Let Trump play the vic­tim

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— 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 latenight 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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.


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