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Donald Trump, the unsinkable candidate who seemed immune to political consequences while winning Republican presidential primaries month after month, now finds himself with an ailing campaign and a bad case of personal toxicity.
Cable TV and other news media are obsessed with fallout within Team Trump and dissension in the Republican Party. When Trump holds a rally or takes to Twitter, half the nation seems to hold its breath — waiting for him to insult someone, snarl at a baby or maybe punt a puppy off the podium.
Why? Because the contest has changed, the media context has changed — and Trump has been caught in a confluence of damaging stories.
Not the primary anymore
First, the contest has changed from a one-party affair to a national test. The long months of partisan infighting, debates, primaries and caucuses — culminating in the nominating convention — are now over. Much of the system of rewards and incentives that process ingrained in the various contestants is now irrelevant or even counterproductive.
The audience has increased both in size and attentiveness. The fall campaign is a far broader canvass, luring more than twice as many voters and a far more diverse mix of the population. As the demands of the audience change, the tenor of the appeals and the manner of the candidates usually does too.
Those who do not “pivot to the general” must deal with the consequences. Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984 were all running against incumbents, a tough row to hoe. But all stayed the course that had sustained them in the primaries, believing they would inspire new voters and scramble the electoral map. They lost in the Electoral College by a combined score of 1,537 to 77.
A rush of negative news and a vanished lead
The media context changes, too, in the immediate aftermath of the conventions. The great winnowing is done; the questions of the preceding 18 months have been answered. Focus shifts to a simpler, binary choice.
This new concentration can change the physics of the campaign. In the primary months, the usual laws of gravity did not seem to apply to Trump. The businessman and 70-year-old first-time candidate could say nearly anything about anyone. He could defy the norms of political discourse. Whatever damage he suffered was lost amidst his mounting vote totals. In the end, he amassed nearly half the Republican vote — easily a plurality in a huge field of candidates.
He generated controversy wherever he went, yet seemed to thrive on it. Until now. Now suddenly the freewheeling Trump personality that had been a wellspring of success has become a gusher of miscues and offenses. It is as though someone somewhere suddenly found a switch, and changed the polarity on the Trump phenomenon from positive to negative overnight.
Ted Cruz, Trump’s toughest primary foe, warned that the media were storing up bad stories about Trump to unload on him after he became the nominee. So far it has appeared more as though the media have looked on the everyday Trump with a different lens — while reprising some of the same stories that were first related months ago.
Trump’s convention in Cleveland was successful enough. There were awkward moments and rough patches, but the guy who got booed off the stage was not Trump but Cruz. At the end, there was a big audience for Trump’s acceptance speech, a respectable bump in the polls and several days of being the front-runner for the fall.
But in the last five days, Trump has seen that lead vanish and become a double-digit deficit in some instances. Hillary Clinton got a boost from her own convention, but it grew with each passing day in August — reflecting the news and the impression that Trump himself was making. Clinton has gone from losing the advantage after the Republican convention, in an average of the national polls, to now holding a consistent lead. That lead has also grown in some state polls.
A different kind of attack
That negative news rush was full of Trump’s personal feuds, starting with a Gold Star family whose son, a U.S. Army captain, died in Iraq. The Khans appeared at the Democratic Convention to object to Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Trump and his surrogates struck back at Khizr and Ghazala Khan in highly personal and even slanderous terms, leading to their being featured on countless websites and TV programs.
The Trump counterattack alienated millions, including veterans groups and military figures and Republicans for whom the parents of the fallen are sacrosanct. Trump may have thought that, as Muslims who had denounced him, they were fair game. But it was he who got whistled for being out of bounds.
Rebuked by many top leaders of the GOP, Trump struck back by saying he did not support some of them over their primary opponents. To say this gesture was unprecedented is to understate the shock of it, not to mention the destructive impact. Independence is a virtue widely respected in America. Turning on teammates is something else again.
Trump then salted some of these same wounds by accepting the gift of an actual veteran’s Purple Heart medal and saying he’d always wanted one, but joked that he found it easier to get it as a gift. This happened on the same day The New York Times reminded readers of Trump’s four student deferments and subsequent medical deferment for “bone spurs” during the Vietnam War.
That was just the beginning
In this same brief stretch, Trump has managed to insult the leading fundraisers of the conservative universe, Charles and David Koch, by saying they only gave to “political puppets.” He also claimed to have turned down a meeting with the Kochs, even though it had been they who refused a meeting sought by Trump’s own fundraisers.
And speaking of disruption, Trump indicated he did not want to debate Hillary Clinton on this fall’s predetermined dates — apparently unaware that these dates had been set by an independent, bipartisan commission 10 months ago. Trump said two of the dates conflicted with NFL football games and claimed to have a letter of protest from the NFL. No such letter had been sent, the NFL said, adding it had no problem with the dates.
Far more serious was Trump’s random allegation that someone might be “rigging” the election in November to deny him the White House. Sowing seeds of doubt about the integrity of an election before the fact — and with no evidence — is disruption in yet another form. It does fit Trump’s broad narrative for what he is up against in this moment in history, however, so we should expect to hear it often.
Small wonder that some (anonymous) Republicans have told reporters they are discussing a Plan B, or a “Break Glass” contingency plan to replace Trump at the top of their ticket. Suffice it to say nothing of this kind has ever happened in American politics. The Republican National Committee has the authority to choose a new nominee, but only if the convention’s choice has died, become incapacitated or voluntarily withdrawn from the race.
Trump has at times been rumored to be ambivalent about his presidential bid. Some believe he ran to prove a point, or to extend his “reality TV star” franchise or otherwise burnish his personal brand. Now that he has the nomination, could he be cooling on the thought of actually becoming a public servant? Does he have misgivings about the role for which he is auditioning?
In all likelihood, Trump would have dealt with any such misgivings long ago, when he first led in Republican opinion polls nearly a year ago — or certainly by the spring of this year, when he became the presumptive nominee.
There is simply no reason to think a man such as Trump would back away from the challenge of a lifetime, ceding the chance to be president to a Republican who would not even be of his own choosing.
Trump clearly believes he can right his ship and recover what he has lost in the polls, as quickly as he lost it. But he needs to do this swiftly, because narratives tend to settle in soon after the conventions.
And right now, the prevailing story line has the greater voting public perceiving Trump through the wrong end of its telescope — a figure no longer larger than life but much reduced, and getting smaller every day.