Ever since he became the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump has shrugged off the complexities of appealing to a general-election constituency as irrelevant to a man possessed of political invincibility. When his supporters started becoming unglued last week amid his heedless campaign of racial incitement against a Latino judge overseeing Trump University fraud litigation, Trump instructed them to chill out.
“I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is,” he told them, according to multiple Bloomberg News sources.
One of Trump’s most Trump-like surrogates, Carl Paladino, explained the Trump victory strategy like so: “My instruction from HQ is really simple. It’s one word: Win. And that’s what we intend to do.” That “winning” isn’t really a strategy is almost as important a caveat as the fact that Paladino is talking about New York, one of many blue states (including Maryland and California) that Trump apparently hallucinates about winning.
As Trump closed in on the magic delegate threshold this spring, continuing to be spectacularly unfazed by evidence that he is extremely unpopular outside of the Republican primary electorate, it became tempting to imagine that his entire campaign was an elaborate scheme or work of performance art—an initiative undertaken by someone who never intended to win the primary, let alone the presidency. That certainly fits the facts better than conceiving of Trump as someone with a sophisticated plan for reaching the summa of global politics.
But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Trump campaigned for the nomination like a metaphorical dog chasing a car. Having caught it, the only thing he can think to do is keep chasing.
Trump appears completely oblivious to how rapidly the ground has shifted under his feet. The change was practically immediate, drawn out only by a halo effect that Trump experienced very briefly after he won the Indiana primary, consolidated Republican Party support, and enjoyed a small, predictable bump in the polls.
After that, a different reality took hold. Nothing epitomizes the new dawn better than the success Clinton and her best surrogate, Elizabeth Warren, have had exposing Trump’s moral rot and unfitness for office.
On Thursday, Warren savaged Trump’s “disgusting theory that Trump’s own bigotry compromises [judges’] neutrality,” and said he should be “ashamed of using the megaphone of a presidential campaign to attack a judge’s character and integrity simply because you have some god-given right to steal people’s money and get away with it.”
Warren is an unusually good political rhetorician, but there’s nothing superhuman about her. She evinced no attribute here that, say, Marco Rubio doesn’t have—other than a willingness to say the word “racist,” and to note that rapacious businessmen frequently “steal people’s money,” and to say these things in a setting where conservatives might hear her. Trump didn’t begin his attacks on Gonzalo Curiel after he won the primary. He’s been doing it since last year. The end of the primary didn’t create new facts about Donald Trump, but it did open new lines of attacks that Republicans weren’t willing to take. Democrats are taking them with relish.
The ghoulish victory lap Trump took after learning about the mass killing at a gay night club in Orlando on Sunday is completely consistent with his overall obliviousness to the fact that the boisterous belligerence and self-aggrandizement that helped him win the primary won’t serve him just as well in the general election.
The end of the primary did, of course, change Trump’s status within the Republican Party. Where once party leaders could treat him as one among many people vying for the support of GOP base voters, he is now their party’s standard-bearer, vying for the support of a much wider electorate. Now, unlike a month ago, Republican leaders are condemning Trump roundly, as a matter of their own political survival, some refusing to say whether they might rescind their support for him if he doesn’t shape up. After Orlando, they may have to condemn him some more.
The combined effect of all this has completely reversed the bounce Trump got from becoming the presumptive nominee. His support is collapsing just as Clinton’s is climbing. And his instinctual response to this fusillade of bad news was to tell surrogates to attack Curiel harder, and to advise them that “the people asking the questions—[reporters]—those are the racists … go at ‘em.”
Trump watches a lot of cable and listens to a lot of right-wing news. He inhabits the same bubble as the Republican voters who eat this stuff up, without a scintilla of awareness of how toxic it is in other precincts. He’s a man who has no idea what has happened to him. He has completely lost the plot.
This piece has been updated.