On a Saturday in late July, Rudy Giuliani was having lunch with Donald Trump at the president’s golf course in Virginia. Both men were in unusually good spirits. Giuliani, the president’s sometimes lawyer who is representing Trump in negotiations over the presidential debates, was happy to again be having regular face time with the president after months of coronavirus-related isolation.
Trump, who has been glum about the still-raging pandemic that has killed nearly 160,000 Americans, the subsequent economic collapse, polling that suggests he’s headed for defeat in the fall, and his inability to arrest the slide, was buoyed by a good round on the links. “He did very well at golf,” Giuliani said in a lengthy interview with POLITICO over the weekend. “So that might have been why he was in a good mood.”
Naturally the conversation turned to the general election and how Trump might turn things around. Republicans have been bombarding Trump with advice, arguing that his insistence on stoking the same divisive issues — white resentment of minorities, the culture wars, and “LAW & ORDER” — that worked so well for him in 2016 appeal only to the Trump diehards and have turned off a broad majority of the country.
“It used to be that he would do five rallies a day and say whatever came off the top of his head and he thinks that won him the election,” said a senior GOP congressional aide, echoing the sentiments of a still-intact class of Republicans appalled by Trump and how he is turning vast swathes of Republican-leaning suburbs into Democratic territory. “It’s like when a 25-year old gets drunk and shows up at a family engagement. That can be cute. But if you’re a 50-year-old and you show up at the gathering drunk and embarrassing, that just hits a little differently. It’s not cute anymore.”
But Giuliani suggested that Trump didn’t see things that way. “It’s worked before for him,” he said. “He believes it’s going to work again.”
Still, Giuliani had some of his own advice. “If I were running the campaign I would do a commercial with the people in St. Louis who had to guard their homes with guns. That’s a suburb!” (The couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, was recently charged in St. Louis with the unlawful use of a weapon, but the state’s attorney general has defended them.)
Giuliani also recommended that Trump allies begin arguing that Biden is mentally ill. “I have a good friend who has early stage Alzheimer’s and they could be twins,” he said. When a POLITICO reporter pointed out that some people have argued that Trump is mentally ill, Giuliani rebuffed the idea. “Nobody thinks Trump has a mental issue,” he said. “They attack him for his personality and his emotions.”
He added, “I’ve known Trump for 30 years. There’s no comparison between the two people in terms of being able to finish a sentence, being aware of where they are, and being able to go through five sentences that stick together. Trump is very sharp, actually, and very very intelligent. Much more than people think.”
Newt Gingrich sees things a little differently. Gingrich, who lives in Rome, where his wife Callista serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See, said he has been re-reading campaign books from the ’60s and ‘70s and is convinced Trump can reverse his fortunes. Trump, in his view, is still using Nixon’s strategy of 1968, when he was an outsider, but he needed to adopt Nixon’s strategy of 1972, when he was the incumbent president running for reelection. It’s not a great analogy because Nixon benefited from a good economy. But the gist is for Trump to stop emphasizing that the country is in chaos. (Why would voters reelect the person presiding over chaos?)
Gingrich recently fired off a memo — he writes a lot of memos — to Trump officials arguing that the Trump of February doesn’t work in July, given the catastrophically changed circumstances. “I think it took several months to realize that all the tools that worked brilliantly for four years were not in tune with where the country was,” Gingrich said.
That analogy seems apt. Trump, according to 15 Republicans interviewed over the past week, is troubled that his usual arsenal seems to be having no effect. A president who thrives on polarizing conflict and identifying unpopular enemies has been thwarted, and Trump’s untamed political instincts, once treated by so many fellow Republicans with an almost mystical revery, appear increasingly unlikely to stave off defeat in November.
“The enemy here isn’t something that punches back via Twitter,” said a former senior White House official. “You need an enemy and Covid’s not cooperating, Biden’s not cooperating.”
“What do you mean by strategy?” said a person close to the president when asked about Trump’s recent conduct. “I don’t think Donald Trump wakes up and says, ‘Here’s my strategy. Let me tweet out something.’ I don’t think there’s a political strategy there. He believes the way he interacts and communicates is what got him elected and he’s going to continue to do that.”
The senior congressional Republican argued that Trump is unable to mount a comeback because his favorite political weapon has little relevance in a health crisis.
“It’s a magic trick that doesn’t fit the moment,” he said.
Even one of Washington’s most popular magicians agreed.
The Great Zucchini is known as a genius when it comes to connecting with and entertaining small children. But he has a very narrow range of people to whom his tricks appeal: kids 3 to 7. He knows what it’s like when a trick he’s been performing no longer works. Recently a parent insisted that The Great Zucchini come perform for his 8-year-old, who had the magician at every birthday party for the last five years.
None of the tricks worked anymore. “I was struggling to get a laugh,” said the magician, whose real name is Eric Knaus. “I bombed. It was crickets. These kids had outgrown the show.”
Republicans fall along a spectrum of opinion about Trump’s current predicament from cult-like optimists akin to Giuliani who barely acknowledge any problems, to realists like Gingrich who see the obvious but believe Trump can adjust, to hardened skeptics like the GOP congressional aide who believe Trump is the political equivalent of the Great Zucchini performing at a sweet 16.
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.”