It’s been just over a year since he’s been in office and the Trump phenomenon continues to dazzle…. and to mystify. His supporters are locked in and energized. His detractors are beside themselves, and probably even more energized. He tweets, and media mountains move. The TV media hates him, yet, he’s a TV ratings magnet. He tries to say something serious, and the media ridicules him as a joke. He tries to tell a joke, and the media takes him oh so seriously. In the process, he takes a lot of guff… and he relishes in shelling it right back – oh so “unpresidential.” Academic experts say he is probably the worst president ever; yet, few can dispute he’s probably come closer to accomplishing more of his goals in his first year than any president in recent memory.
On the one hand, none of this should be happening. The combined anti-Trump political-media-pop culture-and-deep state onslaught we’ve seen over the last year and more would alone have vanquished anyone else long ago. On the other hand, what we’re witnessing overall is quite remarkable: A force of personality and politically-incorrect conservative-instinct so strong that it shines as the brightest and most irresistible light in the political firmament. Love him or hate him, Trump is without a doubt the premier focus of political and cultural attention in the modern world. He is the energizer bunny on a mission, always certain – we think – to be stopped dead in his tracks; yet, only to confound and amaze that not only is he still standing and pressing forward, but also that he is actually accomplishing so many of the very things he said he would do. How can this be?
We get a glimpse of some of the answers in the recent campaign tome, Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency, co- authored by two of Trump’s earliest and most loyal campaign operatives, Cory Lewandowski and David Bossi. They reveal tidbits of what it was like being around the man during the rollicking ups and downs of the 2016 campaign. They also provide telling insights into the secrets of Trump’s political success.
A mere thirty days after the famous campaign kick-off escalator ride in June 2015, Trump’s earnest but somewhat inexperienced campaign manager thought for sure that the end was near. With the unending pile-on from the “they’re rapists” speech still reverberating loudly in the media echo chamber, a giant new campaign grenade exploded in his face. His boss just had slammed the senior Senator from Arizona, the once national Republican standard-bearer and revered former Vietnam prisoner-of-war with what the media said was a targeted insult: Trump not only said John McCain was “not a war hero,” but also – in the face of withering criticism of that comment – he doubled down on it in a follow-up press conference saying McCain had a poor record helping veterans. The combined blowback was so strong across the political spectrum – left and right – (including even Sean Hannity and Steve Bannon) that Corey Lewandowsky called his wife to tell her he would soon be on his way home and out of a job.
But by the time a week had passed, and the white-hot controversy had subsided to a mere smolder, Lewandowski was able to chalk up the episode as one of his signature learning experiences working at Trump’s right hand. Trump, he figured out then and there – while maybe impossible to manage the way other candidates are managed – was going to be tough to beat. In saying things and doing things he believed in, and in the way he wanted – often in defiance of the prevailing winds of political correctness and the most expert political advice – Trump was reaching people at the grassroots like no other politician.
Lost to many observers at the time was that Trump’s indelicate commentary about McCain was – in Trump’s methodology – less of an offensive jab than a defensive riposte. McCain had just dubbed Trump supporters at a Phoenix rally as “crazies,” an assessment widely and sneeringly shared in much of the DC Republican establishment and in the sophisticated NeverTrump world spanning both parties. Trump – being Trump – wasn’t going to take it lying down. Instead, McCain got a taste of the now so familiar Trump M.O. in which almost any and every slight – no matter how trivial – is met with a swift and often disproportionate response, no matter how it might be perceived or how off-message it might seem in distracting from other more important priorities.
Trump brings to his new job as “politician” a life experience that includes big league media hardball as played under the hot spotlight of New York City’s tabloid world of salacious gossip and innuendo. As a result – and with his proven proficiency now on Twitter – many see him, and not always admiringly, as the greatest counter-puncher in the history of politics.
The McCain counter-punching episode offered an insight about Trump that many in the media and elsewhere totally missed at the time and have still not learned to this day. Trump’s no-holds-barred authenticity is on balance an enormous strength, and not a weakness, resonating as it does with millions of people frustrated by decades of what they have seen as most politicians’ groveling weakness and inaction on so many of the things they care about.
At the same time, there is no doubt that dissing McCain had a quite different meaning for many others. It remains to them a prime example of why the NeverTrumpers and their fellow travelers can’t stand Trump (whether they voted for him or not), and it viscerally animates their exasperation with Trump’s hard-core supporters who they believe are constantly overlooking Trump’s glaring flaws.
Later in the campaign, Trump’s planned rally in Chicago had to be cancelled at the last minute after a large gathering of anti-Trump protesters surrounded the rally site with Trump supporters inside and police fearing for public safety. The scene played out that evening on cable TV with pundits talking over scenes of protester crowds growing, small fires burning, bricks being thrown and tempers flying high. Much of the coverage – immersed in the theme of Trump and Trump supporters inciting violence — was making Trump look pretty bad.
After the decision was made to cancel the rally and the evening TV coverage continued, Trump’s top traveling campaign staff –Cory and press aide Hope Hicks – gathered at their hotel to plot strategy and messaging for how to spin things for the next day. Amidst their deliberations, they were shocked to watch on TV when a surprise call-in guest turned up live on CNN: None other than Trump himself –on his own in-room hotel phone – was having it out with Don Lemon and eventually with five anchors on five different broadcasts that night reaching millions of viewers across the country. “And just like that, as he always does, (Trump) took control of the situation,” the authors write, concluding: “Donald Trump is the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of earned media.”
The authors report that nothing upset Trump more than when he was told that then-campaign manager Paul Manafort – with his best expert political advice – had once instructed staff that Trump not be allowed to be Trump, and not be allowed to do interviews on the Sunday TV shows on one particular weekend. On hearing this, Trump reportedly exploded at Manafort telling him in no uncertain terms that he would go on any show he pleased, whether Manafort liked it or not.
When the infamous October surprise hit in the form of the Access Hollywood tape right before the second debate, the campaign was truly on the brink. In just a matter of 24 hours, a growing list of prominent and vocal Republican office holders and others were heading for the hills, calling on Trump to quit the race. The authors take us inside that Saturday night’s meeting of the campaign brain trust assembled in the residence at Trump Tower. Trump went around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion. It was pretty bleak, with at least one key operative articulating what was on almost everyone’s mind in some fashion. Trump, he said, had a simple choice. Either quit now and let Pence finish the campaign, or suffer the worst electoral defeat in history, while taking the entire Republican ticket down with him. “A tense silence fell over the room,” they write. But Trump didn’t flinch, saying he was not going to quit or lose, but that he was going to go forward no matter what the consequences.
What comes through in the book is the extent to which Trump’s relentless energy, self-confidence and life smarts – coupled with his unique affinity with the patriotic impulses of what he calls the “forgotten Americans” – drives him to essentially strategize his own political path, come up with his own best lines and make his own best moves, often on the fly, while overcoming the many adversities and obstacles that were – and even now are – being thrown his way. Certainly, “the greatest political tale in the history of our republic,” and definitely in our lifetime. A must read
Gary Hoitsma served as special assistant to Ray Barnhart during Barnhart’s tenure as Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, under President Ronald Reagan and is a former aide to U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). Mr. Hoitsma is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.