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Paul Manafort's resignation shows Trump's problem is Trump

Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

About two months ago, Donald Trump fired his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and centralized authority under chair Paul Manafort in an effort to bring discipline and professionalism to his election bid.

On Friday, Manafort resigned — so it looks like that didn't work!

Manafort's resignation came just days after Trump's announcement that he’d bring in Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon to be his new campaign chief. According to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Trump made this decision because he felt "boxed in" and "controlled" under Manafort, and wants to get back to the "let Trump be Trump" campaign culture that existed before Manafort pushed out Lewandowski.

But on its face, Trump’s apparent conclusion about his campaign’s recent woes seems utterly bizarre and even borderline delusional.

Trump is very clearly losing because he is being Trump — that is, making offensive comments, taking unpopular positions, and displaying a temperament that repels much of the electorate, particularly nonwhite voters and educated whites.

And the candidate has either failed to realize that he is torpedoing his own campaign or has concluded that the "general election pivot" Manafort recommended simply won’t work for him. Whatever the case, Trump remains the central problem of the Trump campaign.

Trump is doing much worse than an ordinary Republican should

Vox's Trump Tax

Indeed, there are piles of evidence that Trump is performing a good deal worse than an ordinary Republican should be:

  • According to a new election forecast model built by Vox and a team of political scientists, a generic Republican candidate would likely be doing about 5.7 percentage points better than Trump is now.
  • Republican Senate candidates across the country who are much more bland and ordinary than Trump regularly outperform him in polls, sometimes by double digits.
  • Trump’s personal traits appear to have driven away about 10 percent of his own party — he’s only drawing about 80 percent of self-identified Republicans in recent polls, well behind the 90 percent and above that recent major party nominees have gotten.
  • The timing of Trump’s recent poll decline suggests it was driven not just by the parties’ two conventions but by Trump’s incredibly unpopular attacks on the Khan family.
  • Trump did in fact close in on Clinton in the polls when he was mostly following Manafort’s advice and staying on message — that is, between his attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the Khans.

Considering all that, the assertion that Trump is looking at all this and concluding the problem is that he just hasn’t been himself enough sounds deeply strange.

So what is Trump thinking?

Perhaps Trump is "delusional about why he’s losing," as Greg Sargent suggests. Perhaps he is returning to "let Trump be Trump" because it seemed to work for him in the primaries and he doesn’t grasp that the general electorate is an entirely different beast. Perhaps he simply isn’t being given accurate information, or is egotistical enough to dismiss all this evidence. Or perhaps, as some theorize, he’s already expecting to lose and is planning ahead to his rumored conservative media venture.

Still, I think there are a couple of reasons his move might make at least a little bit of sense, kinda.

First, the Manafort strategy of rehabilitating Trump’s image may have been the best of bad options, but it was never incredibly compelling. Much of the frequent speculation about Trump potentially "pivoting" and improving his image has tended to downplay the likelihood that voters won’t simply forget the old Trump, particularly once they are reminded of his long history by the Clinton campaign.

Second, some have long speculated that Trump thinks his campaign is so unusual that his only chance to win is if things get very ugly. "His only shot to win in the general is the 'I told you so' campaign, if there is a major, major terrorist attack," Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi told me last December. "In the casino magnate style that has always been his life and persona, he is betting it all on this one issue."

Despite the Orlando shootings and several tragedies abroad, that doesn’t seem to have materialized. So instead, Trump may think he has to create a sense of national crisis, as he tried to do with his bogus narrative of rising crime stats during his convention speech. And Bannon has proven himself a master of exploiting racial fears and resentment from his work at Breitbart News.

Finally, perhaps Trump has concluded that he simply is constitutionally incapable of running an ordinary, disciplined campaign. Now, this has very worrying implications regarding his fitness for the presidency and would seem to vindicate the many criticisms of his temperament.

But it also appears to be true, so at least it would demonstrate some self-awareness and recognition of reality on Trump’s behalf, rather than being representative of some delusion.

This article was updated with news of Manafort's resignation.

This election is about normal vs. abnormal