Part of making sense of the current Trump campaign is understanding that Trump is continually trying to take the hyper-aggressive bullyboy tactics he learned from his father in the New York City real estate world and apply them to national politics. That style might fairly be described as sell, sell, sell and attack, attack, attack. In particular, as a New York City real estate pro described here, it’s largely about getting inside other people’s heads with over-the-top aggression that knocks them on their heels and leaves them unprepared to fight back. Some of this is simply what I’ve called “dominance politics”, an idea I’ve developed in various posts over the years, and which I described back in March as being based on “the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others.” Trump is the master of a certain kind of ‘dominance politics’ and that’s made him the master — in a very deep sense of the word — of a certain part of the electorate. But the general election electorate is a different animal. And in his interactions with that wider swath of the public and even with fellow Republicans we’re seeing another pattern I noted about a month ago: “the inherent turbulence faced by a bullshit-based candidate making first contact with an at least loosely reality-based world.”
Today, after his bang up meeting with House Republicans, Trump went over to the Senate side and apparently focused on picking fights with Senators who weren’t supporting him enough. He got in one of these tussles with Sen. Jeff Flake, one of his biggest critics. Bear in mind that Senators are both more electorally threatened by Trump — they run statewide, not in gerrymandered districts — and have more stature (ego?) to stand up to him. Trump apparently threatened to lose Flake his election if Flake didn’t fall in line (not good). Flake pointed out that he wasn’t running for reelection this year (very good).
Like I said, life’s hard. Especially when you’re stupid.
So much of Trump’s whole way of approaching, or rather attacking life is, as I’ve said, sensing the crowd, sensing the audience and either telling them what they want to hear or knocking them off their stride with unpredictable, aggressive tactics. You can do that in a sit-down with a fellow mogul over lunch where you go from 0 to 60 with over the top tactics they’re not expecting or used to. But that’s an immediate, almost intimate encounter; you can likely only pull it on the same person a limited number of times. (Remember, only one major bank, DeutscheBank, will do business with Trump. He’s shut out at all the rest.) But the stage Trump is now is quite a different one. There are a lot of people out there and people have a lot of time to watch. Trump has passed himself off for decades as a great philanthropist. Only under the hot glare of presidential election scrutiny has that claim been revealed to be more or less baseless.
A great salesperson can say something so magnificently and convincingly that you believe because you want to believe even if it makes no sense at all. Salespeople tell stories, beautiful or horrifying ones. Trump can say Hispanics actually love him. But in his meeting this morning with House Republicans he was talking to people who have been inundated by evidence and have an existential need to know the truth. The standard issue bullshit is just no easy match for that audience under those circumstances.
Trump ran into similar trouble with Jeff Flake in his second meeting. Presidents rarely get to threaten senators — it’s one of the enduring problems of presidential management of Congress. Most senators will be there long after the president is gone. Popular presidents can withhold benefits and support. That can be key. But they have few real cudgels at their disposal. Trump doesn’t seem to know that. But knowing things isn’t usually his mode of operation. Remember, attack, attack, attack. But if you’re going to threaten a senator with electoral defeat, make sure your threat isn’t laughable and be absolutely sure he’s actually up for reelection. My sense is that Trump’s racket works much better at close quarters, with only a limited number of eyes watching and with people more interested in being amused than having any real skin in the game or whatever racket he’s currently running.
What worked in the GOP primaries does not work in a general election. What worked for a couple decades in New York City, with a bemused public, an assortment of sycophants and a barbed but generally pliant tabloid press does not work nationwide. If Trump were interested or capable of learning, I think he could actually give Clinton a run for her money. But he can’t. It’s not in his DNA. It’s not who he is. He has one game. And it has limits.