Donald Trump may be winning the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but to judge by his campaign rally in California on Thursday night – my first — he’s also losing it. As in, coming apart at the seams.
Here’s why: obsessed as he is with coming out on top, with the primaries he’s won and the polls putting him ahead in the contests to come, the Donald can’t help sounding like a man who doesn’t want to be running at all, not now that the prospect of being the Republican nominee is real and he has to think seriously about what he would do if he was actually elected president of the most powerful country in the world.
“What the hell am I doing this for?” he asked at one point, one of a number of inside-thought asides that commentators have been noting at his rallies for some time.
If that sounds like a joke line, something taken out of context, let me give you the context. Trump was deploring the fact that many Americans have to work two jobs and still can’t make ends meet; he then drew a breathtaking comparison to himself, noting that he’s still in charge of his real estate branding empire while simultaneously running for president. Then he came out with the line – half-jokingly, yes, but also with something very close to contempt.
He lapsed in similar fashion a few minutes later when he described how much he loves California, especially the golf club that bears his name on the Palos Verdes peninsula. “I was just there,” he told the crowd. “In fact I would have stayed a hell of lot longer, but I had to come talk to you people.”
You people? He was addressing 8,000 supporters (not 31,000 as he claimed) who had stood in line for two hours or more at the Orange County Fairgrounds, who were wearing his t-shirts and hats, who willingly chanted “Build That Wall!”, “Donald Trump!” and “USA! USA!”, who wanted to be delighted by every word that spilled from his lips.
(Later, as I’ve reported for the Guardian, the crowd also had to run a gauntlet of protesters who blocked the exits, chanted slogans, and vandalized a police cruiser, but that’s not what I’m writing about here.)
For much of the rally – as at almost every other rally – Trump seemed to be having a conversation not with his supporters but with himself: how great he’s doing, how he prefers to think of the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York as being on the corner of Park Avenue rather than Lexington, how he was just in Indiana and will be going back there ahead of next Tuesday’s primary. It was more stream of consciousness than a political speech. Certainly there was no policy content to it, apart from the vaguest of promises to fix the economy, fix immigration, fix trade and ISIS and so on. Many of the stories he told, like the urban legend he’s recounted many times before about General Pershing shooting Muslim extremists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, were either flat-out false or factually questionable.
Then he reminded himself that California doesn’t vote until June 7 and exclaimed, once again: “I don’t know why the hell I’m here.”
How many times did he have to question himself before it became apparent he was trying to tell us something? His performance struck me as a bizarre cry for help, wrapped in a mantle of aggressive, extreme narcissism. Trump can’t stand not to win; he can’t stand not to be the last man standing in the reality show that the presidential contest, under his influence, has become. (“All the people who’ve disappeared one after another,” he said of his fellow presidential contenders. “Boom boom boom – it’s a beautiful thing.”)
Yet this is not a man prepared, psychologically, politically, or any other way, to be president. Trump told a story about a liberal journalist who marveled, during an interview, at the way he had transformed the landscape of American politics like no other figure in decades. Trump, though, was only so flattered. He wasn’t interested in building a movement, or changing the national conversation, or achieving specific policy goals, unless it was centered squarely on him. “The whole thing is about winning,” he told the Orange County crowd. “If I don’t win – and I don’t just mean the nomination, I mean the presidency — I will consider it a total and complete waste of my time, energy and money.”