Here on the eve of the start of the Republican National Convention, I’ve finally turned a corner in my understanding of what Donald J. Trump is up to. I know a ton of my friends have been saying this for months, but I’ve been withholding judgment because it seemed to me that a megalomaniac driven by ego as much as the short-fingered vulgarian from Queens would actually want to occupy the highest office in the land. Surely a person as hungry for power and attention as Trump would want to be Commander-in-Chief, right?
No, I really don’t think so. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think Trump wants to be president. I think U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit the nail on the head last week when she remarked:
He is a faker…He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.
How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that.
She later said she regretted speaking her mind in the middle of an election season, but I cannot help but agree with her diagnosis. Trump is faking his way all the way to November.
I think he wants to win the election, but I’m not sure he has any intention of actually serving as president. Let me explain what I mean, and what finally made things click for me.
Clues Along the Way
For starters, there’s the obvious way that Trump doesn’t seem interested in actually preparing for any of the speaking engagements or press events he sets up. He never gives off the impression of a man who wants to know what he needs to know in order to give an informed opinion about domestic or international events. His speeches are clearly made up on the spot, and he seems to revel in flying by the seat of his pants. He misspeaks and gets his facts wrong constantly, and he never seems to care about correcting himself afterwards.
For another thing, it’s pretty obvious he’s not trying very hard to put together the kind of campaign it would take to win the White House by a comfortable margin. About a month ago, his campaign finally disclosed exactly how small his ground game operation has truly been:
The campaign estimates it currently has about 30 paid staff on the ground across the country.
That’s thirty people to work fifty states. For a national campaign to become president of the United States. Let that sink in for just a minute. It’s like he hasn’t even really been trying. He’s added a few over the last few weeks, but not many.
Thirdly, there’s the yuuge discrepancy between his use of “earned media” and the purchased kind. Ordinarily candidates for national office will spend a great deal more money on advertising produced by their own campaigns and PACs than Trump has up until this point. But as Politico reported earlier this year, back in December of 2013 the Donald indicated his intent to use sensationalist media buzz as his primary means of keeping his name on the airwaves:
Notoriously frugal, Trump insisted he wouldn’t need to spend much money on paid advertising, drawing disbelief from the professionals gathered around his table.
“You can’t run for president on earned media,” one attendee recalled telling Trump.
The billionaire looked up, and paused for a long moment. “I think you’re wrong,” Trump said.
And in fact, Trump was right. According to a study done four months ago by the New York Times, in the 8 months since the start of his campaign, Trump had raked in nearly $2 billion in earned media by simply saying outlandish things and then riding the waves of both positive and negative press generated by his own comments.
In one particularly slow week for Trump’s media ratings back in mid-May, a tape of a 25-year-old conversation between Trump and People Magazine reporter Sue Carswell was leaked to the Washington Post, exposing the real estate mogul’s propensity for posing as his own PR representative under an assumed name. When asked how the recording of that conversation made it into the hands of the Post‘s news editors, Carswell responded that only she and Trump would have had access to a recording of that conversation and that she lost her copy many years ago in an apartment move.
In other words, Trump most likely leaked the tape himself. He released to the press an old tape exposing his own chicanery for the sole purpose of keeping his name in the media for another week. According to the Trump model of media relations, there truly is no such thing as “bad publicity.” The February New York Times report seems to bear this philosophy out.
Okay, so up to this point we’ve only established that Trump understands the usefulness of sensationalist media, and that he seems content to have ridden the waves of 24-hour news cycles into this coming week’s convention, earning for him the presumptive nomination on the GOP ticket.
But what makes me believe that he’s not actually doing this in order to become the 45th president of the United States?
Two Things That Changed My Mind
First of all, there’s the sheer volume of money that he’s funneling back into his own business ventures through his campaign’s expenditures. Running for president can be a significant money maker for presidential candidates, even for the ones who lose. But Trump is taking that game to the next level. While some candidates use their campaigns to raise their own media profiles so that they can then leverage them into book deals and media commentator jobs, Trump has figured out an entirely novel way to make money off of running for president: He uses his own properties and merchandising to turn a profit.
A few weeks ago, we learned a great deal when Trump’s campaign released its obligatory financial report (would that sharing his tax returns be similarly obligatory). What we learned is that while Trump himself lent his own campaign the overwhelming majority of its operating dollars, his campaign has in turn been writing six-figure checks for the benefit of his own hotels, restaurants, and other family businesses. According to the Associated Press, since the start of his campaign, he’s redirected more than $6 million right back into his own family’s business interests.
You know those campaign stops he makes where he says all those outlandish things that keep his name in the news? More often than not they are staged at Trump-owned properties. That means the money that goes into pulling off the events all goes right back into his own pocket. You know those flights he’s taking around the world on his plane or in his helicopter? All paid for by campaign dollars, going right back into his own companies. His campaign headquarters uses up a great deal of office space, costing his campaign half a million dollars in rent. Want to guess where that space is located? In Trump Tower of course. That’s another half mil right back in his own pocket.
Also, remember that dumb tweet he fired off about Scotland voting to leave the European Union? He made that gaffe while promoting the reopening of one of his golf courses, in Turnberry. His tweet displayed remarkable ignorance, and he got the facts exactly wrong. But then again if he hadn’t have said anything ridiculous, how would an international audience have learned that he was reopening a golf course in Scotland that week? Maybe he’s not as ignorant as everyone thinks.
Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2016
At each of his campaign events they sell Trump water, Trump steaks, and Trump hats and shirts. You name it. Everything about the way this campaign is being run suggests that a shrewd business man has figured out a way to use the electoral process to make a pretty penny for his own investments, all while keeping his own name on everyone’s lips.
