When a major-party presidential nominee sends out a tweet at 5:30 in the morning urging Americans to watch an imaginary sex tape, it’s going to attract some attention. And most of the reaction is going to be removed from context, dominated as it will inevitably be by everyone’s natural “OMG can you believe he said that” reaction.
So in the interest of moving this toward the high-minded, serious discussion I know we’re all yearning for, let’s step back a moment and ask what this and some related developments actually tell us about what sort of president Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton might make. After all, that’s one of the main reasons we have a campaign, to see how the candidates perform in a complex, often pressure-filled situation that plays out over an extended period of time. It’s hardly a perfect analogy for the presidency (to take just one example, debating skill is not something the president needs), but it can be extremely revealing.
Let’s look at the state of the Trump campaign right now. The current news cycle is being taken over by Trump’s extraordinary decision to call yet more attention to his feud with Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who has accused Trump of fat-shaming and humiliating her (publicly and privately) when he owned the pageant. In response to those accusations, Trump has continued to accuse her of being fat and therefore essentially worthless, and now is circulating false rumors about a sex tape as a way to discredit her.
This has happened before. Trump went on an extended tear about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a fraud trial in connection with Trump University, saying that Curiel couldn’t be impartial because “He’s a Mexican” (Curiel is actually an American). Though his comments were roundly condemned by both Democrats and Republicans as racist, Trump kept making them. Later, after he was criticized by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a soldier who died in Iraq, Trump got in a protracted argument with them, leading to days and days of brutal press coverage, and again, bipartisan condemnation.
On the simplest level, we know why Trump does this: He believes firmly that whenever anyone criticizes him, he simply must attack them back. As he wrote in his 2007 book “Think Big and Kick Ass”:
“When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get Even!’…If you’re afraid to fight back people will think of you as a loser, a ‘schmuck!’ They will know they can get away with insulting you, disrespecting you, and taking advantage of you. Don’t let it happen! Always fight back and get even. People will respect you for it.”
But it’s more than that. Trump is right now trying to get even with Machado, even though there’s almost nothing to be gained from it and a tremendous amount to lose. Trump is doing poorly with Latinos and women voters, and one of the biggest risks to his campaign would be anything that not only turns them against him but motivates them to turn out to vote. At the same time, he is very publicly toying with the idea of attacking Clinton because her husband cheated on her.
Given his history and the things he has said, I have no doubt that Trump believes that when a man cheats on a woman it’s her fault for not being attractive enough to keep him faithful; he probably finds Hillary Clinton contemptible for this reason, just as he probably felt the same about his first and second wives when he cheated on and then divorced them. But surely someone has suggested to him that this is not a fruitful strategy to pursue. Yet he just can’t help himself.
What does this have to do with being president? If he were in the Oval Office, Donald Trump would face one crisis after another and situations that demand a kind of delayed emotional gratification. In order to be successful he’d have to regularly set aside whatever impulsive reaction he has to a particular turn of events in favor of a long-term strategy that would be more beneficial to the country.
Let’s take a highly relevant example. In an interview earlier this year with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama described why he didn’t respond to Hugo Chavez’ anti-American fist-shaking: “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.'” The result was that Chavez was unable to inspire the kind of anti-Americanism across the region that he would have liked to.
Do you think President Trump would be able to do the same thing, or would he immediately get into a war of words with whatever tin-pot dictator called him a name, even if it undermined American interests? Let’s not forget that there is literally no one on Earth who gets more criticism from more people than the president of the United States. How is Trump going to handle that daily deluge of disrespect? What effect will it have on his ability to think clearly, particularly in times of stress and crisis?
Indeed, given what we’ve seen in the campaign it’s hard to imagine Trump ever being capable of carrying out a strategy that required from him any measure of emotional control. The contrast with Hillary Clinton couldn’t be more stark. Just look at how she engineered this controversy over Alicia Machado, and how Trump not just walked into her trap but did more to help her than she could have hoped for. Once Clinton’s campaign identified Machado and considered how to use her story, they surely tested it out eight ways to Sunday in polls and/or focus groups. Then they prepared an ad featuring her, and prepared her for an onslaught of media coverage. Then at the debate, with time running out, Clinton found a way to shoehorn Machado’s story into an exchange that began with Trump talking about her “stamina.” Finally, she and her campaign put up the ad, sent Machado out for interviews, and reinforced the story in the rest of their communication.
The whole thing was carefully planned, methodically executed, and designed specifically to both persuade and mobilize key voting groups, particularly women and Latinos. That’s not to say Hillary Clinton doesn’t make makes mistakes as a candidate and won’t make mistakes if she becomes president. But her mistakes are not those of impulsiveness or an inability to handle being criticized. I promise you, right now she and her advisers are working to figure out exactly what she’ll say if Trump brings up her husband’s affairs at the next debate. Whatever that response is, she’ll deliver it calmly just as she practiced. She won’t fly off the handle or get pulled into an argument that undermines the rest of her strategy.
Finally, the fact that Trump continues to pursue this self-destructive course raises serious questions about the people he has surrounded himself with and their relationship to him. What is going on inside the campaign’s Trump Tower headquarters right now? It could be that Trump’s closest aides are actually on board with his attack on Machado, telling him that he should keep this story alive. Or they might be horrified by it and are trying to convince him to stop, but he won’t listen to them. Or perhaps they know it’s crazy, but they’re too scared to tell him.
None of these is particularly encouraging if we imagine the group around Trump being transplanted into the White House along with him. Just imagine Trump and his people reacting to a national security crisis while a foreign leader lobs insults at him and clear-eyed decisions need to be made in a short period of time. Does what’s happening right now make you feel reassured?