In the past 48 hours, everything went wrong for Donald Trump.
He lied and ranted more than usual, he insulted and offended, his friends used the press to criticize him, and his enemies in his own party said they were voting for Hillary Clinton, while anonymous reports ran rampant that his campaign was falling apart at the seams. Meanwhile, his poll numbers were going down.
But the rules and customs of American politics have not and do not apply to Trump; therefore, we cannot judge his presidential campaign within their context.
Trump and his campaign cannot be off message because Trump and his campaign do not have a message. Trump and his campaign cannot be in disarray because Trump and his campaign invite and weaponize disarray.
In short, nothing matters.
Were Trump a normal candidate, it would be fair to say that this week, his campaign spiraled out of control.
First, he sallied forth on his mission to push the boundaries of good taste.
He continued to needle Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq.
He called Hillary Clinton “the devil” while onstage at a rally in Pennsylvania.
And the next day, he picked a fight with an infant for daring to cry during his rally in Virginia. He kicked the baby out.
Next, he declined to support Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain in their re-election bids.
Remember unity? Neither does he.
Finally, some combination of his fight with the Khan family, his general demeanor, and his refusal to endorse fellow Republicans in their re-election bids sent some conservatives over the edge. (His own running mate, meanwhile, contradicted him by pledging to support both men.)
Trump’s detractors within his own party—Meg Whitman, most notably; but also Maria Comella, a high-level staffer for Chris Christie; and Richard Hanna, a New York congressman—publicly vowed to vote for Clinton.
Whitman said she would not only vote for Clinton but would donate money to her campaign and raise money on her behalf. Trump, she told The New York Times, is “a dishonest demagogue” who has “undermined the character of the nation.”
Comella, who worked for Rudy Giuliani in addition to serving for years as Christie’s most important aide, told CNN that “silence isn’t an option” any longer. She, too, called Trump a “demagogue” who is “preying on people’s anxieties with loose information and salacious rhetoric.”
She added, “I don’t care if it’s good politics or not.”
And Hanna, in an interview and column on Syracuse.com, called Trump “unfit to serve” in part due to the “callousness of his comments” about the parents of a slain Muslim-American soldier. “I think Trump is a national embarrassment,” he said.
The polls offered more bad news for Trump. A Fox News poll released Wednesday revealed Trump down a whopping 10 percent to Clinton, from 49 to 39 percent. The poll showed voters questioned Trump’s temperament, with only 37 percent supporting him, and 64 percent saying Clinton’s temperament was more suited for the presidency.
And then there was the matter of Trump’s friends.
Newt Gingrich, a longtime ally who was on the short list to be his vice president, and Ed Rollins, who co-chaired a political action committee supporting him, decided to come out publicly to denounce Trump’s performance on the general election stage.
The former speaker of the House told The Washington Post “the current race is which of these two is the more unacceptable, because right now neither of them is acceptable.” Gingrich added, “Trump is helping her to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is.”
(Gingrich later backtracked in a series of tweets blaming the media for quoting his words verbatim.)
Rollins, appearing on Fox News, said, “I think one of Donald Trump’s singular difficulties with this campaign is that he sits and watches TV all day long and feels he has to react to every single thing that’s said against him.” He added, “Sometimes great racehorses can’t stay on the track, they wander all over the place, they have to put blinders on them. We need to put a blinder on Donald Trump and his focus needs to be on Mrs. Clinton, and any other Republican he just leaves alone.”
And then came the anonymously sourced reports of internal strife within the campaign.
It began Tuesday night with a tweet from CNBC’s John Harwood: “longtime ally of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager: ‘Manafort not challenging Trump anymore. Mailing it in. Staff suicidal.” NBC’s Ali Vitali responded, “A Trump campaign source, in reax to this, tells me ‘it’s all true’ and ‘way worse than people realize.’”
CNN then went full missing plane on the topic, reporting that “a GOP source” claimed “Reince Priebus was especially frustrated” by Trump’s refusal to endorse Ryan.
“A knowledgeable Republican source” also told CNN that “some of Trump’s campaign staff—even campaign chairman Paul Manafort—‘feel like they are wasting their time,’ given their boss’s recent comments.”
Manafort, along with other top Trump aides, then called CNN’s Dana Bash to refute the report on the record, an unusual step for a campaign and not exactly a sign that things are going well.
And while this was going on, NBC News was reporting that Priebus, Gingrich, and Giuliani were planning to stage an “intervention” for the candidate to steer him toward sanity.
Trump, for his part, says things are just peachy.
“The campaign is doing really well,” he said onstage at a Daytona rally Wednesday. “It’s never been so well-united. It’s the best in terms of being united since we began. We are doing incredibly well.”
The most likely answer for this confusion is that everybody is lying in some capacity and also almost nobody knows what they’re talking about, including—and perhaps especially—the candidate.
But for Trump’s presidential prospects, this means almost nothing at all.
This cannot be compared to McCain’s campaign manager and top strategist exiting his staff in July 2007, which was then viewed as a “major shakeup” for the “struggling campaign.”
Nor can it be compared to Gingrich’s entire staff abandoning him during the 2012 primary, or any other number of catastrophes and screw-ups that have weighed down other candidates over the years, like Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment being leaked or the various car elevator or dog-on-the-roof news cycles sullying his public image and steering him off his message that President Obama was bad and he was good.
Trump’s campaign has forever been populated by amateurs and lunatics who have somehow managed to guide him to success thus far.
And that success is not in spite of his inability to stay “on message” but because of it.
Trump’s message is chaos.
Trump’s free associative speeches are a reflection of what he claims is the chaos in the country.
He can’t speak in real sentences with a beginning, a middle, and an end because he’s just too outraged about too many things too much of the time to form thoughts like that.
And his friends can’t just call him and talk to him like a normal person to offer their advice because he isn’t one. The best way to get through to Trump, if you’re someone like Gingrich, is to air your grievances in the media—because that’s where he will see and absorb them.
And the infighting in his party? He thrives on that sort of drama, and so do his supporters, who signed up for a wrestling match, not a debate between statesmen.
This is not an argument that Trump will win, but that to try to interpret the mechanics of his campaign or his “message” using normal logic is a fool’s errand.
Nothing is normal anymore, and nothing matters.