To elaborate: All presidents must deal with bad news: policies gone bad, scandals involving their administration, disasters beyond their control. That’s just the nature of politics. The interesting question to ask is: What happens when presidents get bad news? There is a natural, psychological impulse to block it out or to minimize it. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance at times, and the leader of the free world is no exception. Good leaders are better at getting past their cognitive dissonance quickly, acknowledging that the situation has changed, recognizing their mistakes and working on the problem. A president’s staff can try to compensate for a president’s vices, but just as often they amplify those biases as well.
After a decent month of steadily gaining in the polls, Trump had a really bad night on Monday. So how has he handled it?
First, consider the New York Times’ after-action report. To put it plainly, Trump seems in denial. Not just normal denial, either, but the denial level of a 7-year-old spoiled brat who’s not allowed to stay up late and believes himself to be the most persecuted little boy on the planet:
A delicate approach to the candidate is now in the works. Before his advisers can shape Mr. Trump’s performance for the next debate, on Oct. 9 in St. Louis, they need to convince him that he can do better than he did in the first one and that only a disciplined, strategic attack can damage Mrs. Clinton with voters. …Mr. Trump, for his part, sought to blame everything but himself. During an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday, he charged that the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, had become overly aggressive with him — although he inaccurately said that Mr. Holt had questioned him over a 1973 federal discrimination lawsuit against Mr. Trump’s company. (Mrs. Clinton had raised the lawsuit question.) He also suggested that his performance was related to a faulty mike — even though he was perfectly audible during the telecast — and that he may have been the victim of sabotage.And at a rally in Florida later that evening, he ripped Mrs. Clinton in scathing terms that he declined to use when they were face to face.
So that’s not a good first look. But it gets worse, if this CNN report is accurate:
In a conference call with surrogates Wednesday afternoon, Trump aides made clear the Republican nominee is upset that his allies publicly acknowledged they pushed him to change his preparation and tactics before his next bout with Hillary Clinton. And he wants them to stop it immediately.The message was “not subtle,” a source familiar with the call said.Trump wants his supporters to make an energetic defense of his performance and refuse to concede that he didn’t nail it. … Ahead of their October 9 town hall style debate in St. Louis, part of the problem, one source said, is that Trump doesn’t yet seem to grasp that he needs to expand his base of supporters to bring in new voters who are not yet sold on his temperament, policy positions or readiness to be president.When Trump was told Tuesday that he should do some things differently, he responded that his approach is what his base likes.
Trump is still so stuck in denial about crashing and burning in Monday night’s debate that on Wednesday night he peddled a conspiracy theory about Google suppressing bad news about Clinton on its search engine.
A few weeks ago, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos provided an exceptionally well-researched view of what a Trump presidency would look like. It is an excellent read, but it omitted one important dimension: how Trump would handle setbacks. There is still time in this campaign for Trump to recognize the shifting reality that Monday night’s debate has created. But it is worth considering the past few days as a natural experiment in how he and his team cope with bad news.
The answer seems to be: denial, denial, denial. And that’s not a good look for a president of the United States.