The second thing that made me turn a corner was the realization that I cannot imagine a man like Donald Trump waking up every morning at the crack of dawn and subjecting himself to the grueling daily schedule of a man expected to bear the weight of the nation’s concerns day after day, week after week. Once you become president, you no longer own your own life. You essentially become public property for a minimum of four years of your life. The life of Public Servant #1 is an extreme one (see a day in the life of Obama here), with virtually no privacy and no personal autonomy. Your every move becomes a matter of permanent public record.
Can you imagine Trump subjecting himself to that? Can you envision a man who loves to fly by the seat of his pants and say whatever pops into his head next allowing others to tell him what to do? He wouldn’t last one month in that environment. He has never done a day’s work in public service in his entire life. He has always been his own boss. I cannot foresee that changing.
On top of that, a president of the United States earns a salary of less than half a million dollars a year. Conflicts of interest would dictate that, while president, Trump would have to put his business ventures on hold or into trusts until he either resigned or completed his term in office. Given how dependent his business model is on using his own personal identity as his brand, the losses to his financial interests over a four year time period could be irreversible. I do not anticipate Trump taking that risk.
But that still leaves us with one glaringly obvious question: Why on earth is he doing this? Profit motive can only explain so much, given that there are better ways he could be making money, for a much greater return on investment. If he doesn’t really want the job itself, why is he doing this? And furthermore, what would he do if he were to actually win it?
A Motivation That Makes Sense
I think all of this boils down to a peculiar kind of performance art. I really do. Some are calling it a massive scam, and they are calling him a con artist. Witnessing the way he does business, that shouldn’t really be news to any of us. But Zack Beauchamp at Vox recently shed some light on the psychology of Trump by reading back through his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. Beauchamp deciphers the man thusly:
What you learn about Trump from reading The Art of the Deal is that he doesn’t see deals as business transactions so much as measures of one’s success at life. If that’s the case, then you’re justified in doing anything — anything — to make sure you come out on top.
This all stems from a fundamental Trump belief: Life is a competition for status, which you win by having the best stuff and the best people admiring you. Money helps, to be sure, but getting a lot of cash isn’t enough. You need to be recognized as one of the greatest at what you do, with the greatest things and best life, to have really succeeded.
Is there any accomplishment for an American more boastworthy than getting elected president? Is there any higher status in the land? Nevermind for a second whether or not he wants to be strapped with that responsibility for four years—winning it would be the ultimate score.
Trump’s book says this in the very first paragraph:
I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferable big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.
This actually makes sense. It makes sense to me better than anything else I’ve read or heard up until this point. So much of what this atypical candidate does is counterintuitive, and so far it has paid off handsomely.
Money was never a big motivation for me, except for keeping score,” he writes. “The real excitement is playing the game.”
Obviously I can’t read the man’s mind, and we could all be wrong about this. But maybe, just maybe, this puts a finger on the best explanation for what this man is up to. In fact, if you’ve got a few minutes you should go read the entirety of Beauchamp’s article on Vox. I think he nailed it. I think for Trump this is all a game in which he will do whatever it takes to close the deal, and frankly what happens after that wouldn’t even matter to him. I’m not sure he’s really thought that far ahead.
[Update: After this post went up, perhaps in response to Beauchamp’s signal boosting of The Art of Deal, the man who ghostwrote the book has come forward to set the record straight about how much of the book reflected Trump’s personal philosophy and how much was his own interpolation. He now says that bit about performance art was essentially “putting lipstick on a pig.” See also the featured comment below by The Apostate.]
That only leaves us with a couple more questions:
- Can he really win it?
- Will he keep the job if he does?
To the first question I say his chances are poor. It’s not unimaginable that Trump could win the national election in November, but appealing to the general American public will be a vastly different thing from winning Republican primaries. During Republican primaries lately, the winning strategy has been to out-right-wing the other candidates. Trump did that handily in his own iconoclastic manner, beating out a dozen other candidates who should have outperformed him.
But the general population of America is considerably more diverse than the group which pushed Trump to the front of the GOP line. From a demographic standpoint, I’m not sure the GOP will have a viable pathway to the White House for many years to come. It will take a significant reinvention to make them an appealing party for the increasingly urban population.
Gerrymandering may have kept the Republican Party in play at the state and local levels, but presidential elections are won by winning the electoral college, and right now the Democratic Party enjoys a significant advantage, and it’s getting bigger every year. Thanks to its rapidly growing Latino population, Texas won’t stay “red” much longer; and when it finally turns blue, that will be the decisive end of the Republican chances to run the executive branch of the U.S. government.
All that to say, I really don’t think he’s going to win.
But what if he did? What if white evangelicals dutifully fall in line and enable the Republican Party to win the White House one last time? Would Trump even take office and fulfill his role as Commander-in-Chief?
I really cannot see it happening. In fact, he may still be in shock from getting as far as he’s gotten. I think it’s altogether possible that the man hasn’t thought beyond November 8th, and hasn’t seriously decided what he would do if he were to win. If he were to give it a shot, I wouldn’t give him a month before he decides to quit. He is so ill-fitted for the job for which he is applying that I can’t imagine he would make it past the first few weeks in office.
And if that were to happen—if he were to quit after winning the election to highest office in the land—he would still have gotten to choose his own successor in picking Indiana Governor Mike Pence to be his running mate. He would have single-handedly gotten to pick our next president without anyone else telling him whom to pick. No one has ever pulled a stunt like that, and that would make Trump a singular figure in U.S. history.
He could be the man who trolled the entire American population and got to hand pick who runs the place, all while pocketing some green along the way. Think of the branding power that would bring to a man obsessed with such things!
I dunno. I could be wrong about all of this. But, to me, this finally makes sense of it all.
[Image Source: DonkeyHotey on Flickr]