Trump was lucky
Everyone but Donald Trump knows that Donald Trump’s worst enemy is Donald Trump. But his refusal to get off of Twitter and more generally act “presidential” also stems from his misinterpreting how he became president in the first place.
Trump feels his loose-cannon approach to politics was validated by his winning the nation’s highest office in the face of overwhelming opposition from the American political establishment and mass media. That victory further fed his ego by confirming in his own mind presumptions of political genius; he thinks his political formula “works” and is committed to sticking with it, critics be damned.
The same logic influences many Trump supporters, who conclude that only Trump could have beaten Hillary Clinton and thereby prevented America’s makeover into a Scandinavian-style social democracy.
The problem with all this, and thus the source of so many of the administration’s problems, is that it gets the 2016 election almost completely backwards—far from being the only Republican that could have beaten Hillary, Trump was about the only Republican that Hillary had a chance to beat. That she won three million more votes doesn’t matter in a legal sense, but it should tell us something about the weaknesses of Trump as a candidate (and president) and about how awful his campaign was.
Yes, Trump benefited to some extent from his populist, anti-politician persona, but it seems likely that, decades from now, his winning the presidency will be attributed largely to luck; a “perfect storm” of idiosyncratic and unlikely events that came together to produce what was in essence an electoral fluke.
In other words, Trump won not because of but in spite of himself.
Even Trump’s winning the Republican nomination was something of an aberration—he benefited from high name recognition in an unusually crowded GOP field, from media fascination that provided him with more coverage than the rest of that field combined, and, most of all, from being continually underestimated by his rivals. As late as the Florida primary, Ted Cruz was, for instance, using all his TV spots to go after Marco Rubio rather than Trump, in the hope that, were the race to come down to just Cruz and Trump, Cruz would win.
The same logic motivated Rubio, John Kasich and the rest of a GOP field that came to resemble a circular firing squad. At no point, at least until it was too late, did the leading GOP contenders take Trump seriously; it was simply assumed that he would implode under the weight of gaffes that would have destroyed the career of any ordinary politician.
Ego drives Trump, but it was also ego and selfish ambition that prevented his rivals from acting in concert to stop him— each put their presidential ambitions above the interests of the Republican Party, thereby making Trump’s hostile takeover of it possible.
The same factors—luck, an overconfident opposition, and underestimation of his candidacy—were also crucial to Trump’s winning last November.
Conservatives who claim that Trump, and only Trump, could have saved us from a Hillary Clinton administration forget that Clinton was the weakest candidate the Democrats put forth since George McGovern, maybe going back still further. She would have probably lost to just about anybody in the GOP field, including even Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, or Rand Paul, and almost certainly by a landslide to Rubio, Cruz, or Kasich. All the indicators pointed toward a GOP victory in 2016, but because of Trump they came remarkably close to blowing it.
Trump thus benefited from having a spectacularly historically awful opponent for which the majority of the electorate was searching for any kind of semi-viable alternative, and just barely enough in enough places found it in him.
Trump didn’t win so much as Hillary lost. Again, running against a terrible candidate running a terrible, over-confident campaign, Trump got just 46.1 percent of the popular vote. A supposedly especially weak GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, got 47.2 percent in 2012, running against vastly superior competition (Barack Obama).
Yes, Trump attracted just enough white working-class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but his cumulative winning margin was less than 80,000 votes and he probably ran well behind previous GOP nominees among typical Republican constituencies, including white middle-class suburbanites, in the same states. He was, in short, anything but an electoral juggernaut, and it’s likely that he continues to scare more people away from the GOP than he attracts to it.
The 2016 presidential election was indeed a referendum on Trump, but it was also, contrary to his self-flattering understanding, a largely negative one, just as his 39 percent approval rating of his performance as president now is.
Far from being the political wunderkind of his own imagination, Trump still doesn’t understand how lucky he was; even now, to the extent he remains afloat at all, it is because much of the public finds his enemies even more appalling and unhinged than he is.
In Trump’s failure to understand all of this is found the reason for so many of his self-inflicted wounds.
It isn’t too late to change course, but the last thing Trump, the GOP, and the nation needs is to “let Trump be Trump.”