What is it about candidates who don’t want to win?

9 Jan 2018

The present author has not yet read Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s report on the first year of the Trump presidency. In the time spent waiting to get a hold of a copy, he has contented himself on the many revelations the media have picked up on in the last few days. One of the most intriguing is the suggestion that Trump privately did not want to be president. This, Wolff explains, is because:

 

‘Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star. Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.’

 

So when Trump then ‘lost’ the election on 8 November 2016 he and his staff were reportedly ‘horrified,’ while Melania stood at his side in tears, ‘and not of joy.’ The book adds that throughout the campaign the Republican candidate had been taken aback by the intensity of his own support, privately hoping that they would remain loyal and tune in to his own cable network after an inevitable Clinton landslide. There he could continue to bash her, much in the same way his friend Nigel Farage attacks the implementation of the policy for which he has campaigned for a quarter of a century on his weekly LBC call-in show.

 

There are many similarities between the Trump and Brexit disasters, one of the less discussed being the extent to which the leadership of the two campaigns were being honest about what they wanted. Trump’s look of horror upon meeting President Obama the day after his victory was reminiscent of the blank expressions on the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove the morning after Britain voted to leave. Gove’s wife, the Mail columnist Sarah Vine (not the most reliable source, I’ll admit), has all but confirmed it was not her husband’s intention to see Britain leave and his boss quit. Rather, a narrow loss for Leave would scare the EU into more concessions for the UK, just as a narrow loss for Trump would have left him with a legion of embittered fans totalling around 60 million. And it hardly needs saying that Boris Johnson backed Leave to endear himself to the Tory membership, which explains his self-destruction (something Trump has yet managed to avoid) the week after his finest hour.

 

Trump’s first year, with his violent tweets and astonishing turnover in staff, often has the mark of a man who is asking to be impeached. Though the accidental victory thesis fails to answer the matter of Russian interference and Trump’s own comments about wanting to run for president. Wolff attempts to answer the first for himself, arguing that the Republican candidate’s close links to Putin were down to business ambitions in Russia itself, plans thwarted by the Obama-era sanctions in which Hillary Clinton played a key role. And although Trump has spent decades telling fawning interviewers of his ambitions for the White House, it is possible that he himself realised, perhaps after he had steamrolled over 16 other Republican candidates, that he was getting himself into something he didn’t really want. Yet that would imply he has some capacity for introspection and self-doubt, and that’s a whole other can of worms.

 

There are reasons to be suspicious about this book. Its author is an experienced journalist but one known not to be too rigorous in fact-checking. His main source is ‘Sloppy’ Steve Bannon, who obviously wants to get back at Trump and would be willing to tell Wolff what he wanted to hear. Wolff in turn is making a ton of cash by appealing to what the public already suspect – although reports that the president has ‘lost it’ certainly concur with what has happened in the last year, it is by no means certain that every word in this bestseller is true. It will probably have its moment and then, in a few weeks or months, be eclipsed by another, more astounding Trump fatuity. One day there will be a definitive account of this insane administration. Wolff’s book will be remembered as a juicy first draft of history.

 

The cruel irony in all this is that both the Trump and Brexit campaigns may probably have lost had they not had their reluctant winners at the helm. It gave them a renegade feel which appealed to many in what is now referred to as an ‘anti-establishment’ year. The misery we now endure must serve as a warning to all those involved in political campaigning in the future – your objectives must be honest, for doing better than you were supposed to leaves everyone a loser.

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