Is Trump Shoring Up the Base, or Making It All Up as He Goes?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The 2016 dream team? The Donald and the Newt yesterday in Ohio. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

In response to the previous item about last night’s genuinely deranged-seeming half-hour discourse by Donald Trump, readers offer two opposing interpretations.

First, from a reader who works in the tech industry, and is originally from Europe:

I think you’re missing something, and the thing you’re missing is that his strategy is not to try to convince “independents” or even folks like us, but instead to mobilize the non-voters of his own tribe. His belief is that this will be good enough, so no need to compromise with the enemy.

Once you see it in that context, his speech makes complete sense. Specifically, to your points:

  • Everybody knows Hillary is crooked, so no need to waste time on that. Instead, hammer in on the two-speed justice system, something which resonates, because it is sadly true.
  • The star controversy activates the “anti-PC” receptors of his crowd. Also, backing down on anything is a sign of weakness and a victory for PC, so he has to be seen as resisting it. He doesn't care if it offends you. In fact, it’s great if it does. That’s all part of the game.
  • None of his crowd cares what the NYT prints. Just not a factor.
  • It’s gibberish except for his crowd, which just needs the right triggers lined up. The precedents for this kind of rambling speech are truly scary...

We can only hope that this “energize everyone in his base to go vote” strategy will fail, but sadly Brexit shows how it can succeed, and we misjudge this at our own peril.

I really have no idea how to bridge this gap. Maybe it’s just not possible, and we are stuck doing the same thing on our side, which may well end up in a civil war. Or maybe, your “local” take will save us—people will simply disregard the federal nonsense while working locally—but sadly, even though it produces tasty micro-brews, it won’t help solve larger problems.

My response, plus another reader’s interpretation, after the jump.

A different hypothesis, from a reader in the aerospace industry:

Thanks for keeping such a “logbook” of Trump’s behavior! After watching him for months I’m coming to the same uneasy conclusion as a lot of people and I’m curious if you think it is nuts:

He doesn’t want to be President. This has all been personal brand-building and performance art. Indeed, he never even expected to win the nomination and now he’s actively finding ways to “throw” the election. Say it ain’t so, Shoeless Donald!

If you view his behavior in that context it starts to look deviously rational instead of unhinged. But I can’t decide if devious makes more sense than unhinged. What does Occam’s Razor say?

To take the second possibility first: it is elegant to think that this is one big The Producers-style farce that got out of hand, but to me that seems too elegantly rococo an interpretation. I think he’s just being himself, instant by instant and through the whole arc of his campaign.

That’s my main reaction to the first possibility too. The effect might be to shore up and rev up the already-convinced. But I don’t know whether that’s a conscious long-term strategy so much as an instinctive response by Trump in front of his crowds. And as a purely practical matter, it’s hard to see how it could be as effective in a general election as in a GOP primary. That’s because these performances by Trump seem likely to rev up as much of his opposition — among Latinos, blacks, women, young people, etc — as they do of his base. But we’ll see.


For early items in the “Trump Nation” thread, you can go here. For recent ones, go here.