WASHINGTON – Flagging in the polls, U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has decided to shake up his campaign, bringing in Stephen Bannon, head of Breitbart News LLC, as CEO. Paul Manafort, the experienced Republican operative who has urged Trump to pivot toward the center for the general election, resigned Friday morning.
Since the GOP convention in July, Trump’s poll numbers have plummeted, as he denigrated a Muslim Gold Star mother whose son died in Iraq; insisted that President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were the “founders of ISIS,” and suggested that “Second Amendment people” might take care of Clinton if she were elected president. But Trump apparently blames his flagging popularity on Manafort and others pushing him to pivot, lay out policy addresses and appear more “presidential.”
“I am who I am,” Trump told Wisconsin radio, “It’s me. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to pivot. I mean you have to be you.”
The change, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa wrote, sends “a signal, perhaps more clearly than ever, that the real estate magnate intends to finish this race on his own terms.”
The gloves are already off in a campaign that is the nastiest in memory. Trump’s choice of Bannon suggests that now his campaign team will don brass knuckles and plan back-alley brawls. Bannon, whom Bloomberg Politics dubbed “the most dangerous political operative in America,” is a former Goldman Sachs banker turned right-wing populist media mogul. He has no experience in running a presidential campaign but is a pro at attack journalism.
Political pros consider this turn in the Trump campaign suicidal. Erick Erickson, a conservative Trump critic, dismissed the move as “doubling down on crazy,” arguing that Trump had to move in the opposite direction to gain any traction. But there may be method to this madness. Trump is already the most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential polling. Clinton has made his character and temperament, his lack of experience and policy ignorance central themes of her campaign. She’s sought to make the election a referendum on whether Trump is “fit or unfit” to be president. If that is the question, surely Trump will go down to defeat.
But Clinton is the second-most unpopular presidential candidate, with majorities of Americans deeming her untrustworthy. With his new attack team, Trump will surely seek to focus the race on Clinton’s character, past scandals and record. He can’t sustain a policy debate between his platform and hers. But he can wage a scorched-earth assault on her personally and on her record. If he can turn the race into a referendum on Clinton, he might fare better by driving up her negatives and perhaps suppressing turnout, particularly of young voters.
For a campaign of character assassination, Bannon and Breitbart News offer Trump an experienced ally. In recent weeks, for example, Breitbart has berated Obama for “importing more hating Muslims” and compared Planned Parenthood’s women’s health services to the Holocaust.
Bannon took over Breitbart after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, in 2012, and has turned the website into a far-right, pro-Trump propaganda arm. Even before he took over, though, Breitbart News prided itself on its take-no-prisoners approach to attack journalism.
It sponsored, for example, a sting on Acorn, a national association of grass-roots community organizations. A “documentary” it produced purported to show Acorn organizers advising clients on criminal activity. The group’s funding dried up and it had to shut down.
Breitbart also produced a video that was edited to distort remarks by Shirley Sherrod, an African-American official in the Agricultural Department and longtime civil-rights advocate. The video led to accusations of anti-white racism, and the administration fired Sherrod before the scam was revealed.
Breitbart also has a history with the Clintons. Breitbart released the “sexting” of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, husband of long-time Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who is enmeshed in the Clinton email mess. Bannon helped turn the book “Clinton Cash,” a politically charged investigation of the Clinton Foundation, into a documentary film.
Bannon, says Kellyanne Conway, the conservative pollster brought in to travel with Trump as campaign manager, “has a long history of, I think, being unafraid.”
Conway explained, “You have to be unapologetically, unflinchingly unafraid of Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and all that the Clinton campaign means. Because we feel like we’re up against a major machine here. You need people girded for battle, who are at least willing to leave it all on the field, give it our best shot.” So, Conway says, we’re going to let “Trump be Trump” so he feels “comfortable in his own skin.” He’ll go back to doing the raucous rallies featured in his primary campaign. We’ll see a return to attack tweeting. He will wage a campaign of insults, not ideas, in seeking to make Hillary Clinton’s character and record the centerpiece of the campaign.
Clinton’s response to the Trump shake-up was to keep the spotlight on him. “There is no new Donald Trump,” she asserted. “This is it.” Trump agrees with her. There will be no “pivot,” no “more presidential” Trump to appeal to the general electorate. Instead, expect new Breitbart exposes that provide grist for Trump’s mill.
Trump’s attack lines will likely be echoed by the Breitbart right-wing media Wurlitzer. Just as the Wall Street Journal and American Spectator invented or inflated scandals about Whitewater, women and Vince Foster in the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, now Bannon will likely ensure that Breitbart and other right-wing news outlets will gear up to trumpet a new round of scandal and innuendo.
Trump is probably betting that if he can’t convince a majority to vote for him, he may just be able to convince them to vote against Hillary Clinton.
Get ready. They’re going to the mattresses. This race is going to get far uglier than it already is.
Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America’s Future.
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