This morning, Donald Trump fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski amid growing Republican panic over his flailing campaign. While Lewandowski was not particularly popular or admired, the utter futility of this move on Trump’s part only highlights how different his campaign is from that of everyone else who has run for president in modern times. And while that’s part of what makes it so fascinating, it’s also what creates so many problems for him.
To put it simply, Trump is the master of his own destiny and the author of his own failures in a way that no other candidate is.
Everyone agrees that ultimate responsibility for a campaign’s fate rests with the candidate. But when we say that, we’re often talking about the stuff that was left largely to other people. You didn’t raise enough money? Your field operation didn’t turn out as many voters as you wanted? Your surrogates embarrassed you? Blame them if you want, but the buck stops at the top. Even if it wasn’t really your fault, it’s still your responsibility.
At the same time, we tend to treat not only campaigns but also the presidency itself as far more the function of one person’s strengths, weaknesses, beliefs and desires than we ought to. Not that the individual in the Oval Office doesn’t matter greatly, but he also brings with him a party with its own clear agenda and thousands of staff members who will actually operate the government. Most of what he does will be the same as another president from his party would have done. That’s not to mention the fact that we always overstate the power the president has to shape events in the world; the president can’t single-handedly turn around the economy or make other countries do what we want them to do, no matter how smart or determined she might be. She’ll get more blame than she deserves when things go badly and more credit than she deserves when they turn out well.
But Trump really is different. He has intentionally eschewed the things other campaigns do, such as hiring a large field staff to target, contact and turn out voters. According to numerous reports, Lewandowski was less a strategist than a body man, traveling with Trump to rallies (something most campaign managers seldom do), mixing it up with reporters and obsequiously calling his boss “Mr. Trump.”
Trump’s theory of the presidential campaign is much like his theory of the presidency, and it’s all based on what he believes to be the luminescent force of his personality. If I just do my thing, Trump thinks, it’ll all work out great. Do we need a field staff, a fundraising staff, a tech staff, a press staff? Nah — I’ll just do a bunch of rallies and TV interviews, and we’ll win. Is improving the economy a mind-bogglingly complex task that requires a combination of knowledge, skill and luck? Nah — I’ll just tell the Chinese what’s what, and we’ll get all the jobs back. This is the Great Man Theory taken to a ridiculous extreme. In Trump’s conception, it all rests on him and his ability to perform. So it doesn’t even matter who’s running his campaign.
Look at the mistakes of the past few weeks that have engulfed the Trump campaign. You had Trump’s ham-handed assault on the media after they investigated questions about his charitable donations. You had Trump’s racist attacks on the judge in a Trump University fraud case, which were roundly condemned even by Republicans. You had his appalling response to the Orlando shooting, which again was criticized even by Republicans. Even today, he’s bumbling around trying to find a position on guns and terrorists that will satisfy the NRA, the GOP and the voters.
What do all these missteps have in common? None of them was Corey Lewandowski’s fault. They weren’t poor strategic decisions or failures of execution. They were Donald Trump himself, opening his mouth and saying what he really thought, to the horror of almost everyone.
And keep in mind, this latest string of failures happened after Trump brought on Paul Manafort as his chief strategist, the veteran lobbyist who was supposed to bring the strategic vision and long-term planning that Lewandowski either wasn’t capable of or Trump wouldn’t let him handle.
There’s no telling whom Trump will hire to replace Lewandowski, but if the past is any indication, he might not bother to hire anyone. No aide or lackey is going to tell Trump what to do. And that’s Trump’s biggest problem.