When in his 1964 GOP acceptance speech Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” a reporter sitting near journalist/historian Theodore White famously exclaimed: “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”

Six weeks into Donald Trump’s general election campaign, Republicans are discovering that he indeed intends to run as Donald Trump. He has boasted that he could turn “presidential” — respectful, respectable, reticent, reserved bordering on boring — at will. Apparently, he can’t.

GOP leaders who fell in line behind Trump after he clinched the nomination expected, or at least hoped, that he would prove malleable, willing to adjust his more extreme positions and tactics to suit a broader electorate.

Two problems. First, impulse control: Trump says what he actually feels, whatever comes into his head at any moment. Second, a certain logic: Trump won the primaries Sinatra-style, his way — against the odds, the experts and the conventional rules. So why change now?

“You win the pennant,” Trump explained, “and now you’re in the World Series — you gonna change?”

Hence his response to the Orlando terror attack. Events like these generally benefit the challenger politically because any misfortune that befalls the nation gets attributed, fairly or not, directly or indirectly, to the incumbent party (e.g., the 2008 financial collapse). And Hillary Clinton is running as the quasi-incumbent.

The textbook response for the challenger, therefore, is to offer sympathy, give a general statement or two about the failure of the incumbent’s national security policy, then step back to let the resulting national fear and loathing, amplified by the media, take effect.

Instead, Trump made himself the (political) story. First, he offered himself unseemly congratulations for his prescience about terrorism. (He’d predicted more would be coming. What a visionary.) Then he went beyond blaming the president for lack of will or wisdom in fighting terrorism, and darkly implied presidential sympathy for the enemy. “There’s something going on,” he charged. He then reiterated his ban on Muslim immigration.

Why? Because that’s what Trump does. And because it worked before. It was after last December’s San Bernardino massacre that Trump first called for a Muslim ban. It earned him lots of opprobrium from GOP leaders and lots of support from GOP voters. He shot up in the polls, never to descend until he clinched. So why not do it again?

Because the general election is a different game. Trump assumes that the Republican electorate is representative of the national electorate. It’s not. Take the Muslim ban. Sixty-eight percent of GOP voters support it. Only 38% of Democrats do. And there are approximately 7 million more Democrats in the country. (Independents are split 51-40 in favor.)

The other major example of doing what’s always worked is the ad hominem attack on big-dog opponents. It worked in the primaries. Trump went after one leading challenger after another, knocking them out sequentially.

Hillary Clinton is a lousy campaigner but her machine is infinitely larger and more skilled than any of Trump’s 16 GOP competitors. More riskily, Trump is now going toe-to-toe with a sitting president.

Barack Obama is no Jeb Bush. He’s not low energy. He’s a skilled campaigner who clearly despises Trump and relishes the fight. And he carries the inestimable advantage of the gravitas automatically conferred by seven and a half years of incumbency. Moreover, he now enjoys an unusually high approval rating of around 53%. Trump’s latest favorability is 29% (Washington Post-ABC News).

It’s no accident that Trump’s poll numbers are sliding. A month ago, when crowned as presumptive nominee, he jumped into a virtual tie with Clinton. The polls now have him losing by an average of six points, with some showing a nine- and 12-point deficit (Reuters/Ipsos and Bloomberg).

This may turn out to be temporary, but it is a clear reflection of Trump’s disastrous general election kickoff.

His two-week expedition into racism in attacking the Indiana-born “Mexican” judge. His dabbling in conspiracy, from Ted Cruz’s father’s supposed involvement in the Kennedy assassination to Vince Foster’s (“very fishy”) suicide. All of which suggests, and cements, the image of a man who shoots from the hip and is prone to both wild theories and extreme policies.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon thinks that the Goldwater anecdote is apocryphal. How could anyone (even a journalist) have thought that Goldwater, who later admitted he always knew he would lose, was going to run as anything but his vintage, hard-core self?

Same for Trump. Give him points for authenticity. Take away for electability.


I had started writing a piece about this specific subject yesterday, but I’ll trash it since Dr. Krauthammer has said what I was going to say – and more adeptly than I could anyway.

Trump has made a conscious decision that he can win the presidency using the same tactics that were successful in the primary. For me, that proves that Mr. Trump’s ego overshadows any logic to the contrary. He apparently believes that his personality can “trump” what we have come to expect from a presidential candidate. Historically, we’ve come to expect, as Charles said, a candidate to be respectful, respectable, reticent, and reserved – in effect, showing the voters what we could expect if he or she was elected president.

But that’s not for Donald – Donald knows better. He is intentionally not hewing to our expectations, eschewing our vision of what a president should be and at the same time attempting to revise that vision to fit his own natural demeanor. I believe that traits and proclivities associated with Donald Trump are not those that a majority of voters will believe to be appropriate for our president. It’s obvious that The Donald disagrees and believes that the sheer magnificence of his Trumpness will overcome our preconceived notions and win the day.

Call me naive, but I can’t envision the majority of our American electorate accepting a man who has difficulty telling the truth (actually lies with every other breath), who boasts and exaggerates at every opportunity, who regularly insults anyone who doesn’t agree with him and is, in general, a loose cannon flailing about and seemingly out of control as our Commander-in-Chief with our armed forces at his beck and call. Could his unrestrained antics get us into another war? Will our allies trust us? Can inconsistent and emotional outbursts contribute to a stable foreign policy? I am very uncomfortable at the thought of Donald Trump being responsible for the well-being of our 317,000,000 citizens. 

Trump’s 32.8 favorable / 61.5 unfavorable ratings (RCP average through Jun 13, 2016) certainly seems to indicate that many others agree with my assessment.