Six months ago, I warned that Donald Trump’s strengths could also be the weaknesses that would destroy his campaign. I think we’re beginning to see that play out now.
Trump has repeatedly said he is a counterpuncher — that he won’t initiate attacks against his rivals but if they were to hit him first he would hit back much harder.
He seems to take pride in this, as if it proves his toughness — an essential part of the image he’s cultivated. It’s not just abstract machismo that he sells but muscularity in promoting the policy issues that form the centerpiece of his campaign.
Take, for example, his position on Muslims. By refusing to kowtow to cultural and media pressure to be politically correct, he reinforces his image among his supporters as a strong leader and as an outsider.
The louder the critics’ condemnations the more emboldened he has become and the more entrenched his supporters have become — as if the criticisms are validating rather than disqualifying. Trump’s opponents have been flummoxed throughout, scratching their heads over an inelastic demand among his followers that rivals that of cigarette buyers indifferent to price hikes.
His supporters aren’t only unfazed by his political incorrectness; they also seem to be indifferent to his childish tweets, his personal attacks and his remarkable lack of knowledge and preparation — not to mention vacillation — on the issues.
But has his shtick begun to wear thin? Are people finally saying enough is enough?
I don’t believe that many of his die-hard supporters are going to peel away from him. But I do think his antics have guaranteed that he can’t extend his appeal much beyond his devoted followers.
Indeed, I get the sense that he has reached his peak and is beginning to falter for real this time. Can he wait out the clock and squeak by as the remaining states choose their delegates?
He doesn’t have much choice, because contrary to the opinion of some, Trump is not very adaptable. Rumors were circulating a few weeks ago that his close advisers were leaning on him to act more presidential. But Trump is nothing if not Trumpish, so we shouldn’t be surprised he was not amenable to reining himself in.
He demonstrated his incorrigibility when the super PAC Make America Awesome, which is not even connected to the Ted Cruz campaign, posted on its Facebook page a photo of a nude Melania Trump from a GQ photo shoot she’d done years ago. Liz Mair, the Republican strategist behind the ad, stated that Cruz had nothing to do with it, and she admitted it was aimed directly at voting-age Mormons. Trump, treating the ad as if Cruz had directly ordered it, tweeted that Cruz should be careful or he would “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. He next shared a photo of an attractive Melania Trump juxtaposed with an unflattering one of Heidi Cruz with this caption: “No need to ‘spill the beans.’ The images are worth a thousand words.”
This was a gratuitously cruel and unwarranted attack, not unlike earlier personal attacks he’d made on other women, including Carly Fiorina. When called on it, Trump’s responses ranged from defending his actions to denying that the photo of Heidi was unattractive.
Then when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker endorsed Cruz — not couched in an anti-Trump statement as some had urged but said as a full-throated endorsement of Cruz and his conservative credentials — Trump just couldn’t leave it alone. True to form, he attacked the popular governor in his own state for his allegedly poor economic record and even as a guy who doesn’t seem to be an authentic biker.
Whether Trump was trying to be cute and continue the behavior that led to his rise or this was merely his inability to control himself, one can only speculate, but it was most likely a bit of both.
In September, I wrote that Trump should treat his personal characteristics like a minefield and learn how to navigate it without blowing himself up. He would need to keep being himself to retain his appeal but not go too far. Even the conscious process of attempting to strike that balance would be a gamble because it would involve discipline and restraint — and thus a partial abandonment of the unscripted spontaneity that endeared him to his supporters in the first place.
While the GOP presidential field was broad, Trump could act with relative impunity, but as it has narrowed, his margin for error has significantly decreased. The more outrageous his behavior the less likely his appeal will expand beyond his base, which simply doesn’t care about anything other than his positions on immigration and trade, his business acumen, and his outsider status.
The more the field has winnowed the more apparent Trump’s ignorance and thoughtlessness on most issues have become, as exemplified by his damaging interview with Chris Matthews on abortion and his subsequent inability to overcome it, such as taking some five separate positions on abortion in the following week.
Trump has finally given even some of his loyal supporters pause, but he’s definitely alienated a supermajority of women and others who might have considered voting for him before. Just as being himself led to his meteoric rise, continuing to be himself is leading to his implosion. Those who are praying for a makeover surely realize how difficult it would be for Trump and how risky it would be even if he could pull it off.
The only question is whether he will fall far and fast enough before the convention and Ted Cruz will continue to shine and rise in the polls.
I am increasingly optimistic.