If you think the Conservative party is in a bad way over Europe, spare a thought for the Republicans of Washington DC. Their presidential candidate is Donald Trump, and he’s a nightmare. The party can’t stand him, he can’t stand the party, and somehow they’re supposed to win an election together. The omens don’t look good.
Even the influential Republicans who wish Trump well — and there aren’t many — can’t figure out how to get along with him. ‘I just have no idea how you get an idea into Trumpland,’ says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who is known as ‘the most powerful conservative in DC’. He adds, ‘In any campaign, the circle of trust shrinks as the campaign goes on. At this stage, Trump’s circle appears already to be very small. It is certainly opaque.’ One younger Republican puts it more bluntly: ‘Trump’s campaign is, like, so random! I mean who are they? And how is anyone supposed to work with them?’
The spectacular amateurism of the Trump campaign — and its undeniable success — distresses professional right-wingers. It threatens their livelihoods and triggers their snobbery. Whereas Clinton has a campaign staff of about 800, Trump has less than 100, and nobody who’s anybody has a clue who they are. Strategists and party loyalists mutter that, before he decided to Make America Great Again, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s now notorious campaign manager, was running a branch of Quiznos, the fast-food joint. ‘Well, he’s running your party now,’ snaps back Daniel McCarthy, the independent-minded editor of the American Conservative.
The worst part, for elite Republicans, is that they know how beatable Hillary Clinton is. She’s only just won her fight for the Democratic nomination against that kooky 74-year-old socialist Bernie Sanders. People don’t like her. If the Grand Old Party could establish a modus operandi with the Trump campaign, the 2016 election could be theirs.
But members of the Republican National Committee find Trump so objectionable that they would rather not help him, and some of its officials have quit in disgust. A couple of Washington-based analysts who have worked for the Republicans tell me that RNC staff have set up separate departments to make sure the Trump campaign cannot access parts of their database. The worry is that The Donald will end up using their email lists to target customers for his businesses. Wouldn’t that be illegal, I ask. ‘Yeah, but would Trump care?’
Nothing is as it should be. The presumptive nominee is meant to become de facto leader of the party. But does Trump even want to run something he obviously despises? He’s still in wrecking-ball mode; the maverick outsider who tells the Republicans what losers they are even as he urges the party to unite behind him. He is not willing to play nice.
Take his latest exchange with Mitt Romney, the party’s last nominee. At the weekend, Romney suggested Trump’s takeover of his party was ‘breaking his heart’. Did The Donald empathise? Did he heck! He called Romney a ‘choker’ and added, ‘He ought to go into retirement… he’s wasting a lot of people’s time.’ Trump was also asked if he thought Jeb Bush, who in December was still favourite to be the Republican nominee, would back him. ‘Who the hell cares?’ he answered.
Republicans had thought that, having secured the nomination, Trump would transmogrify. Out would go the apocalyptic narcissist; in would come Donald the dealmaker.
That wasn’t just wishful thinking. Trump showed signs that he might turn into a more conventional — or at least less crazy — candidate. He hired Rick Wiley, a veteran party operator, as his national political director, to ease his relationships on Capitol Hill. He even used a teleprompter to make a speech, having spent months lambasting politicians for doing exactly that. Perhaps he’d listened to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who had told him that, in order to sound presidential, he should ‘use a script more often’.
Trump also made friendly overtures to-wards the Republican top brass. He rang Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, and the two men had what Trump called a ‘very conciliatory’ conversation.
The Republicans, for their part, began to melt under the sudden glow of the Orange One’s geniality. In the course of a few days, Ryan went from being ‘just not ready’ to endorse Trump to saying that a President Trump would ‘improve people’s lives’. Various other grandees began backing him, too. Trump would tweet back his appreciation. The opportunistic old dog Newt Gingrich, clearly angling for a vice-presidential nomination, went so far as to compare Trump to Reagan. It would all have been quite sweet had it not been so disgusting.
