Picking a fight with your own party’s congressional leadership is not a very good strategy for trying to win a presidential election. But if you’re Donald Trump and you’ve been behind in the polls all year, blew it in two debates, were exposed bragging about routinely assaulting women, and are haunted by the knowledge that there’s more damning video of you that might leak, it’s time to forget about winning the election.
What Trump needs to worry about is how he’s going to explain his loss after it happens. And “I was sold out by feckless party leaders who don’t have the guts to stand up to cosmopolitan elites” is a pretty good excuse.
Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
The mainstream view among Republican Party elected officials and political operatives, on the other hand, is much less flattering. These people, including the ones who are supporting Trump, mostly feel that he is a weak candidate who is likely blowing what should be a very winnable race for the GOP. Many Republicans who sincerely prefer Trump to Clinton, in other words, nonetheless think Trump is bad for the party and hope that after the election he will go away so they can move on to greener pastures.
But taking personal responsibility for his own failings is anathema to Trump. More than a winning strategy, he needs a scapegoat. And Paul Ryan will do.
Trump needs to save his brand
Nobody really knows what Trump was hoping to accomplish when he first entered the presidential race. But severely tarnishing the Trump brand through association with demagoguery probably wasn’t high on the list. The current iteration of the brand still has value, but the consulting firm Brand Keys finds that the it is tanking as applied to things like its upscale condominiums, luxury hotels, or international golf resorts.
Trump needs to find a way to monetize his newfound iconic status as a tribune of white working-class backlash politics. Being branded as an incompetent loser who opened the White House doors for Clinton to take office isn’t the way to do that.
But Sean Hannity’s October 10 radio broadcast hinted at a much more glorious path:
You know what bothers me the most about Paul Ryan and these weak Republicans? They are tougher against Donald Trump than these weaklings ever have been against Obama, and if they're offended by Trump's words, why haven't any of them spoken out about Bill and Hillary's actions towards women? They're a bunch of phony — I mean I can't take it anymore. They are so weak that Obama got his entire agenda passed. He got to double the debt mostly with Republican help. He got to keep Obamacare because they didn't want to fight and get blamed for a government shutdown. They got unconstitutional, illegal executive orders on amnesty because they didn't want to fight there either.
This Republican Party of weak, feckless, timid, spineless Republicans is dead. Nobody likes them anymore. Nobody thinks much of them anymore. These are people that are in it just like the Democrats for their own personal political power. They like to be called congressman and senator. Well you're no good as a Congressman or a Senator unless you stand for something. Something.
This basic narrative of Republican Party congressional leaders selling out the GOP grassroots is one that conservative talk radio has pushed for years. That helps explain why Trump’s favorable ratings among Republican primary voters are higher than Ryan’s and far higher than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s.
Conservative media stars serve as the de facto “bosses” in the modern-day Republican Party, enjoying a public profile that’s far higher than that of the party’s elected officials, and they enjoy narratives of betrayal that increase their audience’s sense of isolation and dependence on AM talk radio for trust and community. Going to war with the party leadership doesn’t help win over swing voters, but it does help solidify the alliance between Trump and conservative media — creating a constituency for a strong Trump brand in which he plays a martyr role.
Trump’s likely next act is as a media entrepreneur
Back when he was running Breitbart.com instead of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon directed his staff to treat Ryan as “the enemy” as part of his editorial strategy.
Bannon has not, thus far, managed to do much to help Trump win the presidency. But his stewardship of Breitbart has shown real savvy and effectiveness in building up a digital-native conservative media brand. What Bannon’s site doesn’t have much of, at this point, is the kind of on-camera talent that could turn Breitbart into a video juggernaut. Trump himself, however, is an experienced television host, as is Trump’s close ally Sean Hannity, who is thought to be considering a departure from Fox News.
Also closely in the Trump orbit are Roger Ailes, the business genius who built Fox into the cable enterprise it is today before being ousted for sexual harassment, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who owns the New York Observer.
While Trump and his team do not appear capable of winning a general election in the United States, they certainly have the right mix of skills and experience to operate a successful media company, folding the existing Breitbart and Hannity franchises together with the Trump brand to form Trump TV or Trump Media.
But to pull it off, they can’t exit the 2016 campaign surrounded by the stink of a loser. That makes their impending electoral defeat a pretty serious problem. A campaign to scapegoat Ryan and other Republican Party leaders offers the perfect exit strategy.