Donald Trump is stuck in a destructive loop of his own making, his words increasingly at odds with his needs as the presidential campaign moves into its final phase.
Trump won the Republican nomination on his willingness to say things to primary voters that ordinary politicians wouldn’t say. But going places where others won’t is a dangerous strategy when speaking to a broader audience, as Trump found out — again — Tuesday.
His remarks were vintage Trump. They could be interpreted various ways, but even the most benign gloss did nothing to expand his electoral reach or give uncertain voters a reason to cast a ballot for him.
Instead, his latest self-generated controversy represented, at best, another day on defense, another day explaining what he meant, another day in which Trump, himself, overrode whatever message might have cut into the advantages held by Hillary Clinton, the unpopular Democrat who has the great good luck to have him as an opponent.
Tuesday also marked another day in which Clinton had to do almost nothing to advance her argument that Trump lacks the temperament to be president because Trump did her work for her.
Were it not for Clinton’s own character difficulties, Trump might have entirely consumed his own campaign in the weeks since his convention, a period in which campaigns are supposed to propel themselves forward.
He fought with a Gold Star family, withheld his endorsement from key fellow Republicans, encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s email, asserted without evidence that the coming election would be rigged, and made a questionable remark about a Purple Heart given to him by a veteran. And that was just in a two-week stretch.
His remarks on Tuesday at minimum breached a wall of propriety. At worst, they alluded to gun violence against an opponent.
At an appearance in North Carolina, he began by asserting that Clinton wants to abolish the 2nd Amendment. (Her proposals actually are limited to expanding background checks and controls on certain weapons.)
“By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said. Then he added: “Although the 2nd Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Trump sounded, as he often does, as if he were trying to say something provocative to appeal to his committed supporters, but with just enough vagueness to offer deniability if his remarks blew up among a bigger audience. Navigating the differing desires of those groups has often gotten him in trouble in recent weeks.
As the Republican convention showed, with its frequent shouted refrains of “lock her up!” — in reference to Clinton — Trump’s core supporters like their rhetoric superheated. Trump has previously spoken approvingly of violence against protesters who seek to disrupt his rallies, and his campaign has been suffused with rough and tough rhetoric, including a comment by the candidate that he could have shot someone without losing support.
For the rest of the electorate, however, that heat increasingly seems to be far too much to bear, as Trump’s fast-dropping poll numbers indicate.
The latest remark just reinforced that pattern. With the country attuned to gun violence, and the attempted assassination of a member of Congress fresh in many memories, Clinton partisans seized on Trump’s words as a suggestion that a weapon could silence the Democrat.
The controversy Trump’s words generated had two immediate impacts: on Republicans running on the same ballot as Trump, and on Trump himself.
Mere minutes passed before a blizzard of emails struck GOP candidates, as Democrats tried to pressure them to either clearly repudiate Trump or endorse his language. The effort — meant to split the GOP electorate — was particularly pronounced in those states where the presidential election and control of the U.S. Senate will be decided.
“What will it take for Darryl Glenn to stand up to Donald Trump?” the Colorado Democratic Party headlined one such release aimed at the Republican challenger to incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.
It’s unclear how much impact Trump’s stumbles will have on other GOP candidates. It is undeniable, however, that those stumbles have already cost Trump. A series of national and battleground state polls — all of which show Clinton gaining in recent weeks — demonstrate how profoundly he has injured himself.
The post-convention period of any campaign is when candidates normally hone their messages and hammer the basics daily, a repetition required to gain the attention of voters who only glancingly pay attention on any given day.
With the daily diversions, the Republican has given his campaign a muddled vision.
On Monday, Trump had unveiled an economic plan meant to address the issue at the forefront of voters’ minds as the November election nears. It was a rare dive into a few specifics by Trump, whose campaign has more often limited itself to “believe me, it’ll be great.”
But by Tuesday, no one was talking about his economic plan.
The absence of that typical discipline — not to mention the rhetoric he uses — is part of what has driven even Republicans away from Trump’s candidacy.
As he was talking about the economy Monday, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a respected centrist Republican, announced that she could not vote for Trump. She cited the line of caustic remarks he has aimed at different groups of Americans.
Nothing that Trump did on Tuesday would have allayed any of her concerns, or the concerns of voters who are looking for reasons to vote for him.
At this point, Trump has a strong hold on his supporters, who have shown time and again that they will stick with him regardless of his rhetoric — and in some cases, because of it.
But in his desire to live outside the bounds of typical political behavior, Trump has given those who are not so sure about him little reason to justify supporting him in November. With each explosion of controversy, he more than anything pushes those voters away, and gives them reason to look more generously at Clinton.