Donald Trump hasn’t dropped out of the presidential race — but he sure isn’t acting like he wants to be president.
He’s plummeting in the polls. Every day, it seems, another of his fellow Republicans defects to his opponent Hillary Clinton — or at least promises not to vote for Trump.
Yet Trump isn’t doing anything to pull out of his tailspin. If anything, he’s embracing it.
He hasn’t bought any campaign ads. He’s barely spending any money on staff. He might be trying to wriggle out of the debates.
He’s just going from interview to interview, saying ever-more-implausible things about Hillary Clinton (She had a seizure! She got an Iranian scientist killed!) and predicting his own defeat at the hands of a "rigged" electoral system.
From the outside, it can be hard to make sense of Trump’s behavior. Is Trump dropping out? Why would he be acting this way if he weren’t?
I get the impulse. But honestly, as bizarre as this campaign season has been, there is no evidence whatsoever that Donald Trump is going to drop out before Election Day. And speculating that he will totally misunderstands what Trump actually wants out of this campaign.
Donald Trump is getting exactly what he wants out of running for president
If you know one thing about Donald Trump, you know that he really likes winning. Winning is his favorite thing.
So you might think he would be pretty miserable right about now.
Trump is very much not winning the presidential election. If the election were held today, he’d lose in a landslide. He’s almost certainly going to rebound in the polls at least slightly, but three months before Election Day it looks increasingly hard to figure out a way he could win.
Why would Trump put up with that? He hates losing — why wouldn’t he just quit?
But here’s the thing. Donald Trump might be behind in the polls, but he’s still getting way more publicity — in particular, way more TV airtime — than frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In fact, the more that Trump’s campaign falls into disarray, the more he dominates the news cycle.
Trump believes all publicity is good publicity. He reminded America about this himself just last month, after the first two days of the Republican National Convention were dominated by accusations that Melania Trump had plagiarized part of her speech from Michelle Obama:
Good news is Melania's speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2016
Think about Trump this way, and a lot of things that would otherwise seem like either insanity or self-sabotage start to make sense. This is why every time Hillary Clinton gets in the news — even if it’s a story that might hurt her with voters — Trump says something else ridiculous so that he’s the center of attention again. This is why he isn’t trying to change his campaign strategy despite being so far behind in the polls.
In the primaries, it might have been different. But once you’re a major party nominee for president, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of attention. And Donald Trump gives every indication that he’s going to suck up every ounce of the attention his position gives him between now and November.
Donald Trump may not want to be president — but he sure enjoys running for it
The speculation about whether Trump will drop out gets one important thing right: It is not at all clear that Donald Trump actually wants to do the work that being president of the United States would entail.
According to one staffer for Ohio Gov. John Kasich (who stayed in the Republican primary long after most of Trump’s other opponents, despite winning a paltry number of delegates), Trump’s son Donald Jr. used a very ... interesting argument that Kasich should drop out of the race and become Trump’s vice presidential nominee instead: In the New York Times’s telling, he essentially promised that Kasich could do the whole job of actually, you know, running the country.
According to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
"Making America great again" was the casual reply.
Maybe the aide misunderstood, but it says something that the story is even plausible. Throughout his candidacy, Trump has been extremely interested in the parts of his campaign that face the TV cameras, and extremely uninterested in the parts that don’t.
Trump’s need to squeeze as much attention as he possibly can out of his presidential run undermines any attempt to look "presidential." That extends even to promising that he’d actually accept the presidency at all.
In July, the New York Times asked Trump whether he might refuse the presidency even after winning the election. He smiled and said, "I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens."
Trump might not have been serious. But that’s exactly the point. He was less interested in assuring the American public that he would, if elected, serve as their president — a promise a voter would probably want someone running for president to make — than he was in guaranteeing the extra media attention that came from provoking another round of surprise and suspense.
Why on earth would Donald Trump forgo that by dropping out months before the election? He’s already getting exactly what he wants.
Stop finding excuses not to take Donald Trump seriously
If everyone in America started ignoring Donald Trump entirely, maybe he would quit. But they won’t.
And frankly, they shouldn’t. Trump is the nominee of one of the two major American political parties for the presidency of the United States. Out of all 7-plus billion people on Earth, there are two who have a plausible chance of being the world’s most powerful person come January 2017, and Trump is one of them.
Speculating that he isn’t serious about actually doing the job could stiffen his resolve. After all, people not taking Donald Trump seriously is exactly what got us here to begin with.
As the New York Times put it in a headline this spring: "Donald Trump’s Presidential Run Began in an Effort To Gain Stature." Trump started getting involved in Republican politics during Obama’s first term, becoming a high-profile "birther" and teasing a run for president in 2012. But he realized that political elites (even when they courted his approval) didn’t actually take him seriously.
Politicians didn’t see a Trump candidacy as a threat to their chances. Reporters accused him of crying wolf, promising to run for president over and over but never actually doing it.
Donald Trump hated not being taken seriously. So as the 2016 presidential election approached, he ran for president for real.
When he did, he ended up stumbling onto a constituency: a group of mostly older and mostly white people who also felt that political elites hadn’t taken them seriously.
Trump’s longtime fans love him almost as much as he loves himself. And they certainly take the prospect of his presidency at least as seriously as he does.
Trump may (possibly) think of himself as a reality TV villain, who wasn’t taking any of this seriously to begin with and just said what he needed to say to get screen time.
But his followers take it more seriously. To them, the outrageous things he says are often uncomfortable truths, or provocations that show how out of touch or oversensitive everyone else is.
Trump may well walk away after he loses. Trumpism won’t.