Then, on 8 June, Clinton wrapped up the nomination, and the formidable Democratic electoral machine clicked into gear. President Obama promised to tour the country to support her campaign. Even Bernie Sanders vowed to ‘work as hard as he can to make sure that Donald Trump does not become president’. The fear among establishment Democrats, and the hope among the Trumpists, had been that Sanders supporters were more anti-establishment than pro-progressive. They would plump for an outsider like Trump ahead of Clinton, the ultimate insider. But now it seems certain that a majority of even Bernie’s more radical fans will hold their nose and vote for the ‘neo-liberal’ Hillary above Trump the ‘neofascist’. At a Sanders rally in Washington last Thursday, I asked people in the crowd if they could bring themselves to vote for Hillary. They all said yes, apart from one young man who insisted he would write ‘Sanders’ on the ballot. ‘Fuck her,’ he said. ‘But I’m not voting Trump.’
Meanwhile, The Donald was going off script. He fired Wiley, reportedly after he fell out with an ally of henchman Lewandow-ski. Trump then attacked a district court judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University. Trump said that Curiel, because of his Mexican heritage, was biased against him. A fairly mild insult by Trump standards, yet one that proved sufficiently offensive to provoke a media storm. It also drew attention to Trump’s highly dodgy attempt to move into the education business and added to the general impression that The Donald is not just nasty but a bit of a crook.
Pundits everywhere denounced Trump as unpresidential and un–American. Republicans suddenly remembered that Trump was bad news. Paul Ryan, about 24 hours after officially endorsing him, described Trump’s remark as ‘the textbook definition of a racist comment’. Senator Mark Kirk, having declared his support for Trump, withdrew it. ‘Donald Trump does not have the temperament to command our military or our nuclear arsenal,’ he said. Newt Gingrich joined in, calling Trump’s outburst ‘in-excusable’.
Trump refused to apologise or backtrack, because he never does apologise or backtrack. He went on to TV to reiterate his position and ordered his campaign ‘surrogates’ to do the same. ‘Get over it,’ he said to Republicans who were upset, and he fell out publicly with Gingrich.
It’s not all that difficult to see why Trump feels he doesn’t have to conform to the establishment’s idea of what’s acceptable. He became the nominee by doing precisely the opposite. Why should he listen to the people he just thrashed at the ballot?
But that’s Trump’s problem. He won the Republican nomination in large part as a protest candidate against the Republican party. He needs to do something different to win the White House in November. As he never fails to point out, he won more primary votes than any GOP candidate in history. But he neglects to mention that he also had more votes cast against him than any candidate in history. His divisiveness, which helped him against the fissiparous Republicans, will harm him against the more unified Democrats.
Trump’s great strengths are his unpredictability and his viciousness. He keeps the public entertained. His rudeness thrills, and his contempt for the lords of the Republican party delights almost everyone. But his refusal to play the politics game might end up hurting him. The Trump-generated judge furore, for instance, took attention away from two big stories that should have hurt the Democrats. Days earlier, a jobs report had come out showing that in President Obama’s final year, employment had waned. Then the FBI announced that it would expand its investigation into Hillary’s illegal handling of emails. A skilful campaigner would have leapt on these stories. Trump managed to heap all the opprobrium on to himself.
As Grover Norquist says, ‘“Not Hillary” is a strong campaign to run. But whenever you get distracted from “Not Hillary”, you lose focus.’ Norquist is not altogether gloomy about Trump’s prospects. He says there is time for Trump to unite his party. ‘But — how shall I say this? — he needs to learn quickly.’
But does Trump want to learn? Does he even want to be president? Mark Singer, the New Yorker writer and author of Trump and Me, says, ‘Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. The biggest lie of all is that he wants to be president. The circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise. He has a bare-bones campaign organisation, insufficient funds, and an unwillingness to restrain himself from picking ugly, gratuitous fights.’
Singer points out that, three months ago, a disillusioned former communications director recounted how Trump’s original goal had been to finish second in the state-by-state primaries. His campaign is a ‘con’, Singer concludes, an exercise in ego satisfaction or a publicity stunt that took on a life of its own.
In a bar near Capitol Hill, a grumpy Republican operative sees the question differently: ‘Asking if Trump wants to be president implies a consistency of wants, which in Trump’s case is distinctly lacking.’