Usually, you have to wait until a person becomes president to see if they can fulfill the promise of their presidency. But Donald Trump is offering us a sneak preview. He has promised unrivaled success as president, even though he has no political experience. His campaign tests this proposition. Trump had no experience as a campaigner either, yet he beat 16 rivals soundly, causing some of them to embarrass themselves, perhaps irrevocably. The general election, though, has posed a stiffer challenge. His recent campaign shakeup-- the second top-level shift since becoming the likely GOP nominee-- is either a sign of adaptation by an entrepreneurial new thinking executive who has come back from bankruptcies in his career, or it’s an act of desperation and self-soothing that comes before defeat.
Campaign changes at the top don’t necessarily tell us anything about a candidate’s chances on their own. John Kerry switched campaign managers and lost. Ronald Reagan did the same and won. We’ll know which is the case with Trump soon enough. In the interim, however, the campaign change does offer evidence about the promise Trump has made to voters. The real estate tycoon has pledged an extraordinary level of effectiveness as president. He will transform the military, shrink the federal budget, achieve record economic growth, revamp the tax code, bring back manufacturing jobs, quickly dispatch ISIS, force the Chinese to heel, keep American businesses from moving operations overseas and be a first-class cheerleader for the United States. He has said there will be so much winning that we will grow tired of winning.
This is hyperbole, of course, but still, the essential promise of the Trump campaign is that he is a world beater once he sets his successful mind to a task. That he lacks experience is not a problem. It’s an asset.
By the Donald Trump standard of success, he is arguably farther behind in the general election than his polls indicate. He’s down nationally by an average of six points and he’s down in the key swing states. By all accounts, his organization is well behind where it needs to be with early voting starting in a little over a month. It’s not that Donald Trump can’t come back. It’s that he has promised unrivaled success in all that he touches. By that measure he is not winning.
Yes, say his supporters, but think of all the things blocking him: the awful press, the fact he’s never done this before, staffers who don’t sync with him, and turncoat establishment Republicans.
Let’s assume all of these things are hampering Trump and are not excuses for a flawed campaign. Even so, they are the normal obstacles to campaigning. None of them are a surprise. They could not be a surprise to a candidate making the claims to success Trump has made. That he is inexperienced at this pursuit is not an excuse available to him. His lack of experience is supposed to be an asset—the key to even greater success than the insiders.
The hurdles Trump is facing now roughly approximate the hurdles he’ll face as president. Except that the presidency will be harder. The job will be just as unfamiliar as his current pursuit, just as random and far more constraining. Campaigning is the easy part. As a candidate Donald Trump can run his campaign like a business. As president he’ll be hemmed in by the office, the separation of powers, custom and the overwhelming tonnage of duties that come with the job. Every president leaves office lamenting that the job was more confining than they imagined.
Trump’s new campaign team has been picked to help him break out of the minimal constraints he’s embraced as a general election candidate. “I am what I am,” Trump has taken to saying. It was a change that he foreshadowed in his interview with “Time” last week. “I am listening to so-called experts to ease up the rhetoric, and so far, I’m liking the way I ran in the primaries better,” he said.
For several months, the Trump team has suggested that there would be a modification to the candidate who ran in the primaries. Paul Manafort made that his first promise to nervous donors. Dr. Ben Carson said there were two Donald Trumps, and voters would just have to be exposed to the one he had seen behind-the-scenes. In early July, Sen. Bob Corker said without a pivot the campaign would die in three weeks. Sen. Marco Rubio said on Face the Nation that the pivot would wipe away his fears that Trump shouldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. Mike Pence has been telling Republicans like Senator Jeff Flake that they should support Trump because in private he is a different man.
Donald Trump has banished all this talk. There is one Donald Trump, the guy who won the primaries. Please get out of his way now and let him win the general election. (Or, if he’s going to lose, he’s going to do it having been true to himself).
Donald Trump is going to be more Donald Trump than ever. It does not seem like the challenges he has faced in the last three weeks have come from a lack of assertion of his personality, but the choice he has made mirrors a decision every president must make every day. Every president faces a balance between his instincts and the bracing frankness of outside advice-- if he’s lucky enough to have people around him who give him that advice. Because the presidency encourages sycophancy and group-think, those who have served presidents warn that every chief magistrate needs a person who can tell them no and who can help them fight against their instincts when their instincts are going to vault them into the abyss. But presidents also need to know themselves well enough to trust their instincts, because in the final moment they are alone with world-changing decisions.
Campaign shakeups are either a sign of desperation or adaptation. If Donald Trump can right his campaign, he’ll not only have helped his poll position, but he’ll have proved a central claim of his campaign: that his skills honed in the business world can be transferred to complicated unfamiliar tasks. If he’s made the wrong choice, he will undermine his campaign and the case for it -- which means he’s unlikely to get a chance to test the theory of his campaign in practice in the Oval Office.