The question of Trump’s descent raises the question of whose fault it is. Some political operations can be turned around by a change in staff. In March, former Rep. Mark Meadows became the president’s new chief of staff and has slowly reconfigured the president’s White House team. The Meadows era has coincided with the president’s steep decline, a fact that some Trump aides are quick to note.
“I don’t think his newest team is serving him well,” said a White House official. “In fact it’s worse than ever. They came in thinking they know best, and they’ve not bothered to understand the president or West Wing.”
This person suggested the Meadows team is shielding Trump from how dire his situation is. “I don’t know if they’re giving him the whole picture,” the official said. “It’s very much Kool-Aid drinkers and he doesn’t want that. He never has.”
In early May, Brad Parscale, then Trump’s campaign manager, bragged that he had spent three years building a “Death Star” and “[i]n a few days we start pressing FIRE for the first time.” It was an unfortunate turn of phrase as Trump actually fired Parscale two months later and replaced him with his deputy Bill Stepien. Like the Meadows regime, the unveiling of the Death Star also coincided with Biden’s steady rise in the polls.
The idea that presidential or campaign personnel are the key to a politician’s fortunes is powerful in the media and among operatives competing for power. But it’s almost always exaggerated as a source of a candidate’s success or failure. (Biden won the Democratic nomination despite having an organization that he believed was so broken that he replaced his campaign manager after the victory.)
The more common view among smart Republicans is that it’s absurd to think that Trump’s problems could be solved by a new chief of staff or campaign manager. This view is expressed by Republicans with wildly different views of Trump.
Gingrich, for example, made the point politely, saying he “always thought it was very likely” that Parscale would be replaced, that he built a great machine to amplify the campaign message, but that Trump’s problem now is “what” to say, not “how” to say it. “The how part Brad solved.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP ad maker and former adviser to Mitt Romney, argued not only is the issue not about staff, but it is no longer just about Trump. It’s about the entire Republican Party.
“He is running as George Wallace and the Republican Party has accepted that,” said Stevens, the author of “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” a book out on Tuesday. “He tweets about keeping black people out of the suburbs. I didn’t want to believe this about the party. I went through a period where I said he hijacked the party.” Instead he concluded the party “had become comfortable as a white grievance party playing on racial tensions.”
Somewhere in between Gingrich and Stevens was one prominent conservative broadly in line with Trump’s views who also scoffed at the idea that Trump’s problem is about staff.
The core problem, according to this person, is that Trump “doesn’t have control.” He doesn’t have control over the pandemic. He doesn’t have control over the economy. He doesn’t have control over cities experiencing unrest. Trump’s supporters refuse to admit this, according to this view, because it exposes him as incompetent. And his fiercest critics don’t always acknowledge it because it suggests he’s not as scary and authoritarian as they insist he is.
“He’s weak, passive, and ruled by his insecurities,” he said. “We have all fallen for the oldest ruse in the book: the more insecure the person is, the more narcissistic he is.”
Anyone who goes as far in politics as quickly as Trump did would be reluctant to abandon the bag of tricks that seemed to work so well, even when it’s obvious that circumstances have changed radically.
In her new book, “Too Much and Never Enough,” Mary Trump, the president’s niece and a trained psychologist, offers a vivid psychological portrait of her uncle informed by a nuanced study of their family dynamics. Asked how she thought Trump might be processing the sudden limits of his once formidable political powers, she said, “He’s not processing any of it.”
She added, “He’s deflecting, he’s projecting, he’s denying. And I think one of his favorite things to do in such circumstances is to blame and distract. So, you know, it’s everybody else’s fault and everything needs to be called into question and delegitimized so that he doesn’t actually stop winning, you know what I mean? So it’s not that he’s going to lose the election, it’s that he’s not going to be able to be allowed to win it.”
George Conway, who also favors more psychological explanations for Trump’s behavior, argued that Trump is not capable of the kind of changes that his fellow Republicans (cluelessly, in his view) promote. “He doesn’t know how to make a subtle argument,” said Conway, a Biden supporter and vociferous anti-Trump conservative whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, is one of Trump’s closest advisers. “He doesn’t know how to make an emotional appeal that’s inspiring, as opposed to based in hatred and anger, and he doesn’t know or care about policy.”
Conway also argued that Trump’s victory in 2016 was the result of a late-campaign adjustment engineered by Kellyanne that sanded off some of Trump’s rough edges and eased up on fire-and-fury appeals to the base. “He won in spite of himself,” Conway said. “He read from a teleprompter and moderated his message. Now he thinks he did it all himself because of his malignant narcissism.”
Conway’s withering views about Trump are well known, but what’s more surprising is how many Trump supporters are starting to echo some of his views.
Dan Eberhart, a pro-Trump donor who recently gave $ 100,000 to the Trump Victory, the main fundraising committee funding the president’s reelection, was candid about the limits of Trumpism in 2020.
“The usual bag of tricks did not work in the 2018 midterms, and Trump needs to not forget that,” he said.
He said there is “a complete rethink” among Republicans about the campaign strategy that is “absolutely needed and hopefully in the nick of time.”
Trump’s misunderstanding of what got him elected in 2016 is at the heart of the problem, Eberhart argued.
“Trump’s general ability to just feed the base three times over and that will carry you to victory is not really a recipe for success,” he said. “The base is high 30s and that won Trump the primary but he largely won the general election because Hillary was so unpopular. And Biden’s negatives are not as high as Hillary’s so there’s a big problem.”
Not only is Biden an elusive target but there are other problems as well. Eberhart rattled them off: Trump no longer had a financial edge over Biden, voters who want Trump out are more enthusiastic than Trump supporters, and the strategy by some Republicans to assume that the polls were wrong in 2016 and will be wrong this year is “doomed to fail.” And that’s all before the obvious impact of the pandemic and the recession.
“His confidence is clearly shaken,” Eberhart said.
He added, “As a Trump donor and Trump supporter, I would hope that he’s paying attention to the soft center and how to get persuadables over to his side rather than just stoking the fires,” he said. “I don’t think this kind of law-and-order culture war, like the Mount Rushmore speech — I don’t think that’s getting him 51 percent at all.”