Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is in free fall. The election is not over yet, but it is in danger of slipping away. And it is important to understand why.
In an otherwise mediocre speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination last week, Hillary Clinton said: “I will be a President for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents … For those who vote for me and those who don’t.”
There isn’t a soul who actually believes her. And yet it was an important thing to have said.
For the past eight years, we have had a president who has governed as if the rest of the country, and indeed the Constitution, simply did not matter.
After his party was defeated in the 2014 midterm elections, Obama actually said he represented “the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process,” as if they outweighed those who did. He then governed as if the election had never happened, pushing through “executive amnesty,” the Iran deal, normalization with Cuba, and more.
Hillary Clinton is promising to do more of the same. She is divisive by nature. In a primary debate in October, she responded to the question “Which enemy that you made during your political career are you most proud of?” by answering: “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians; probably the Republicans.” She also spent the days after the horrific Dallas police shootings lecturing Americans about “systemic racism” and “white privilege.”
And yet she, or someone on her campaign team, understood that it was important to pay minimal homage to the ideal of a president who serves all the people.
That is what Donald Trump has failed to do, and fails to understand that he needs to do.
In the span of several days, Trump clashed with the parents of fallen Capt. Humayun Khan, as well as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In rally speeches, he has also re-lived his past disputes with reporters, and others.
The left and the media described his behavior as “dangerously insane.” One Democrat even started a petition to force the GOP to have Trump submitted for psychiatric evaluation. (Evidently it is okay to stigmatize mental illness for political reasons.)
There is nothing erratic about Trump’s behavior. On the contrary — and to his detriment, in this case — his tactics are dictated by a consistent strategy, not impulses.
In January, I described Trump’s strategy, which he developed in the business world and which he brought into the 2016 presidential campaign: “If there is one near-constant in the Trump campaign, it is his use of a strategy that game theorists call ‘massive retaliatory strike‘: he is friendly by default, but hits back hard if challenged.”
The Khans hit him, therefore they must be hit back. Ditto Ryan and McCain, who criticized him over the Khan-troversy. And so it goes, until the other side relents. Trump was full of praise Wednesday for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), for example, who mocked him in the primary but has since endorsed him.
Trump’s strategy is not unknown to Democrats. In 2002, Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote that the reason 9/11 happened was that America lost its deterrent: “They thought that they could always ‘out-crazy’ us, and they were right.” To “restore our deterrence,” Friedman said, we need “to be as crazy as some of our enemies.”
The problem is that what works in wartime, and in the cut-throat construction industry, does not work in domestic politics, where you must compromise to govern.
Winning the presidency, and governing, requires building coalitions. Those coalitions will include people who disagree. If small tiffs are treated as major disputes, coalitions rapidly disintegrate. Which is what Trump faces now.
It is too late to teach Trump a new strategy, just like it is too late to invent a record of success and bipartisanship for Hillary Clinton.
But he can learn from her. At least say the words America needs to hear: that Trump will fight for everyone, even his opponents.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.