Is Trump Actually Looking for the Off-Ramp?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Waiting for the man last week, on the tarmac at Redding’s airport in California. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

As mentioned in the latest installments of the Time Capsule series, these past few days have been unsettlingly odd on the GOP side. Many of Trump’s GOP endorsers have criticized his “Mexican” remarks and been dead silent about his fitness-for-office in the face of Hillary Clinton’s attacks. But still, with the honorable exception of Lindsey Graham, they’ve said they still support him.

What does this mean? Who knows, but here are some reader suggestions. First, from a reader on the West Coast:

Whatever he is, The Donald is not stupid. Suppose he knows that he
is unwilling to do what it takes to win a general election and/or that
he’s going to lose. If so, how does he construct a story which allows him to preserve his all-important brand of WINNER?

How 'bout this? If he keeps acting out and refusing to build a campaign organization, he can let the Republican Establishment and donors become dazed, confused, and eventually hostile. At that point, he claims he  has been “treated unfairly” or “screwed” or “sabotaged” and declines  the nomination because he can’t abide all the “losers.”

Sure it would  be chaotic, but the Republicans would immediately leap at the chance to put someone else up against what they see as a weak Democrat and would certainly go all out to not mention Trump again. The media then gets all caught up in the turmoil and is happy to forget The Donald, who then goes back to his gilt world, guilt free

Similarly from a reader in Philadelphia:

Yes, you are right of course [about the un-American aspects of Trump’s outlook], but he will not be the nominee, do not worry.  

An exit ramp (“my business needs me”) will be built prior to Cleveland, the GOP will have an open convention, and Trump be an asterisk to history. He will come to the realization he can’t win prior to Cleveland, and drop out. Remember, Donald Trump doesn’t lose contests; he quits them before they are over. 

And from another reader in California:

Trump’s attack on the judge and his demand that his surrogates pile on, and also attack as “racist” any journalists who question what they are doing—this is Trump doing what he seems always to do. He focuses all his energy and rhetoric and bullying on the crisis right at hand (the lawsuit about the Trump U fraud) with no consideration at all for the long-term effects or more important priorities.

I can practically hear him saying, “The convention? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. It’ll be a cakewalk. People love me.” 

Think of only what is happening now, and take care of the future when it arrives. The idea seems to be that if you can solve any crisis (“Easy!”), then you might as well tackle the one closest to hand, and deal with the others as you get to them: since you can solve them as they come, no biggie. 

He’s way out of his depth, and I don’t think he’s quite realized it yet.

***

From another reader on the East Coast who is a lawyer, on my comment that Trump’s harping on the civil-suit against Trump U is a weird self-inflicted distraction from the real business of the campaign:

Your statement that the Trump University lawsuit has nothing to do with the presidential campaign isn’t really correct; it’s more complicated than that.  

Clearly, Trump and the “University”’s actions in conducting business, and the revelations coming from Trump’s deposition, reflect pretty badly on the candidate. It’s more or less true that the lawsuit itself, separate and apart from the underlying facts, isn’t all that relevant to the campaign, particularly since as a result of Judge Curiel’s order, the trial won’t take place until after the election (a decision for which Trump ought to be down on his knees thanking the judge).

It’s impossible to tell if Trump’s ranting about Curiel is a strategic move to attempt to blunt the impact of the revelations coming out or whether it’s just Trump obsessively interjecting into the middle of the campaign his petulant complaints about the way he feels he’s been treated in a purely private lawsuit. I tend to go with the latter, since I think Trump’s impulsiveness and narcissism makes it very difficult for him to operate strategically in this campaign. He’s taken what is essentially his sense of aggrievement in a personal matter and brought it into his campaign, simply because he can’t help it.

Plus, I think this tendency on his part to speak and act impulsively may have been exacerbated in the last week or so by the pressure building up on his campaign. A withering attack by Hillary, the increasing push-back he’s now experiencing from the media, the fact that he is increasingly being confronted with his own lies and contradictory statements, what appears to be terrible tensions and infighting in the campaign, the lack of funds—all of this may be pushing him to act less rationally, more impulsively, to lash out, to feel that he’s being treated “unfairly” by everyone.

Interesting that his children haven’t been visible in the campaign in the last week or so.