Back when Donald Trump was winning primaries, Mark Halperin, the famously well-compensated political journalist at Bloomberg, went on TV and said Trump is a terrific politician.
“He is one of the two most talented presidential candidates any of us have covered,” Halperin opined. “He just is.”
Trump’s skill, he explained, exceeds Barack Obama’s because, unlike Trump, Obama “had David Axelrod and David Plouffe and a squadron of people around him who knew what they were doing.” Trump flies solo, ergo every supporter he counts, every stadium he packs, is somehow more rightfully his.
Halperin has also defended Trump from accusations of racism on the grounds that “Mexico isn’t a race,” and posed for this notorious picture, so unspoken affinities may be affecting his analysis. But to this day, as Trump is losing to Hillary Clinton in every poll, it is still commonly suggested that Trump has mysterious political powers. No matter what he says, his supporters love it! If he’s losing, it might be because he’s “deliberately trying to avoid winning.”
I would like to propose an alternate hypothesis: Donald Trump is bad at politics. He won the Republican primary because he is a bad politician, he is losing today because he is a bad politician, and part of what makes him a bad politician is only doing the kinds of things his supporters love, which can appear to be good politics to incurious journalists, but is actually not.
Case in point: On Wednesday night, Trump returned in characteristically Freudian fashion to Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and announced he would forcibly remove not just immigrants, but citizens from the U.S. if they’re found to have extremist views. “Whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we better get smart,” he said.
Trump isn’t exactly winging it. Some Americans are scared, authoritarian, and racist. In a big country such as ours, there might even be millions and millions of them. Fear, authoritarianism, and racism are also strong sentiments, so it stands to reason that the people who exhibit them would be loyal Trump supporters, and unusually inclined to attend his rallies, where the themes are frequently fear, authority, and racism.
This appeal was sufficient to win Trump the primary not because he demonstrated raw talent, but because the Republican Party is broken to the point where demagoguery is a more valuable currency than governing experience, donor networks, “ground game” and other attributes. If Trump exhibited any talent at all, it was recognizing just how vulnerable the GOP was to being overtaken by its own Id.
When the primary was all over, Trump had an extremely loyal core of support. By dint of being the nominee of a major party, millions more reflexive or reluctant or low-information voters accreted around that core, leaving Trump with the support of perhaps 40 percent of likely voters, and nowhere to go but down.
Saying things like we should exile U.S. citizens will help Trump fill arenas, but it also underlines how, contra Halperin, Trump is an almost comically untalented politician.
Kicking citizens out of the United States for having extreme ideological views is unconstitutional. Not unconstitutional in the way that conservatives imagine the only policy regimes allowed under the Constitution are ones they like, but unconstitutional in a clearly delineated way.
This was, in essence, the point Khizr Khan was making at the Democratic convention three weeks ago when he asked Trump, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”
Trump’s decision to respond by attacking the Khan family was, in itself, open-shut evidence of his near total lack of political talent, but Trump and his surrogates justified his decision to defend himself on the grounds that Khan had attacked him unfairly—i.e. that it’s wrong to suggest Trump has never read the Constitution.
Based on a number of things Trump has said—including that the Constitution has (at least) twelve articles (it has seven)—Khan was on solid ground thinking maybe Trump never read the thing. But from the moment Khan’s speech captured the country’s imagination, and Trump responded as if he’d been slandered, that question—have you even read the Constitution?—made the metaphysic transformation from rhetorical to literal. Nearly a month has passed, and Trump has done nothing to address this glaring deficiency. He continues to propose unconstitutional ideas on a weekly basis, and it is a safe bet that when he and Clinton meet for their first debate next month, he will be confronted with some trivial question about the Constitution and have no clue how to answer.
Trump created this liability for himself over the course of a year, so sitting down and reading the Constitution—all 4,453 words of it, or less than a half hour of reading time—would only be the first step toward assuring skeptics and critics that he’s intent on safeguarding the country’s laws and traditions. But whether it’s because he’s irremediably lazy, or that he believes this kind of ignorance allows him to pander to scared, authoritarian racists without a filter, he is unwilling to do it. He would rather keep his crowds big and his polls bad. Even if it means allowing Hillary Clinton to shove him into a buzzsaw in front of a huge TV audience a few weeks from now.
This isn’t ultimately a question of instinct or strategy, because in a sense it’s both. But in a more important sense it doesn’t matter. Talented candidates will bridle their instincts long enough to ensure they’re making good strategic decisions that help them win elections. Donald Trump isn’t doing that, because he’s a bad politician. Most well-compensated journalists get that.