Sunday, July 17, 2016
By Reed Galen
Quote by a Smart Person: “I’m insulted as a comedian.” Jerry Seinfeld — “Seinfeld”
Donald J. Trump may have stormed through the Republican primary calendar like William the Conqueror but since then he’s played politics more like Ethelred the Unready. On any given day, we can count on Trump to do the unwise, the unthinkable or the unbelievable. During his 28 minute soliloquy yesterday, Trump reminded the world of his dispatching 17 other GOP aspirants. He boasted about himself in the way only a truly self-absorbed eccentric can. He could be at a microphone at Trump Tower or on the corner of 22nd and 6th and he’d still be shouting the same things.
Trump’s myopia caused him to seemingly forget why he was even holding a press conference on a Saturday morning. “Oh, yeah. My vice president. He’s from Indiana, I think. A nice guy. Anyway, here he is.” And proceeded to walk off the stage. Governor Mike Pence, to his credit, stood up and gave a perfectly acceptable speech about why he’s happy to be on the ticket. He deserved better than what Trump gave him — but then, don’t we all.
Winning political campaigns, from dog catcher to President, often share common traits. Their candidates are hard workers, naturally magnetic and are able to explain to voters why they, as opposed to their opponents, should take up the mantle of public office.
Good campaigns are disciplined, with well thought out management structures and an understanding that there are only two finite commodities in a campaign: the candidate’s time and money, and they’re typically tied directly to one another. A good campaign doesn’t leak. Its staffers, from the interns to the senior staff meeting, understand their roles in the world, and generally try and stay in their lanes. There are disagreements to be sure, some of them quite heated and nasty, but no one takes their eye off the ball.
Donald Trump’s campaign is none of the above. It is a collection of people sitting in a Fifth Avenue office suite trying their best to figure out how to find the bathroom while their candidate and fearless leader goes around stepping on every land mine he can find. Trump’s ability to ruin political opportunity is nothing short of fascinating and will surely be studied for decades to come — by both political scientists and those in the mental health profession.
Despite a streak of bad news for Hillary Clinton, Trump cannot save himself from seeing an opportunity to capitalize on her weakness and instead doing or saying something that is so outrageous and beyond the pale, that Clinton’s transgressions by comparison seeming quaint. Even with his own vice presidential pick, someone within Trump’s own inner circle was willing to leak that he didn’t really want Pence after all; turning what should have been a banner day for the campaign into yet another process story about Trump’s mercurial personality.
After making this argument to a longtime friend and colleague in DC they chided me for my own narrow view of campaigning. “Yeah, but he won,” they said. “Whatever he had, whatever he did, the others didn’t.” And they are right, in the context of a bloated field, in a super-heated environment in which everything we thought we understood about American politics was summarily turned on its head.
That doesn’t mean he’s not steering a cruise ship through icy waters like a blindfolded, drunken sailor (no offense to drunken sailors.) If indeed Bill Clinton did put Trump up to running, it would be the greatest false flag operation in human political history.
If the old trope that “campaigns are reflections of their candidates” is even remotely accurate, than what does Trump’s collection of misfit toys tell us about him? He is unable to stay on message. He doesn’t plan for anything. He will be the ultimate decision maker on everything from press releases to major policy proposals (if he had any) and that on any given day the entire group’s activities are dictated by his personal mood.
There are many political veterans, myself included, who have seen candidates ticked off, on the plane, driving to an event, whatever. But rarely does that behavior, largely borne of exhaustion, negatively impact the effort from top to bottom.
For someone who is supposed to be such a business maven, Trump and his team can’t manage their way out of a paper bag. Does Donald Trump need the 800 staffers and tens of millions in television time Hillary Clinton has? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean he can possibly win with 16 teenagers and a private jet.
Watching his unwillingness or inability to build even the auspices of a basic campaign is not original. California is littered with tycoons, from Al Checci to Meg Whitman, whom thought their fabulous corporate success somehow translated to political acumen. Politics is a different animal. When businesses talk about “marketing” campaigns talking about messaging.
Once while arguing with a long-time corporate marketer about why politics was indeed a breed apart, he told me in his vaguely English accent, that selling a candidate was the same as selling toothpaste. To which I told him, that could be, but you don’t often hear commercials for Crest telling you that Colgate will make your teeth fall out. He wasn’t amused, even if I was. While campaigns and corporate C-Suites are both personality driven, they have different goals, different rules and different challenges.
Campaigns are constantly on the receiving end of negative attacks on their principal; attacks which the organization spends an inordinate amount of time refuting and responding to. In that respect, Trump should be better at campaigning than he is; given he’s always being sued by someone.
And while Trump’s campaign may go down as the worst-managed in modern American political history (if being “managed” is even the right verb) he’s likely changed how others will campaign forever. We’ve already seen a few examples of candidates saying the most outlandish thing to generate attention; Trump raised the bar to staggering new heights.
It will start with Republicans but eventually Democrats will figure it out, too. The 2018 and 2020 cycles will be filled with politicians digging deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of outrage and outrageousness to garner earned media, money and attention. Only a few will actually pull it off, but it’s not a healthy evolution for our already nose-diving political discourse.
The next four or so months will be excruciating to watch as two candidates who both suffer from poor approval ratings attempt to further bury one another. But for all her personal issues, Hillary Clinton has the run of Democratic campaign expertise and the resources to put it to work. Donald Trump, on the other hand, will be a daily reminder that just because you can vote for someone, doesn’t mean you should. Trump’s effort is not a campaign, it’s a traveling carnival full of rickety rides and fun house mirrors. Take your Xanax and slap that Dramamine patch behind your ear, you’re going to need it.