The past six days proved Donald Trump is dangerously unfit for the presidency.
The problem isn’t that Trump is cruel, though he is. The problem isn’t that Trump is boorish, though he is. The problem isn’t that Trump is undisciplined, though he is.
The problem is that Trump is predictable and controllable.
Through most of this election, those would be the last two words anyone would associate with Donald J. Trump. His brand is impulsivity. The central fact of his political style is that staff can’t control his actions. Who else would launch a presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers? Who else would accuse an opponent’s father of being involved in JFK’s assassination? Who else would humiliate their running mate before introducing him? Who else would tweet schoolyard insults at his challengers and retweet white supremacists praising his virtues?
Over the past six days, Hillary Clinton’s campaign revealed that this is a misreading of Donald Trump. His behavior, though unusual, is quite predictable — a fact the Clinton campaign proved by predicting it. His actions, though beyond the control of his allies, can be controlled by his enemies — a fact the Clinton campaign proved by controlling them.
So far, this has played out, within the safe space of a presidential campaign, as farce. If Trump were to win the White House, it would play out as tragedy.
It’s worth revisiting the Alicia Machado saga from this perspective. What stands out, in retrospect, is how contrived the whole operation was, how transparently Hillary Clinton set the trap in the final moments of the presidential debate.
HOLT: We are at — we are at the final question.
CLINTON: Well, one thing. One thing, Lester.
HOLT: Very quickly, because we're at the final question now.
CLINTON: You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said…
TRUMP: I never said that.
CLINTON: …women don't deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.
TRUMP: I didn't say that.
CLINTON: And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman "Miss Piggy." Then he called her "Miss Housekeeping," because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.
TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?
CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.
TRUMP: Where did you find this?
CLINTON: And she has become a US citizen, and you can bet…
TRUMP: Oh, really?
CLINTON: …she's going to vote this November.
Donald Trump can be forgiven for being caught off-guard in the moment. His presidency-disqualifying sin came in the hours after the debate. The Clinton campaign released a slickly produced video featuring Machado. The Guardian and Cosmopolitan rushed pre-planned Machado profiles to publication. Hillary Clinton did everything but spray paint “THIS IS A TRAP” on the side of Trump Tower.
And still Trump fell for it. And fell for it. And fell for it. Six days later, he’s still falling for it.
There was nothing ingenious about Clinton’s scheme. If anything, it was a bit like her satisfied delivery of “Trumped-up trickle-down economics” — too clever by half, too obviously planned by whole. All Trump had to do was nothing. Or to say: “Hillary Clinton wants to talk about beauty pageants rather than her 30-year record of corruption and failure.”
Seriously. That was it. Instead, he said this:
And then tweeted this:
Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2016
“Check out sex tape and past,” tweeted the man who wants to be the next president of the United States of America at 5:30 am.
We’re now six days beyond the debate. And Trump is still finding new ways to spring and re-spring Clinton’s trap on himself. On Friday, he told the New York Times that, in response to the Clinton campaign bringing up Machado, he would begin attacking Hillary Clinton for being “married to the single greatest abuser of women in the history of politics” — thus launching the line of assault likeliest to engender sympathy for Hillary Clinton, and opening his checkered marital history to public scrutiny.
“She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be,” is a thing Trump actually said, aloud, to reporters, in an interview meant to help his campaign.
To appreciate just how self-destructive this strategy is, read the third paragraph of the Times story:
In an interview with The New York Times, he also contended that infidelity was “never a problem” during his three marriages, though his first ended in an ugly divorce after Mr. Trump began a relationship with the woman who became his second wife.
There is a part of me that believes the entire Alicia Machado trap was a long con to bait Trump into berating Clinton for her husband’s infidelities at the second debate, and making his past marital betrayals fair game for the press.
What is extraordinary in all this is how enthusiastically Trump has taken the Clinton campaign’s bait, and how unconcerned he’s been with the fact that they meticulously planned all this in advance to damage him. It is almost not fair to call what the Clinton campaign created a trap. They publicly, explicitly, and warmly invited him to participate in their campaign strategy, and he accepted their invitation, because the satisfaction he receives from settling old scores and venting his rage is greater than the satisfaction he receives from leading in national opinion polls.
In the context of a presidential campaign, all this is amusing. It will make a wonderful chapter in the next edition of Game Change. But imagine that this wasn’t a presidential campaign. Imagine it was the Trump presidency. And imagine it wasn’t Hillary Clinton trying to bait Trump into attacking Alicia Machado, but ISIS trying to bait Trump into attacking Iraq, or Vladimir Putin trying to bait Trump into breaking with NATO, or Angela Merkel trying to bait Trump into isolating the United States before a key vote at the United Nations, or China trying to bait Trump into giving them an excuse to assert their claim over Taiwan.
We have all known, abstractly, that this is a possibility. That Trump is easily baited has been on display since he began running for president. That America’s enemies would construct detailed psychological profiles of him and launch sophisticated plans to take advantage of his weaknesses is obvious. But the expectation was that he would have staff around him — his National Security adviser, his chief of staff — who would explain that the latest provocation is a trap, and who would remind Trump of the importance of avoiding it.
But that’s why the Machado affair has been so enlightening. In this case, Hillary Clinton’s campaign explained that they were setting a trap. The media explained that Clinton’s campaign was setting a trap. And all of Trump’s staff and advisers undoubtedly explained that Trump’s enemies were setting a trap.
Trump didn’t listen, or perhaps he didn’t care. He sprung the trap anyway. He is more passionate about proving his dominance and humiliating his perceived foes than about following his strategy. As unpredictable and uncontrollable as he is to his allies, he is exactly that predictable and controllable to his enemies, and to America’s enemies.