The perils of covering Donald Trump

There seem to be two standard rules of political reporting when it comes to US presidential elections. One is that the media has a vested interest in a close race because that generates more interest in the news and thus more readers and viewers. Hence there is always more breathless reporting generated by positive news and polls favoring the candidate who is behind and negative news about the one who is ahead. So in the current race, where Donald Trump is behind, any poll that shows him close to or tied with Hillary Clinton gets wide coverage. But statistically, when two candidates are within three or four points of each other, there will always be some polls that show them to be tied or the one who is behind on average to be even ahead slightly, and the number of polls that show this in this race are what one might predict purely on statistics.

The other is that analyses of the state of a campaign depend less upon objective factors about how it is being run and more upon whether the polls show a candidate doing well or failing. If one week we see polls that show the fortunes of a candidate declining, this spawns a whole series of news items about what is wrong with his campaign and its messaging, of fighting among advisors and staff, and the candidate sounding unsure. Then when the following week brings news of fortunes improving and the polls tightening, we get a fresh set of reports as to how the campaign is working smoothly, the message consistent, and the candidate sounding confident.

One can be forgiven for not noticing this pattern because in most election campaigns the fortunes do not fluctuate wildly so the narratives remain fairly stable. But one of the weird things about the current election campaign has been its mercurial nature, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. His fortunes go up and down almost on a daily basis. Hence any reports of the state of the Trump campaign require a careful look at the date stamps because otherwise one can easily get whiplash from the seemingly contradictory narratives.

Here is Matt Taibbi in an article on the Trump campaign that was published yesterday which means that it was written over a period of days prior to that. It begins with a recent Trump campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire at a time when things were not going well for Trump and he seemed to be floundering between taking a harder and softer stand on his pet issue of immigration. The article is, as is the case with Taibbi’s writing, very entertaining but bear in mind that Trump’s fortunes seem to have improved this week.

When he was in New Hampshire for the primaries, he acted like a drunken stockbroker who fell off the end of a bar into a presidential race. He made a mockery of the most overcovered and self-serious political pageant on Earth. There was no come-on, no calculation, no “ground game,” nothing, just one unhinged rich person making it all up as he went along, crapping on the Jeb Bushes and “Little Marcos” for the sheer scatological joy of it. Forget about poll-tested speeches, it was a miracle he wore pants on the stump.

That this tasteless rampage lifted him to the Republican nomination was a perfect farce predictable to anyone who’s ever seen The Producers. He acted like a man trying to lose, and won. But now…

Now he’s trying to win, and he’s in free-fall. Polls show he will lose to one of the most unpopular Democratic nominees ever. And Trump, whose very name is supposed to be synonymous with hedonism and hoggish excess, looks in person like a picture of misery.

For most of the past year, it’s been difficult to get a read on what “the Trump campaign” was thinking at any given moment, because “the Trump campaign” per se didn’t exist. The campaign was basically a few overheated ganglia somewhere behind Trump’s eyes.

His process was random enough that he himself often seemed surprised by the amazing things that came out of his mouth, sort of the way Eddie Van Halen used to raise an eyebrow when he thought he hit a particularly awesome note in a solo. Trump’s head tilted one way, and a tirade against Macy’s credit cards came out. It tilted the other way, and Trump compared El Chapo to a vacuum cleaner.

Nobody had “access” to the inner workings of that, not reporters, not his staff, and probably not even Trump himself. And yet his poll numbers kept soaring. It was the cheapest, most lightweight campaign organization ever. That he ended up securing the Republican nomination in this manner is an unsurpassable accomplishment in the history of winging it.

But eventually he reached a stage of the race where the whole enterprise simply got too big to manage entirely by whim, and that’s when he got into trouble. Seat-of-pants Trump was an elusive, high-energy monstrosity, but doing-his-homework Trump was a disaster, to use one of his favorite words.

Trump won the nomination by being the cruelest, most balls-out build-a-wall hard-liner. Now he was talking like Jeb Bush on immigration and Bill Clinton on NAFTA. What was the point of all that craziness and rancor and destruction? Who needs Donald Trump playing Jeb Bush, especially since the actual Jeb Bush might have had a chance of beating Hillary Clinton?

As a salacious high-velocity burn on a corrupted campaign process, he was initially a brilliant, if repulsive, success. He charged through the primary season like a pig on strychnine and won the nomination not because of who he was, but what he wasn’t: a politician.

Therefore, uniquely perhaps in the history of presidential candidates, Trump’s success hinged on his ability to stay true to himself. The promise of his campaign was Trump the man, all day, every day. If his voters wanted a politician, or even a non-politician who thought before he spoke, they’d have chosen one. Who could have foreseen we’d end up with the one thing more ridiculous than Donald Trump running for president: Donald Trump running for president and trying to be smart about it.

As I said, this was last week’s analysis. One of the perils of covering Trump is that what you write today may have to be drastically revised tomorrow.

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