Ok, so the title may not be specific enough. Trump seems to have many problems. But I’m not addressing his financial, social, physical, intellectual, moral or psychological problems. Lots of people have run successful political campaigns despite having those. I’m talking about his strategic problem that’s hampering his quest for the Presidency.
Trump’s strategic problem is that he can’t adapt. He is a one-trick pony who has used his trick to the limit of its potential and now does not know what to do on finding it no longer works.
In the primaries, Trump employed an aggressive, brash style to get attention for himself and to mock his competitors. It worked very well. I won’t lie; I thought it was very entertaining to see him relentlessly mock the career politicians. They had never seen anything like it, and were unprepared for it.
The problem is, people have now gotten tired of the insult-comedy routine. It was funny for a while, but eventually wears out its welcome. Add to this that the general electorate is less receptive to such an aggressive style than Republican primary voters, and it becomes clear Trump needs a new strategy.
The standard political hack term for this is “pivoting to the general election”, which is a nice way of saying: “tell the primary voters one thing, then tell general election voters something else.” Or lie, to put it simply.
Mitt Romney provided the textbook example of this in 2012. He said all sorts of Conservative-sounding stuff in the Primaries, then took it all back and came out with new, more liberal policies in the General election. It all seemed strategically sound in theory, and I think most strategists would say it was very well done, except for the bit where Romney lost the election.
As you can perhaps tell, I do not like the “pivot to the general election” concept. It seems to show contempt for voters. It is effectively saying “Ha! Those stupid voters will forget what we promised earlier this year, and believe the new, contradictory set of things we are promising now.” I like candidates who seem a bit more principled.
Trump is definitely not pivoting, but he is also not standing on principle. He is just continuing to fight and insult people. And people are tired of it. They want to see that he is capable of doing something else, at least once.
The funny thing is, his biggest error may also have been his greatest opportunity to do this–but he missed it.
After he started his absurd argument with the Khan family, Trump could have surprised everyone by apologizing to them profusely. If he had done that, completely and unreservedly, people might have said “Wow! Trump actually can admit when he’s wrong!” and it might have come out being a positive for him.
But Trump couldn’t do that. Whether because he has some personality disorder that prevents him from ever admitting he’s wrong or just because he thought “My ‘Always Attack/Never Apologize’ strategy got me this far, I won’t drop it now”, Trump failed to do the right thing because he can’t do anything other than attack people.
In general, I try not to use sports analogies when discussing politics, because sports are zero-sum games, and politics has more dimensions to it than that. But in this case, there is a fairly apt analogy with American football.
Teams with great offenses that can “throw the ball all over the field” and score tons of points will go on record-setting streaks and look almost unbeatable playing teams with bad to mediocre pass defenses. Then they finally have a game when the quarterback and/or receivers timing is off, or the opposing pass defense is giving them a hard time, and they have nothing else they can do. They fall apart.
Trump is like that. He won the primaries with an aggressive, angry style against weak opponents, but now that he is in a contest where people want to see empathy and humility, he can’t adjust and do it.
All right, so maybe I did end up analyzing his psychological problems a little, after all. It’s kind of unavoidable.