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The Ego Has Crash-Landed

Make America Great Again Mirror - David Frum
Thought Leader: David Frum
March 19, 2024

Donald Trump dominated the news cycle this weekend. Everybody’s talking about the outrageous things he said at his rally in Dayton, Ohio—above all, his menacing warning of a “bloodbath” if he is defeated in November. To follow political news is to again be immersed in all Trump, all the time. And that’s why Trump will lose.

At the end of the 1980 presidential debate, the then-challenger Ronald Reagan posed a famous series of questions that opened with “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Why that series of questions was so powerful is important to understand. Reagan was not just delivering an explicit message about prices and wages. His summation also sent an implicit message about his understanding of how and why a vote was earned.

As a presidential candidate that year, Reagan arrived as a hugely famous and important person. He was the champion of the rising American conservative movement, a former two-term governor of California, and, before that, a movie and television star. Yet when it came time to make his final appeal to voters, candidate Reagan deflected attention away from himself. Instead, he targeted the spotlight directly at the incumbent president and the president’s record.

When Reagan spoke of himself, it was to present himself as a plausible replacement:

I have not had the experience the president has had in holding that office, but I think in being governor of California, the most populous state in the Union—if it were a nation, it would be the seventh-ranking economic power in the world—I, too, had some lonely moments and decisions to make. I know that the economic program that I have proposed for this nation in the next few years can resolve many of the problems that trouble us today. I know because we did it there.

Reagan understood that Reagan was not the issue in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the issue. Reagan’s job was to not scare anybody away.

Reagan was following a playbook that Carter himself had used against Gerald Ford in 1976. Bill Clinton would reuse the playbook against George H. W. Bush in 1992. By this playbook, the challenger subordinates himself to a bigger story, and portrays himself as a safe and acceptable alternative to an unacceptable status quo.

Joe Biden used the same playbook against Donald Trump in 2020. See Biden’s closing ad of the campaign, which struck generic themes of unity and optimism. The ad works off the premise that the voters’ verdict will be on the incumbent; the challenger’s job is simply to refrain from doing or saying anything that gets in the way.

But Trump won’t accept the classic approach to running a challenger’s campaign. He should want to make 2024 a simple referendum on the incumbent. But psychically, he needs to make the election a referendum on himself.

That need is self-sabotaging.

In two consecutive elections, 2016 and 2020, more Americans voted against Trump than for him. The only hope he has of changing that verdict in 2024 is by directing Americans’ attention away from himself and convincing them to like Biden even less than they like Trump. But that strategy would involve Trump mainly keeping his mouth shut and his face off television—and that, Trump cannot abide.

Trump cannot control himself. He cannot accept that the more Americans hear from Trump, the more they will prefer Biden.

Almost 30 years ago, I cited in The Atlantic some advice I’d heard dispensed by an old hand to a political novice in a congressional race. “There are only two issues when running against an incumbent,” the stager said. “[The incumbent’s] record, and I’m not a kook.” Beyond that, he went on, “if a subject can’t elect you to Congress, don’t talk about it.”

The same advice applies even more to presidential campaigns.

Trump defies such advice. His two issues are his record and Yes, I am a kook. The subjects that won’t get him elected to anything are the subjects that he is most determined to talk about.

In Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, the private eye Philip Marlowe breaks off a friendship with a searing farewell: “You talk too damn much and too damn much of it is about you.” When historians write their epitaphs for Trump’s 2024 campaign, that could well be their verdict.

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