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What is Donald Trump doing?


Meeting with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday afternoon, Trump seemed out of it, like he had just woken up from a diet pill bender and didn’t quite know where he was. He seemed a little desperate to not seem too demagogical in front of a foreign leader whose country he has repeatedly insulted throughout this election cycle. He wasn’t nice, per se, but diminished: A low-energy Trump. He didn’t even demand that Mexico pay for the wall! What many were expecting to be a bare-knuckle brawl ended up looking more like two people cosplaying as world leaders: No one, including Peña Nieto, seemed to really know what the hell they were doing.

But on Wednesday evening, the old Trump was back. After promising a softening in his immigration policy for days, Trump stepped up to the stage and did no such thing. Instead, he talked about how all immigrants are bad and dangerous and are probably going to kill you. He said that the U.S. is a bully and, in a wink to his alt right friends, that we need to bring back bullying. And he said that Mexico is going to pay for the wall, something he reiterated Thursday morning on Twitter.

Looking for any coherence in the Trump campaign is always a mistake, in large part because the campaign seems to be run as a confederation of loosely affiliated city states rather than something more coherent. (Ivanka and Kellyanne Conway, the Trump bros, and Steve Bannon, at the very least, all seem to have their own fiefdoms.) The Mexico trip seems to have come from Chris Christie and Jared Kushner; the speech last night was pure Bannon.

Put together, the two statements don’t say much, though I suppose you could make an argument that Trump has adopted a “one for them” (meaning skeptical voters) and “one for us” (meaning his own base) approach—that the trip to Mexico was meant to woo over fence-sitters and the speech in Arizona was meant to convince his base that he was the same old guy. That’s a pretty stupid way to run a campaign though, because you always end up where you started from—Trump’s very few Latino backers are distancing themselves from Trump after the speech.

Instead, two related issues explain Trump’s incoherence. The first is, as my colleague Brian Beutler has pointed out, Trump is a bad politician and seems genuinely incapable of sound political judgment, especially if it could cost him the rabid crowds he loves so much. The second is that the Trump campaign knows they’re losing and losing badly—no matter what Drudge shock polls he throws out—and need to start throwing shit at the walls to see what sticks. And throw shit at the walls is exactly what they did on Wednesday.