The Trump Bubble: Why He's Still Not a Serious Candidate

Donald Trump
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The Conservative Media Bubble

I'm not predicting the downfall of Donald Trump, or at least not the impending downfall of him anyway. Yes, Trump's still in the lead. And, yes, Trump hasn't fallen as many have predicted he would. But how could he? Trump is still dominating the 2016 television coverage. He is also the only one with a major and influential establishment backing him. Million-plus listener radio hosts like Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity have promoted Trump beyond anything imaginable.

Many of the same hosts have affiliated websites also pushing the Trumpmageddon, along with a number of  clickbait conservative websites that have become so obsessed with irritating "the establishment" that it has become all Trump, all the time. Every Trump utterance is turned into a made-for-viral "news" story that gets legs it shouldn't. They ignore his liberalism, they ignore his past, and they ignore the infantile tantrums as they are more committed to sticking it to scary Jeb Bush and water-chugging Marco Rubio than actually promoting conservatism.

So no, Trump won't fall until the "conservative" media starts treating him like they do other candidates. If conservative talk radio vetted him the way they do the other 15 candidates, he would have been gone long ago. So how long exactly does the bizarre love affair last? Who knows. It seems unimaginable that any of the allegedly conservative entertainers would actually want Trump to win.

He is not, after all, very conservative. Currently Trump remains in a bubble, protected by cash and audience-craving interests. And while this might be good enough to get to 25% in October of 2015, it won't be good enough to win on game day. Trump cannot count on talk radio and various clickbait websites to be his get-out-the-vote team in February 2016.

At some point, the same people who blasted Trump 4 years ago but who love him now are going to look at the monster they created and pull the plug. "We never endorsed him," they will say. "He brought important subjects to the table," they'll excuse themselves. And Trump will have to make this happen on his own. And it doesn't look like he's really thought that far ahead.

The Money

Perhaps the biggest tell that Trump is not taking this race seriously is in his campaign's finances. One of his big campaign-trail rah-rah moments is when he reminds us that he is super-duper rich, so rich you wouldn't believe it, and he doesn't need or want money from anyone. He's going to spend a billion dollars of his own money to win! He has stated, repeatedly, that he is "self-funding" his campaign, telling Scott Pelley recently that "I'm self-funding my campaign... I am absolutely 100 percent doing it myself." Unfortunately for Trump, campaigns have to actually file quarterly reports and this has turned out to be not at all true. Though he loaned his campaign over $1M to launch his campaign in the second quarter, that money is not a donation. Instead it is listed as an obligation that he can pay back using donor money.

In the third quarter, Trump took in close to $4M from donors, including many donors who maxed out their contribution, even though he pretends to reject large donations. (He claims to turn down multi-million dollar checks regularly, which is probably a good thing because that is what we would call "illegal.")

While he has collected almost $4M, Trump himself donated just over $100,000 to his campaign, a far cry from what he considers "self-financing" and he accounts for less than 3% of his total donations. Trump has actually given far more to the Clintons than to his own election effort. The Trump campaign also seems to be trying to keep a "friendly" Super-PAC under wraps, with the Washington Post releasing some interesting details related to an under-the-radar organization that would further undermine Trump's claims about self-financing and not using big dollar donors.

Why brag about being willing to spend millions upon millions to win and then not do it? Why mislead about self-funding, and then not do it when it is easy to verify? If Trump were serious about his campaign, the deposit into his bank account would have been closer to $20M. At worst, he could have matched what his campaign brought in from donors.

The Campaign Organization

The Trump campaign spent around $5.5M so far, and the expenditures also raise some red flags. A large chunk of the money spent has been paid into Trump-affiliated properties, for his rent at Trump Tower, and for Trump merchandise like those fantastic Make America Great Again hats. Campaign events and travel costs absorb much of the rest of the expenses. Trump's reimbursements for use of his private jet took up 13% of disbursements alone. Given that the campaign has spent almost nothing on paid media or fundraising, the total expenditures point to a rather bloated campaign.

And what about building an organization? While the "free media" is something any campaign would love to have, an actual organization is still needed to win on game day. Twitter egg avatars aren't going to show up and vote all on their own. Trump has opened field offices in most early states, but there seems to be little evidence that a formidable ground game either exists or is in the works. And with almost no money in the bank at the end of the 3rd quarter, at what point does he actually start? I would assume a man willing to spend $1 billion to win would at least start putting together the type of shock-and-awe operation that could actually pull this off.

Failure to Mature (As a Candidate and Otherwise)

Trying to figure out exactly what Trump's strategy is can be difficult when it's not even very clear what his goal is. Is Trump's goal to actually win the Republican nomination and the Presidency, or is his goal simply to further the Trump celebrity legacy, sell a lot of books, and land a new television deal? While Trump mocks people who suggest exactly this, it remains hard to take him serious even as he remains at the top of the polls nationwide and in most states.

Several months into his campaign, Trump has yet to progress much as a candidate. He has put almost no effort in policy knowledge beyond a pre-packaged sentence here or there, and those inevitably turn into him jaw-jawing about his incredible negotiating ability or how everything works out because everyone likes or fears him. His solution to every problem is to just do something fantastic or awesome or wonderful. While he has released a handful of policy papers, he routinely mocks them at political rallies, saying he only put them out because if he doesn't the media will say he isn't serious. Not really sure if that's supposed to make us take him seriously. And we can't leave out the childish attacks and rants on fellow candidates and every commentator who slights him. This is not a sign of a serious person ready to take on the Putins and Assads of the world. Or even a Hillary Clinton.

And then there's the matter of what he actually knows. On foreign policy, Trump says he'll worry about such minor things (aka "gotcha questions") as the nuclear triad and the differences between Hezbollah and Hamas if he gets elected. There's no reason to know this stuff if he doesn't actually win because otherwise "this is just a waste of time." When he does get to policy, he gets the easy ones right: Trump is now "pro-life" after decades of being pro-choice, and he loves guns, even though he once did not. He also thinks illegal immigration is a very serious problem, even though as recently as 2013 he told DREAMers they convinced him to be pro-amnesty. So he can at least regurgitate the most common and widely known conservative talking points on at least three subjects.

After the easy ones - all recent flip-flops - it goes downhill fast. He praises socialized medicine, constantly, and what he floats on healthcare sounds a lot more like Obamacare than the free market proposals of his allegedly "establishment" competitors. He backs the abusive eminent domain policies that he has tried to use in the past for personal benefit. He backs affirmative action over merit. Rhetorically, he uses Democratesque class war rhetoric to push an otherwise decent economic plan... that could have been stolen from Jeb Bush, of course. Trump even hit peak Bush Derangment Syndrome when he picked up longstanding left-wing talking points to trash George W. Bush over the 9/11 terrorist attacks while avoiding the larger role the Clinton administration had in creating the atmosphere. But this is not surprising given that Trump backed Kerry over Bush in 2004 and was devastated by the outcome, perhaps as devastated as when Hillary lost to Obama in 2008.

Trump also opposes entitlement reform, one of the biggest drivers of the national debt. Though he is now allegedly "pro-life" he was the last candidate to say he would defund Planned Parenthood, instead suggesting that maybe they should just give up doing the "abortion stuff" to keep the money. On trade, he has threatened to tax American business out of business if they fail to keep production in the United States. Donald Trump may be a lot of things, but being too conservative is not one of them. And that's why, eventually, the conservative and talk media establishment will drop him. For now, he's their useful tool used to bash everyone else. And when they do, will he have the organization to make him a contender? Will he overcome the statements that too many have ignored? Will he actually put something into his campaign? Right now, the answer to most of those questions seems to be no.