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What is Trump’s game? A few leading theories

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
What’s he up to?
  • Gwynn Guilford
By Gwynn Guilford


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Maybe the reason Donald Trump keeps spewing crazy talk and shuffling his campaign staff is that he never wanted to be president in the first place, proposes ultra-leftwing filmmaker Michael Moore. Or, maybe, he must scuttle his candidacy to launch a media empire.

Those, at least, are the latest Facebook-blazing hunches as to what’s really behind Trump’s White House run. Let’s unravel the various scenarios these theories point to.

  • The accidental candidate. Many theories feed into the idea that Trump was only ever running to boost his profile—as leverage to extract more money for The Apprentice, or just as a general marketing ploy—and had no intention of winning. This is a “fact” proffered most recently by Moore, who didn’t make clear how he came across this knowledge. However, a former director of a pro-Trump Super PAC said something similar in March, noting that his aim was to get double-digit poll numbers while coming in second in the delegate count. And Trump inadvertently overshot.

From here we have a couple of possible scenario offshoots:

  • It went to his head. Buying into the vaguely messianic rhetoric that won him the nomination, he refused to morph into the neutered Teleprompter-muzzled version of Trump that would make him sufficiently “presidential” to compete in the general election. Instead he doubled down on the same outrageousness that got him attention in the primaries. The only problem is now he’s trailing in the polls—something unthinkable for a lifelong “winner.” Solution: whip up the conspiracy theory that “the system is rigged,” saving him face if he loses.
  • Trump’s real pivot. Once he realized his primary strategy wasn’t working as well in the general election campaign he had to come up with a Plan B. Serendipitously, Roger Ailes, late of Fox, and Steve Bannon, the brain behind Breitbart, were on hand to assure him that he didn’t need to tack to the center; if he loses, they can all launch a cable TV news network together. Since the offensiveness of his campaign cost him much of his previous media business, the venture will be a financial life raft. He can explain the move as the next logical step in exposing the truth about Crooked Hillary and the “rigged” system. Trump will emerge from an election loss not having failed his supporters, but having ingeniously figured out how to keep their crusade on the airwaves. His supporters will hail it as yet another sign of Trump’s business genius.
  • Making a media empire on the cheap. Of course, some think this Plan B was actually Plan A all along. The logic goes something like this: Frustrated with NBC, Trump decided running for president would build him the audience and relationships with potential investors necessary to launch his own cable news network—and grant him oodles of free media coverage in the meantime. Since he never wanted to win the White House in the first place, posits this theory, he’s made himself unelectable by out-Trumping himself after the convention. It might be undermining his candidacy, but it’s boosting the Trump brand. But, wait—what about Mike Pence, who relinquished the Indiana governor’s office to take part in this charade? Was he, like Trump’s supporters, duped too? Probably not. Remember, before he was a governor, he was a talk show radio show host—one who styled himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” Come this time next year, On the Pulse with Pence will be hitting the airwaves.
  • Occam’s razor. Trump is running for president because he thought he’d make a good president. Unlike previous elections, Clinton’s unprecedented unfavorability ratings gave him a clear and relatively policy-free path to victory—i.e. bashing her unrelentingly. Watering down his message for the general election meant diluting his core appeal: that he’s a maverick truth-teller whose leadership vision lies in attitude, not policy. So he chose to stick with the “Let Trump Be Trump” mantra, constantly reshuffling his campaign to include those who agree. The GOP might spurn him, but that only reinforces his “outsider” claim. It wouldn’t be the first time a Republican candidate opted to rile up the base at the expense of winning over moderates.

While fun to ponder, however, this conjectural frenzy tells us much less about Trump than it does about a good many American liberals. After all, the media hullaballoo over Trump’s supposed cable TV tycoon pivot is hardly new. The far-ish left has obsessed over ”what’s Trump really up to?” hypotheses at least since Sep. 2015, when Salman Rushdie let fly the Manchurian Candidate theory (that Trump is a “sleeper” candidate deployed by the Clintons to destroy the Republican Party).

In a way, the conspiracy theory orgy smacks of Democrat schadenfreude that Trump has gutted the GOP—which is kind of ironic for people who condemn him for his anti-democratic rhetoric. Then there’s the hint of smug delight that Trump’s supporters have basically been swindled by a con man. That’s a cue to dismiss his millions of supporters as angry nativist losers who prefer bigotry to policy—PT Barnum-certified suckers incapable of voting in their own interest. After all, if Trump doesn’t take his own base seriously, why should anyone else have to?

These Trump masterplan narratives feel compelling to people who can’t accept that, for all his faults, Trump stands for something important. His success reveals that many Americans feel their democracy long ago stopped representing their interests. Even if Trump’s plan was always to sell out his supporters, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be heard.

That’s not to say liberals are making this up out of whole cloth. His bizarre behavior keeps supplying this speculation with fresh oxygen. Declaring president Obama founded ISIS, smearing of the family of a fallen soldier, defending of Putin’s Crimea invasion, threatening to boycott fundraising for the GOP—the flamethrowing that worked in the primaries looks more like self-immolation these days. His disdain for ad spending and for ramping up his ground game also suggests he’s not truly invested in winning. He has constantly hedged his chances for winning. Despite his claims to the contrary, it was only in June that he began officially self-financing his campaign. Now that we’re in the election’s home stretch, Trump seems less focused on actual victory than on whipping up the “rigged election” mania that will let him claim victory if he loses.

The official exit of Paul Manafort on Aug. 19, after reports of his ties to pro-Russian politicians, will keep the intrigue machine churning. The veteran operative had spent months trying to convince Trump to tone down the outrageousness. His boss wasn’t having it. “I don’t want to pivot. You have to be you,” Trump said days before Manafort’s resignation. “If you start pivoting you’re not being honest with people.” Get ready for pure, unadulterated Trump—and plenty more conspiracy theories.

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