He's getting desperate: Trump's campaign used to be confident, but Cruz has gotten him feeling downright thirsty

Trump used to campaign on his self-confidence and arrogance, but lately his run has the stink of desperation

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 31, 2015 4:22PM (EST)

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Rick Wilking)
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Rick Wilking)

There are myriad reasons for Donald Trump's bewildering success in the polls in the run-up to the Republican primary, but a lot of what it comes down to is confidence. Trump's narcissism, the sort of thing that should be off-putting, has had the opposite effect for the past half-year, clearly convincing a huge number of conservatives that someone that confident must have some reason for it, besides a diagnosable personality disorder.

But this past week, Trump's seemingly implacable sense of self-confidence seems to be, well, shaken. More than that, even. Lately, the man seems downright thirsty. In a very short order, his campaign strategy has changed from a man who enters the room and tells you how it's going to be to that of a man who is begging and pleading for you to like him. The stench of desperation has started to cling to him, and now every move he makes seems even more like pathetic pandering. The once unbreakable Donald Trump now is starting to look like the guy who uses a shirtless picture for his Tinder profile.

The biggest sign of this newfound thirst is in the opening of the pocketbook. Trump's ability to grab media and voter attention without spending much money has been a unique aspect of his campaign so far. Even though he does take donations, Trump likes to front like he's not beholden to any backers, which contributes to the voters' sense that he's not like those other bought-and-sold politicians.

But now the politician who was acting like he could win just by saying stuff on Twitter has caved and is making a huge ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire. Oh, he's trying to spin it as another sign of his winning spirit, announcing the ad buy with huge fanfare and getting a level of free media coverage that other candidates don't get for mundane things like buying TV ads. But none of that can distract from the fact that the almighty Trump is now acting like every other candidate in the race, going on TV with his hat out and asking for your vote.  This is not the "you're fired" Trump. This is a guy begging for a job.

On its own, caving in and acting like every other candidate wouldn't be that big a deal. But the ad buy comes during a week when every move Trump makes in public is looking grabby. The long-standing predictions that Trump's poll lead would vanish once the primaries begin isn't looking quite as much like establishment wishful thinking anymore. His lead in New Hampshire is shrinking and Ted Cruz is up in Iowa. If he loses both of those, he knows we'll see a reemergence of the narrative that he was just a passing fancy for voters before they start to get serious at the polls, and his behavior is starting to smell a bit desperate.

Going after Bill Clinton for past infidelities, for instance, is the choice of a desperate man. Panty-sniffing the Clintons has a long history of backfiring with the voters and it opens Trump up to charges of hypocrisy, since he blew up his first marriage in order to marry his mistress. But Trump has gone even further than simply bringing up Monica Lewinsky. He's also been hinting that Bill Clinton has committed sexual assault. It's an attempt at a feminist gotcha, but going there means that Trump is aligning himself with the same people who accuse the Clintons of murdering people, having secret love children, and practicing witchcraft.

It's an interesting move, because Trump has spent the past month actually moving away from his past as a right-wing conspiracy theorist, by refusing, for instance, to talk about his "questions" about Barack Obama's birth certificate. To dive back into the fever swamps means risking general election credibility to pander to the hard right again, a move he'd only undertake if he were really worried about losing in the primaries.

His attacks on the Clintons aren't the only effort at baiting the base that runs a high risk of backfiring, either. One of the stranger moves that Trump has taken this week has been race-baiting his opponent Ted Cruz. "In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK," Trump said at a campaign rally in Iowa. "When you're casting your ballot, remember."

Cruz's polling success in Iowa is assumed to come from the evangelical base, so this attempt to sow doubt that he's really evangelical is a clear-cut case of thirstiness. But this runs a high risk of backfiring. Trump isn't wrong to assume that the "evangelical" identity is tied closely in the conservative mind to whiteness. But what he fails to understand is that this is why so many conservative Christians like Ted Cruz. As with Ben Carson, the handful of non-white evangelical figures on the scene offer "proof" that the white evangelical identity is so desirable that it draws converts. Cruz himself knows this, which is why he highlights his background instead of minimizing it.

There's a similar trying-too-hard quality to the way Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson acts. It's not just that she wore a bullet necklace on CNN, but the way she defended herself when people made fun of her for it.

Oh, will they also be holding little Confederate flags while singing "Proud to Be an American"? The pretense of sincere concern for fetal life is all but abandoned here. The fetus--like the gun or the flag--is reduced to a bit of jewelry, a sad posturing to indicate alignment with the fetus fetishist tribe whose votes Pierson's hustling desperately to get.

But perhaps the saddest grasping from Trump comes from this ad that Trump posted on Instagram. "WE ARE IN A SERIOUS WAR," the title reads, before running a reel of coverage of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. But then it cuts to Obama making a joke about "Star Wars," suggesting that his willingness to spend a couple of hours out of his busy week seeing a movie is what lies between us and bringing an end to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

The whole thing is preposterous, but it's hard to even get mad, it's so pathetic. For one thing, we are not actually in a war, and stating otherwise has a strong whiff of hoping you can make it true simply by saying it. But there's something particularly pitiful about wanting Obama to make a pointless gesture in refusing to see "Star Wars." What's the argument here? That if Obama refuses to see "Star Wars," ISIS will be so impressed by his sacrifice that they'll lay down their arms? That seeing a movie somehow removes his ability to make important military decisions? That if he would just stand in an empty room yelling, "Damn you, ISIS!" for two hours instead of watching a movie, we would defeat our enemies?

This insistence on empty gestures over meaningful action, of course, sums up the entire Trump campaign. This is a man whose foreign policy proposals amount to arguing that if he just puffs his chest out big enough, all other world leaders will immediately do everything he wants. But the utter silliness of this ad, with its assumption that Obama can meaningfully effect world change by not seeing a movie, highlights the vapidity of the Trump campaign poignantly. Vote for Trump, and he will miss entire blockbuster movies for no reason whatsoever, just for you! The man is clearly desperate.

Donald Trump Says No One 'Respects Women More Than Trump'

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte