Yesterday I said that Trump’s latest scandal wouldn’t cause him much damage in the polls. But that presumed that Trump and his team would handle it with even a modicum of competence. It seems I was mistaken. As Republicans increasingly abandon ship Trump is preparing not to survive but to self-destruct.
There’s a standard public relations playbook for handling the fallout from offensive statements made long in the past. First, get in front of the story. Apologize deeply for having let your emotions get the better of your common sense. Second, note that it was in the past, and that you have changed your views and your behavior since then. Third, ask forgiveness and the opportunity to serve the public and be a force for good. Fourth, pivot toward other issues. Understand that the story will take a few days to play itself out, and take the first opportunity to change the subject. Americans love to watch the mighty fall, but they are also fairly forgiving of their politicians and celebrities as long as they perform the requisite rituals of prostration and redemption.
Trump has followed none of these basic practices. He did not get in front of the story, instead issuing a “sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology, then delaying nearly the entire waking day before delivering a video “apology” so petulant and defensive that it might have been better not to issue it at all. While Trump did note that the statements were made in the past, the closest he came to claiming to be a changed man was to say “I’ve traveled the country talking about change for America, but my travels have also changed me”–and he said it so robotically and without conviction that he might as well have not said it at all. He did not ask for forgiveness, and instead of describing how he wanted to improve the lives of Americans he immediately went on the attack against Bill and Hillary Clinton.
That this scandal arrived just prior to the second debate with Clinton gives Trump a golden opportunity to attempt to put his comments behind him and focus on his campaign’s strengths. Instead, the incorrigible tycoon is doing the opposite: he is preparing an all-out assault on Bill and Hillary Clinton over the treatment of women. Instead of sounding populist themes in the wake of Clinton’s Goldman Sachs transcript leaks, Trump is retweeting tweets from Clinton accuser Juanita Broadderick. He is reportedly planning to use the second debate to grill Clinton over her and her husband’s own marital history. Doing so will only keep the focus on the treatment of women and Trump’s own antics.
That is the path to self-destruction. No public figure caught in a trap like this can successfully punch their way out of it. The only way to survive is to be humble and contrite–or at least to feign humility and contrition. But Trump doesn’t seem capable of that.
So long as Hillary Clinton manages the situation with poise and grace, it may well be that the scandal leaves Trump stunned, but the debate itself delivers a self-inflicted knockout punch.