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Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is turning into a psycho-drama in which the Republican candidate’s foibles, strengths, weaknesses, pugnacity, grudges, resentments and flip flops play out day after day. All this provides grist for his opponents, his fans, journalists and everyday voters to dissect him with increasing intensity as they ask the question: What is Donald Trump really all about?
The Republican presidential nominee’s latest gambit was to reshuffle his campaign team this week – the second time this has happened in the past two months. He hired Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, to be the campaign’s chief executive, and promoted Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster and Trump adviser, to be campaign manager. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, will retain his title but the moves are widely seen as a dilution of Manafort’s authority. The shift apparently means that Trump will persist, at least for now, in his combative approach, which both Bannon and Conway are known to support.
Races for the White House are character tests of would-be presidents, and Trump is not wearing well as the pressure mounts. He has never run for elective office before. A full-fledged presidential campaign seems more than he bargained for, less subject to his will than he expected, less easily manipulated than was possible during the GOP primaries. His gaffes and over-the-top persona are exposing him to more ridicule than ever. And he appears to be making up his campaign as he goes along.
Trump has been complaining with increasing intensity about his plight – his sagging poll numbers and rising unfavorability ratings among voters. “I am not only fighting Crooked Hillary [Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee],” he tweeted recently. “I am fighting the dishonest and corrupt media and her government protection process.”
Sometimes he seems to be publicly participating in a debate with himself over who he really is. On Tuesday, he told WKBT-TV in Wisconsin, “I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change. Everybody talks about, oh, well, you’re going to pivot [to a softer approach where he tempers his incendiary ways]….I don’t want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
Yet Trump advisers and family members including his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have urged him to change public impressions that he is a hothead who overreacts to criticism, is quick to seek revenge for real and perceived slights, and refuses to study the issues, associates say. Among the internal recommendations are using a teleprompter or written text for his speeches more often – which he has done sporadically in order to maintain message discipline – and avoiding insults and petty disparagement of his adversaries such as mocking their looks. Campaign sources say that, on some occasions, Trump has seemed amenable to softening his approach overall but he wavers even though his image needs refurbishment. The Trump campaign’s polling shows that many voters describe him as “unqualified” and “racist,” according to the New York Times.
Trump has also begun to do what once seemed unthinkable for a man who loves to insult his opponents as “losers”: Admit that he may be facing defeat in the general election. “I’ll just keep doing the same thing I’m doing right now,” he told CNBC. “And at the end, it’s either going to work, or I’m going to, you know, I’m to have a very, very nice, long vacation.”
Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer and former reality TV show host, regularly adds to his own caricature as an erratic authoritarian. Among the examples: linking President Barack Obama and Clinton to terrorist groups, without providing evidence; trading criticism with the parents of a U.S. soldier who was killed in Iraq, and seeming to encourage violence. Meanwhile, he has fallen behind Clinton nationally and in key swing states, according to most polls. The Times reports that in private Trump “is often sullen and erratic” and “veers from barking at members of his staff to grumbling about how he was better off following his own instincts during the primaries and suggesting he should not have heeded their calls for change….exhausted, frustrated and still bewildered by fine points of the political process and why his incendiary approach seems to be sputtering.”
He says this is fiction, and he seems to particularly enjoy baiting the media. Last Friday, he tweeted, “I love watching these poor, pathetic people (pundits) on television working so hard and so seriously to try and figure me out. They can’t.”
But the negative impressions spread by the media seem to be settling in. Trump is often portrayed as, above all, a narcissist, a self-aggrandizer and a bully who wants to divide the country. His problem is that increasing numbers of voters are starting to agree that this is the real Donald Trump.