“I don’t want to change,” Donald Trump told an interviewer yesterday. “Everyone talks about, ‘Oh well you’re going to pivot.’ I don’t want to pivot.” At some point, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to take Donald Trump at his word.
The theme of the day is “shake-up,” but the Trump campaign’s maneuvering is a false dawn. Reporters who have covered similarly chaotic campaigns and who have dutifully written about an endless cascade of chimerical Trump “pivots” have a duty to inform their audiences honestly about what we are witnessing. What the Trump campaign is engaged in is not a course correction; this is a doubling down.
First, the details: The Trump campaign revealed in the early morning hours on Wednesday that there had been a major reshuffling at the top of the Republican presidential nominee’s personnel pyramid. Though he will retain his role as campaign chairman, Paul Manafort’s influence has been diminished. Reportedly, his repeated demands on Trump to comport himself in a reasonable and respectable fashion left the reality television host feeling “boxed in.” To recapture some of that primary campaign magic, Trump promoted his pollster, Kelly Ann Conway, to campaign manager. That, however, was not enough. To bring in fresh blood of a sort, Trump has hired Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon to serve as his campaign’s CEO.
This series of inexplicable maneuvers has yielded for Trump the worst of all possible public relations crises. Trump has reset his campaign backward, undone any progress he has made in appealing to a general electorate, and now owns the most unsavory elements of his support.
Manafort had become a liability. His ties to the Russian government have become a distraction verging on catastrophe. On Wednesday, an Associated Press investigation revealed that Manafort worked with a lobbying group (linked to Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s brother) in which he helped funnel $2.2 million in funds from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine to two Washington-based lobbying firms. The problem is, however, that none of this was disclosed, and Manafort never registered as an agent of a foreign government as required by law. All of this is potentially felonious, and the Trump campaign owns all of it.
That’s not the only bit of bad PR the Trump campaign has enthusiastically wrapped its arms around. By bringing on Breitbart’s head, any illusion of distance between the Trump campaign and its most unwaveringly supportive blog is now gone. The Trump campaign will be said, rightly, to have embraced the voice of the racially transgressive “alt-right” and self-identified “white nationalists.” Breitbart’s hiring practices have communicated clearly that it is an organization that does not view crass racial agitation as anything of which they should be ashamed. As Washington Post reporter Robert Costa noted, “the Bannon-Coulter-Sessions wing of the right is now running GOP nominee’s campaign.” What’s the opposite of a “Sister Souljah moment?”
This return to form from Team Trump comes following a speech in which the GOP nominee shed all pretense and subtlety to appeal to African-American voters with the message that his presidency will crack down on crime in their neighborhoods. What a waste. There is a reason that Donald Trump is receiving approximately one percent of the African-American vote, and it’s not because he hasn’t reached out to black voters or that his support for protectionism and an economic revitalization based on manufacturing don’t resonate with minorities. People know when they’re being used.
Make no mistake about it. This is a campaign in crisis. Any campaign staff shake-up at the executive level is an indication of an enterprise that knows it is losing. That’s especially true when such an emergency maneuver is performed in August of an election year. The fact that the Trump campaign is performing a shake-up that essentially resets the clock back to the primaries indicates that they don’t know why they’re losing or how to stop the bleeding. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear that anyone at the top of that camping cares.
“It’s magical,” said former RNC chairman and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele of the ascension of Bannon to Trump whisperer. “Pissing off the right people. That’s what it’s designed to do.” Indeed, that’s all it is about. Winning the election, making good on all those promises, acting as the champion for those he promised to serve, that’s secondary to the thumb in the eye this campaign represents.
There is something poetic about the melding of the Trump campaign and the universe of Breitbart. For years, that blog and others that share its worldview have convinced themselves that Republicans never face any consequences for running losing national campaigns. They’re about to learn how very wrong they always were.