The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s attacks on the Khan family are part of a now familiar pattern. He is doubling down on a misguided attack because, as a textbook narcissist, he can never admit that he is wrong. His feuds don’t end with an apology—instead, Trump simply moves on to attacking someone else.
But there is another piece of conventional wisdom about the Trump campaign, which is that whenever Trump screws up to such a degree that it dominates more than a half-day of news coverage, the campaign creates false flag controversies to divert attention. Trump’s heated attack on the press during the Judge Curiel episode is one example of this theory in action—a less damaging controversy is presented to distract attention from the more damaging one.
This weekend, we saw two instances that support this theory. The first was when The New York Post, a rabidly pro-Trump tabloid, posted naked photos of Melania Trump on its cover on Saturday. The second was when Trump began vehemently criticizing the debate schedule because one of the debates with Hillary Clinton was set to occur at the same time as a Sunday Night Football game. Both were textbook Trump false flag ops: fake controversies that aren’t particularly damaging but soak up media attention from a more damaging story.
Many of Trump’s critics are simultaneously floating both stories: that Trump cannot help but attack the Khans again and again, and that Trump desperately wants to distract attention from those attacks. But it is possible for both things to be true, since Trump and his campaign are at best undisciplined and at worst schizophrenic. Under this unified theory, Trump and his campaign are torn between his short-term desire to fight an opponent and his long-term interest in defusing the controversy—but are unable to fully commit to either.