IN AN AUGUST 9 SPEECH, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters in Wilmington, N.C. that there was “nothing [they] can do” about Hillary Clinton’s court appointees, should she win the election. Trump followed up this comment with: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The now-infamous sound bite gave birth to a media firestorm. It was part of a long line of supposed slip-ups, which included insulting the parents of a dead soldier and asserting that President Obama founded ISIS. Journalists tried to hash out what, exactly, Trump meant, whether it was dangerous, and what it would mean for the foundering campaign.
When conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to help the candidate walk back his comments on the POTUS and ISIS, Trump made it clear he had nothing to clarify: “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. … [I]t’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it.”
Writing for Business Insider, Josh Barro dubbed Trump’s August 9 statement “a reckless comment.” Michael Moore claimed Trump is sabotaging his own campaign to avoid getting a job he doesn’t want. But there’s nothing intentionally damaging or poorly thought-out in the Republican candidate’s bid for the presidency. Trump’s words are intentional. His scandals and business (mal)practices are not symptoms of mental illness. It’s dangerous for us to continue to pretend otherwise.
Trump feeds on attention. When The Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz spoke to The New Yorker about his experiences with the candidate, the story that emerged was one of a self-absorbed man in pursuit of increased levels of attention, for better or worse. Schwartz observed that Trump’s interests in anything “other than his own self-aggrandizement” were minimal, and that he “seemed driven entirely by a need for public attention.” Most damning is this little nugget:
Schwartz told me that Trump’s need for attention is “completely compulsive,” and that his bid for the Presidency is part of a continuum. “He’s managed to keep increasing the dose for forty years,” Schwartz said. After he’d spent decades as a tabloid titan, “the only thing left was running for President. If he could run for emperor of the world, he would.”
From the beginning, we’ve all been content to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. The announcement of his candidacy included the assertion that Mexican immigrants were criminals and “rapists,” and our collective reaction was, This is entertainment. Conservative politicians had been dancing around their racism for decades, but here was Trump — the celebrity embodiment of excess — stating outright that he believed Mexican immigrants were here to live lives of violent crime.
His campaign, we thought, would bring a welcome respite from those of the serious candidates. A few outrageous statements, some poor primary numbers, and Trump’s star would flicker out, leaving us to watch Cruz and Clinton duke it out to the polls.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. Trump built a massive following out of jingoism, misogyny, and racism. He swept the Republican primaries to become the party’s candidate. That isn’t something you trip and fall into. Every egregious comment, scandal, and upset has been a tactical move aimed at winning the presidency.
Take Melania Trump’s RNC speech, a large portion of which was lifted from an address Michelle Obama delivered in 2008. The next day, Trump’s senior communications advisor and campaign chairman released statements that insisted Melania’s feelings — and her expressions of those feelings — were “common” ones. But, just one day later, the campaign issued a letter from speechwriter Meredith McIver, who admitted to helping Melania plagiarize the Obama speech. McIver’s statement kept the “gaffe” in the news for another cycle or two, but ultimately contradicted the Trump camp’s assertion that Melania wrote her own speech.
Those contradictions don’t matter to Trump’s campaign, however. After his comments regarding President Obama’s supposed role in founding ISIS, the candidate and his supporters within the media spent two days defending his statement. Come August 12, Trump tweeted that he was sarcastic all along, and questioned how reporters could have possibly taken him seriously.
In late July, FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 Election Forecast gave Trump a 57.5 percent chance of winning in November. Clinton quickly picked up the slack and then some, as support for the Republican candidate tanked following his week of shameful behavior. Staying true to form, Trump blamed the media for his setbacks, calling reporters “the lowest form of life.”
That’s called gaslighting, folks. It’s a tactic narcissistic abusers use to create an alternate reality, in which the victim is the problem, and the abuser is always right. Destroying his followers’ faith in journalism is the next step. If none of his voters trust what they hear from anyone but Trump, he’s got them right where he wants them. It’s not a mistake, but a planned move forward.