I’ve spent the past 20 months or so covering the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. By now, I thought I had heard it all – from his penchant for insults and bullying to his decidedly unorthodox campaign style. I didn’t know it was possible for me to be shocked by anything he said or did in the context of this presidential campaign.
Then I read this paragraph in a terrific New York Times story headlined “New Debate Strategy for Donald Trump: Practice, Practice, Practice” (the bolding is mine):
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The team had primed Mr. Trump to look for roughly a dozen key phrases and expressions Mrs. Clinton uses when she is uncertain or uncomfortable, but he did not seem to pay attention during the practice sessions, one aide said, and failed to home in on her vulnerabilities during the debate.
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Now. Go back and read that sentence again. Done? Read it once more. It’s that important.
Donald Trump is one of two people who will be president next January. (Sorry Gary Johnson!) Monday night was, inarguably, the most important day of the general election campaign to date. Every person in politics – and not – had circled the first debate as a major moment in the campaign, Trump’s best chance to fight back against the narrative that he lacks the policy chops and the temperament to be president of the United States. The audience for the debate was expected to be somewhere between 80 and 100 million, the largest for a political event ever. (It wound up achieving that goal.)
All of these things pointed to the absolute necessity for Trump to perform well. And, what happened? His debate prep team couldn’t get him to pay attention. That is, literally, stunning. Put yourself in a comparable situation. You are applying for a job you really want. Your interview is in five days. You hire an interview coach to help you do well. Then you just can’t bring yourself to pay attention to the advice he or she gives you.
It’s hard to imagine that happening, right? After all, it’s your dream job. You’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. You know it won’t likely come around again. With all that in the balance, you would be far more likely to overprepare than underprepare, right? Can you imagine simply not being able to bring yourself to pay attention with the most important day of your professional life on the horizon?
But wait, you say. This is as close to definitive proof that Trump doesn’t really want the job as you can get! (The he-doesn’t-want-to-win crowd has been kicking around at the fringes of the political conversation almost since Trump started running last June.) I guess that’s possible, though I doubt it.
What I think is going on here is that Trump has prided himself on unpredictability and a seat-of-the-pants approach throughout his adult life. He proudly recounts how he would turn up to work every morning with no definite plan for the day – preferring to just let things come to him and react. He has total and complete confidence in his instincts and, at some subconscious level, believes that preparation dulls those instincts.
The problem for Trump is that a presidential general election campaign isn’t analogous to anything else he’s done in his life. You can’t wing it in a debate in front of 80 million people against someone who has spent virtually her entire life preparing for this one moment. You can’t ignore the advice of people brought in to give you advice because you are convinced you know better. In short, you have to pay attention.
That Trump couldn’t bring himself to do that in a moment of such critical import as the debate on Monday night is the only evidence you need of something I have been saying for a while now: There is no other Donald Trump. No new leaf. No pivot. No 2.0. This is it – take it or leave it. Trump is absolutely convinced that who he is – before he reads a single policy paper or briefing book or participates in a single mock debate – is good enough to win. That’s the most risky bet he’s ever made.