Politics & Policy

Trump’s For-Profit Campaign

Trump greets supporters at a campaign stop in Jacksonville, Fla., in August. (Reuters photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)
He tends to his ego, as the party that is tethered to him hopes to preserve some vestiges of power if he loses.

It’s as if Bob Dole began doing ads for Viagra before the 1996 election was over.

With less than two weeks before Election Day, Donald Trump evidently wants swing voters to know that the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort got recognized by Successful Meetings magazine for its renovation, among many other honors and distinctions.

This is something genuinely new under the sun: Abraham Lincoln didn’t use the 1860 campaign to promote the fine legal representation available through the firm of Lincoln-Herndon. Mitt Romney in 2012 didn’t try to persuade investors to go with Bain Capital.

Fringe candidates have run in the Republican primaries before to promote themselves and their business interests (typically in book sales and speaker fees); no one has ever gotten so far that he could do it in the general election.

There has never been such a yawning mismatch in incentives between a party’s nominee and the party itself, with the nominee tending to his ego and his business as the party that is tethered to him holds on for dear life, hoping to preserve some vestiges of power in Washington if he loses.

Trump surely would rather win. He talks all the time of how it will all have been a wasted effort if he loses. But it hasn’t been that much of an effort. Trump has spent all of 17 months on his presidential campaign, much of it doing highly enjoyable things like speaking to adoring crowds.

And losing — especially an isolated, one-man-against-the-world loss — serves him just fine. If the reports of Trump’s interest in a post-election media property are true, he just needs an inflamed splinter of his supporters as his base audience, convinced that he was done in by a rigged system and that he went down fighting in fists-flying Trump style.

This is how he’s campaigned over the past month, to the chagrin of all the Republicans whose electoral chances are inevitably caught up in his. But what does Trump care? His investment in the broader Republican party is nil. He didn’t come up within it. His latest bout as a registered Republican — his party registration has gone back and forth — dates from only April 2012. He hasn’t spent years endorsing and fighting for Republican candidates or building an extensive grassroots operation and donor network.

It is true that almost every politician is selfish to some extent. But the usual dynamic is that personal ambition naturally aligns with the broader interest of the party.

He showed up one day and said he wanted to be in charge, and Republican primary voters said okay. No one should be surprised that he has proved wholly self-interested — pursuing stupid vendettas that satisfy his personal sense of honor but put everyone else in the party in an impossible position, and taking precious time out of the final leg of the campaign to promote his properties.

It is true that almost every politician is selfish to some extent. But the usual dynamic is that personal ambition naturally aligns with the broader interest of the party. Members of the House and the Senate who covet leadership positions devote energy and resources to promoting their colleagues; would-be presidential candidates dole out favors to party officials and activists high and low in hopes of getting an advantage in an early caucus or primary state.

Because Trump’s ultimate ambition involves promotion of his brand, he is utterly free from these normal forces. If, say, Ted Cruz were losing to Hillary Clinton right now, in the back of his mind he’d be building for the next attempt in four years, not hedging his bets and promoting other ventures.

Republican voters supported Donald Trump in the primaries for many reasons, but one of them was to “burn it down,” a sentiment directed, in part, at the Republican party and especially its establishment.

If the worst comes to pass, the people who care about the party and its traditional ideals will be left to sift through the ashes. While the arsonist will be back up at Trump Tower, looking out, as always, for his bottom line and the main chance.


The Latest