In Salon yesterday, Bob Cesca reminded us of Dean Chambers, the non-entity whose candle burned brightly but briefly by making Republicans think that Mitt Romney was going to win. He did this by “unskewing” the polls, which, he believed were tilted unfairly in the direction of Barack Obama. The scientific method with which he managed this unskewing was to say “eh, I’ll just subtract seven, I guess.” In doing so, a 4-point Obama lead magically became a 3-point Romney lead. It was based on essentially nothing except feelings, but for the people who wanted to listen to him, that was a feature, not a bug.
This was very different from normal spin and cheerleading. Every pro says that the polls may say one thing, but we think as our message gets out, as we get closer to the election day, as our terribly unfair coverage changes, etc, we’re for sure going to win. Saying so keeps money flowing in and keeps supporters from getting too demoralized. It’s normal.
But this is a different beast. It’s not saying that the polls would be wrong, or that they will turn eventually: it’s saying that they are deliberately tilting the field. Chambers’s main target was media sweetheart Nate Silver, but the real target was, essentially, reality. It was saying that this new Democratic/progressive coalition couldn’t possibly be real, and that Americans couldn’t possibly like this hated Kenyan Muslim autocratic weak and feckless usurper. After all, we don’t like him, and no one we listen to on the radio or read on the internet likes him, so any media that says differently is clearly lying. They just want to protect Obama and trick Americans into voting for him.
With Trump, this “unskewing” takes a couple of forms, one which is normal (relative to Trump) and the other which is more dangerous. The first form of unskewing is just flat-out denialism, because after all, Trump is a winner, and therefore, by definition, he can’t lose. It’s actually sort of fun to see. After all, Trump is a guy who hasn’t been told he could be wrong in probably 40 years. When a casino goes bankrupt, he says “actually, I meant to do that and did it very, very smartly because I have the best brains and the highest monies, right?” his flunkies trip over themselves to assure him that he does, in fact, have the best brain. Everything is an automatic spin to fill the massive hole of insecurity he has in place of an actual personality.
It’s kind of fun to see that play out in public. This was best exemplified by one of his nauseating lawyers, Michael Cohen (who just last year insisted that marital rape wasn’t a thing). On CNN on Thursday, Cohen had this exchange:
Yesterday, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen appeared on CNN to deny that there had been any campaign shakeup. He then pushed back against host Brianna Keilar’s statement that Trump was currently down against Hillary Clinton: “Says who?”
“Polls,” Keilar responded. “Most of them. All of them?”
After an uncomfortable pause, Cohen reiterated: “Says who?”
“Polls. I just told you. I answered your question.”
“All of them.”
Now, this is obvious bluster, but it comes from a real (or rather, a really very fake) place. It comes from the idea that he can’t lose, and that sheer bravado will see it through, and that hey, listen, if Trump says he’s winning, he is, and that’s all there is to it. It is a lot like the Romney unskewing philosophy– this doesn’t comport with what I am sure is right so it has to be wrong, no matter what logic says– but with the addition of Trump’s complete disconnect with reality. In theory, it will be fun to watch in November when this wall of certainty comes crashing down (hopefully).
But I think there’s more to it than just the denial of reality. I think the endgame is more insidious. I think that Trump kind of knows he is going to lose, but through sheer anger and racism and violence he can change it into a win. After all, he has gotten richer even through bankruptcies and failures, because he manages to convince a nation of dupes that he is actually a great businessman, so people watch his idiot shows and buy his cheap and gaudy products and cash out 401(k)s to take his phony classes and invest in his properties. There are a lot of marks, and he’s a great carny.
So I think there is an element of shifting into the next “victory” here, which is leading a movement of people who think the election was stolen from him. I mean, it makes more sense: should he be a terrible President? Or a the rightful king whose throne was stolen? You think his supporters will ever, ever believe that he lost fair and square, even if it is a rout? Indeed, a rout would make them believe even more that it was stolen, because that’s the way the paranoid work.
So Trump is playing them. He’s been blaming the media for weeks, in a way that is different than normal Republican whining. You could even make the case that, knowing he’s going to lose, he wants to amp up negative coverage so that he can point to his terrible headlines. That could explain why he put a Breitbart guy in charge of a real, actual, Presidential campaign: just heighten his exposure to the worst, so that he can heroically lead a movement after the election was stolen from him. After all, sitting in Trump Tower and starting a media empire for the most angry and gullible is way easiser and more lucrative than being President, a job he’d be very, very bad at.
Now, you can ascribe this to overthinking it. It could just be that 1) he’s a very, very bad politician (which he is!) and 2) that as being a very, very bad politician catches up, he’s insulating himself more in the fabric of unreality, and bringing on people who he thinks will amplify his primary success. I think that’s very possible, and maybe even likely. I err toward buffoon, with Trump.
But he is a canny buffoon who knows how to walk away from massive public failure, and even if this isn’t intentional, even if this unskewing is just the lashing out of a wounded and pretty dimwitted ego, the end result is the same: millions of angry people, extremely angry, who had a leader for once, who spoke to them in the language of white nationalism and bigotry and paranoia, and of vengeful opportunity, and who had his destiny stolen by the liberal media and the radical left and the feminists and gays and Mexicans and the Jews and the internationalist and, especially, the poor and lazy blacks.
The “unskewing” movement, a perfect symbol of epistemic closure, was always dangerous. It also had very dark implications. When in the service of Romney, those implications laid buried, tampered by his realtive unpopularity with the right and his own patrician, gentlemanly demeanor, as well as his ability to accept that he lost. None of that will be the case with Trump. His loss will just be the beginning.