Donald Trump at a rally in Charleston, W.Va. (Photo: Mark Lyons/Getty Images)
You can imagine what goes through Donald Trump’s mind whenever he finds himself dragged to Washington. I mean, here’s a city — or so it calls itself, anyway —where you’re not allowed to build any of those great phallic towers, where they can’t make a decent pizza to save their lives, where the Hermès store just opened and there’s never anyone in it.
Chances are Trump views the most powerful figures in Washington much the same way the elite of Silicon Valley and Wall Street do. Which is to say, it’s nice that you all want to do this public service thing, but how smart can you really be if you’ve reached middle age and can’t afford to buy your own jet?
But here Trump is, arriving today for a Reykjavik-like sit-down with Republican leaders — most notably the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. And that’s because ranking Republicans — along with the people on cable TV and some of Trump’s own advisers — have been telling him that he urgently needs to unify his party if he wants to have any shot at winning in November.
We’re about to find out if Trump really is a gifted politician, or merely a boor who got lucky. Because if he’s as smart as a lot of his supporters claim, he won’t waste a lot of charm sucking up to congressmen.
Instead, Trump should already understand that the party elite is way more useful to him as a disgruntled foil than it could ever be as an ally.
Of course, that’s the opposite of what you’ll hear in Washington, where decades of elections — 1976, 1980, 1992 — have taught us that divided parties never triumph in the end. And there’s certainly some basis for thinking that Trump is better off with a united and passably enthusiastic party apparatus.
By lending their names and prestige, Ryan and other Republican leaders could make it easier for Trump to raise money and assemble a turnout machine in key states. They could help solidify support among reliable Republican voters, who at this point aren’t getting behind Trump anywhere near as solidly as they got behind John McCain or Mitt Romney.
But let’s think about all this a little more skeptically.
First of all, Trump’s the nominee, which means he’s going to get fundraising help and voter files from the Republican National Committee even if Republicans in Congress show up and chain themselves to the door like human shields. (And even though, it should be noted, during his primary campaign, Trump made endless fun of these sad-sack politicians who had to ask rich people like him for money.)
So the endorsement of Ryan and other party leaders is really more about symbolism — the message it supposedly sends to wary donors and volunteers — than it is about unlocking the party’s resources for Trump’s campaign.
Which is fine, except that the Republican establishment just got its butt kicked all over the map by a guy who says he loves debt and has no idea what the nuclear triad is. So I’m not sure the warm embrace of party leaders is necessarily the key to generating critical enthusiasm anymore.
And even if you think party leaders can swing a lot of money or machinery in Trump’s direction, you have to consider what we just saw in the primaries, which is that celebrity and free media mattered a million times more than paid advertising and targeted mailers.
Trump was probably right (and those words do not come easily to me) when he told the Associated Press this week that all the data-driven analytics of the modern campaign are vastly overrated — or at least they are when you have 100 percent name ID and a side career as a TV star.
But more important than any of this, Trump has a problem if he somehow becomes the traditional nominee of a unified Republican Party. He can’t win that way.
The demographic math, as you’ve probably heard, is bad and getting worse for Republican candidates to begin with. If you take Trump, a guy whom most women and minority voters find about as likable as mold, and make him carry the same predictably partisan, socially regressive message that McCain and Romney did, that mathematical disadvantage probably becomes insurmountable.
If the fall campaign is about an even more divisive, nativist Republican against an uninspiring Democrat, Trump almost certainly loses.
If, on the other hand, it’s about a renegade reformer against the establishment of both parties in Washington, he might have a chance to change the quadrennial math altogether.
And this is why Trump should welcome and even encourage the resistance of Ryan and the others, no matter what the old-timers tell him. He’s already hijacked the Republican minivan, and he can drive it anywhere he wants. His best shot is to run as close to an independent campaign as he can.
Talk to frustrated pollsters for other candidates who conducted focus groups during the primaries, and they will tell you that Trump’s essential outsider-ness was the main reason that nothing he said or did — no matter how crass, offensive or flat-out dumb — substantially affected his support. Trump was blowing up the entire system, and that’s all anyone cared about.
This is not a sentiment confined to the Republican base. It’s the motivating emotion among a good chunk of the independents, who now make up more than a third of the electorate, including many who support Bernie Sanders or who haven’t bothered to vote in previous elections.
Think of it this way. You’re standing in front of a theater, deciding between two movies. One is a long, predictable and thoroughly unenjoyable film you’ve already sat through twice before. The other got absolutely horrid reviews, but you have no idea how it ends.
Most of us would choose movie B, because at least the experience wouldn’t be depressingly familiar. And that’s how a lot of voters feel, too.
Running against both parties’ elite would have the added benefit, for Trump, of deflecting attention from the fact that he knows almost nothing about policy, governance or really anything related to the presidency at all. Instead of having to defend the Republican platform or reconcile his own inconsistencies with it, he can simply shrug and say it’s about the failure of the system, period.
The catch here, of course, is that even if Trump were to win as a kind of vulgar disrupter of the status quo, he’d never be able to govern. He’d arrive in Washington with no real constituency in Congress, and both parties would turn on him quickly, like an autoimmune response.
But enacting laws has never been Trump’s thing, anyway. As I’ve been saying for months, he is, at core, an entertainer whose sole ambition is to be relevant, validated and discussed. He needs to stride upon an ever larger stage, or else he feels like he’s vanishing.
All the more reason he’d be smart to seize that stage alone and leave the leaders of his party to heckle.