tapes; we have the tweets. Trump will clearly do anything to become president.
Except hire an adequate campaign team, open a briefing book or make any real preparations to govern.
This is, by far, the most confusing aspect of Trump’s campaign. He may be ruthless, but it remains unclear what he actually wants. Three or four weeks ago, many in the Republican Party seemed prepared to accept his nomination, if he could pivot to a more presidential style. Focus groups of GOP voters found some discontent with Trump’s excesses, but little of the disdain that motivates GOP elites. “Non-Trump voters,” an Annenberg Center focus group concluded, “did not demonstrate the kind of true ideological cleavage that causes floor fights or makes delegates walk out of conventions.”
So all Trump had to do was act briefly like a normal candidate. What followed was an attack on the wife of his main opponent, another obsessive swipe at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, an answer on abortion that showed complete lack of preparation and then a full-scale assault on the credibility of the Republican primary process (which he calls “absolutely rigged”). Hiding in a cave would have been a more effective political strategy.
The task required of Trump was not hard: Avoid being an insufferable, unstable, whiny buffoon for a few weeks. Why did he fail?
It is possible, of course, that Trump simply lacks impulse control. At this level of compulsion, we usually don’t grant people the nuclear codes.
But there may be something different and deeper going on. In psychology, there is the concept called “self-sabotage” – behavior that (consciously or unconsciously) undermines a long-term goal. For most people this might involve procrastination or substance abuse. For Trump, it seems to come in the form of rambling public monologues and a late-night Twitter addiction. Trump’s recent behavior provides enough evidence to raise some questions: Does he honestly want the nomination? What is his real endgame?
It is possible that Trump began his presidential race as a lark, found an unexpected momentum and now realizes that the enterprise involves skills he does not possess. Trump’s actions (or lack of them) are consistent with this interpretation. A candidate who really imagines himself in the Oval Office would put together a campaign capable of counting delegates when it was early enough to matter. He would gather a serious policy operation that could form the core of a governing team. He would study up on obvious issues in preparation for obvious questions. Trump has done none of these things.
Self-sabotage can take many forms. It may be that Trump is calculating that he only wants the nomination on his own terms – like a college student who desires a degree, but only if he is spared the indignities of opening a book or attending a lecture. Trump may hope Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus brings him the nomination on a silver platter in the billionaire’s Cleveland hotel suite. And if Priebus doesn’t – if a serious, working campaign is an actual requirement to secure the Republican nomination – Trump is set to be a populist folk hero, energized by a “stolen” election. Playing the victim is Trump’s most comfortable pose. Maybe, deep down, it is the role he desires.
Desired or not, it is the role that Republicans should give him.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.