Going Rogue: Trump's Refusal to Play GOP Ball
Republican Party leaders hoped that Donald Trump would seize the window of time between the end of the primary and the start of the convention to grow his campaign and evolve as a candidate, shifting and softening his message to win a broader audience in the general election.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Instead, Trump has held steady to the course that brought him to victory in the Republican primary: keeping his organization small and top-down, holding large-scale rallies, and shrugging off traditional campaign features such as data, polling and fundraising.
His style has likewise remained static: He has remained laser-focused on his core issues from the primary, such as immigration, but he has not fleshed out other policy. Meanwhile, rather than soften his rhetoric, Trump has hardened his attacks on perceived adversaries, lashing out at the press, fellow Republicans and, last week, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing a case in San Diego involving Trump University.
That latest attack, in which Trump questioned Curiel’s fitness to hear the case due to his “Mexican heritage,” has crossed a line even for some of Trump’s most committed boosters and revived serious doubts among Republicans about the celebrity businessman’s commitment to mounting a serious campaign.
“I think the person most likely to beat Donald Trump is Donald Trump,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has vocally backed the presumptive GOP nominee, said in an interview with CBN on Monday. “He’s got to recognize that this is a new game, that it’s a much more complicated game, and that he needs to focus on winning the presidency.”
Other Republicans publicly voicing concerns about Trump’s comments included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio, and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ben Carson appeared to reject Trump’s remarks in a tweet. Many others also joined the concerned chorus.
But Trump doubled down Monday on a conference call with his allies, defending his position and encouraging his campaign surrogates to continue raising the issue, Bloomberg News reported.
“Trump's reasoning is that his unconventional approach helped him dispatch all of his primary opponents, and that same approach will help him put away Clinton in the general,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist. “Raising money and building an organization? Tasks that can be outsourced to the RNC. Message discipline and a professional communications operation? Who needs that when you have social media and earned media dominance?”
“Conventional campaigns are for conventional politicians,” Madden added, “and Trump has convinced his campaign and his most ardent supporters that the old rules or practices just don't apply to him.”
Indeed, at a press conference last week in which he blasted members of the media for raising questions about why he had not made promised donations to veterans groups, Trump made his modus operandi clear: “You think I’m going to change?” he said. “I’m not changing.”
Republican leaders have publicly stressed otherwise. Trump “is going to pivot in tone and tenor,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview published last month by Bloomberg Businessweek. “He understands that.”
“I think he recognized that the tone has to be presidential,” Priebus added. “I think he gets that.”
Priebus echoed at a Politico-sponsored event last month: “I think he’s said it himself, that there’s going to be a time to shift to general election mode, and I think that’s the way he sees it.”
Republicans hoped that that time would have already come. For Trump, at least, it has not.
Rather than work to unite his party, Trump has not let up on attacking his Republican detractors, while putting elected officials who have supported him in an increasingly difficult position with polarizing public remarks.
In his press conference last week, Trump described Mitt Romney as “a fool” and continued to criticize New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, whom he deemed “not nice.” Romney has vocally opposed Trump’s candidacy; Martinez skipped a Trump rally when he recently visited her state.
“What worries many Republicans is that Trump could squander the opportunity to build upon this enthusiasm and the changing electorate if he continues to exhibit such a profound lack of discipline,” Fred Malek, finance chairman for the Republican Governors Association, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week.
A steady drumbeat of unflattering news stories about Trump and his own inflammatory rhetoric have further quashed hope among Republicans of a turnaround before convention. Within the past month, Trump has denied having acted in the 1990s as his own spokesman under the guise of aliases, before later conceding he did use aliases; hurriedly disbursed promised checks to veterans organizations after reporters raised questions about whether he had done so; raised conspiracy theories about the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster during the Clinton administration; faced questions about whether Trump University was engineered to scam its clients; and cited Judge Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason he should step down from the Trump University trial.
“Some folks have been waiting for Act Two,” said one California GOP official. “Now they’re thinking, ‘Oh s---.’”
“Maybe this is all there is,” the official added.
Organizationally, Trump’s campaign also appears stuck in first gear. Last month Trump fired his political director, Rick Wiley, just six weeks after Wiley was hired. Meanwhile, since reaching a joint fundraising agreement with the RNC last month, Trump himself has reportedly done little to fill his campaign coffers.
“He’s not picking up the phone and calling people. It is a challenge,” Trump Victory vice-chairman Ray Washburne told the Dallas Morning News. “There isn’t a personal interest in his raising money … It’s just a different way of doing things.”
By April 2012, before he had clinched the Republican nomination for president, Romney was already aiming to raise $100 million per month with a goal of $1 billion for the general election. But Trump told Bloomberg he would perhaps raise $500 million.
“I just don’t know why you need that much money,” Trump said.
But, if the prevailing emotion for some Republicans is surprise or disappointment, this is not the case for many of Trump’s steadfast detractors in the party.“Trump is Trump. Anyone who thought he was going to change or moderate or pivot is either a complete fool or was in a coma for the past year,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush who later advised the anti-Trump outfit, Our Principles PAC. “Trump will always be the same person who delivered the off-the-cuff announcement speech that called Mexicans ‘rapists.’ People need to decide whether to embrace that or reject it. There is no third way.”