On Wednesday night, Donald Trump dumped Brad Parscale, the sleazy grifter who has been running his campaign since Trump first filed for re-election, right after his inauguration. Officially, Trump has demoted Parscale rather than firing him, replacing him as campaign manager with former White House political director Bill Stepien. But that language fails to capture the extent of the public humiliation for Parscale, a braggart who spends almost as much time hyping himself as he does hyping the candidate.
Parscale, true to Trumpian form, pursued a trolling-all-the-time campaign strategy that was designed to distract Trump voters from their candidate's extensive incompetence and corruption and keep them focused on the goal of "triggering the liberals." He focused largely on stunts meant to tickle right-wingers' victim complex and preoccupy them with grievances, such as by selling plastic straws as campaign merchandise (meant to trigger tears among liberals who don't want to kill sea turtles) and spreading fake videos that portray mainstream journalists as flinging around false accusations of racism.
But Parscale's been on the outs with Trump, especially since the disastrous campaign kickoff rally in Tulsa last month that was clearly meant to be the pièce de résistance of racist trolling, scheduled to coincide with Juneteenth celebrations, mere blocks from a largely Black neighborhood that was also the site of one of the most notorious racial pogroms in all of American history — something Parscale made sure the press knew he understood.
That rally was very much in line with Parscale's trolling-centric philosophy. The racist provocation guaranteed massive media attention in the days leading up to the rally. Trump and his staff promised a huge turnout, and also publicly hungered for a potentially violent clash between police and protesters outside the rally, producing images that could be used in campaign ads designed to provoke even more racist anger and white grievance politics in Trump's base. (If they haven't maxed out already.)
Instead, the rally was a bust. Parscale's trolling tweets promising a packed arena and record crowds (his implication was that the more you call Trump fans racists, the more they love Trump), ended up backfiring. Only 6,200 people showed up, less than one-third of the arena's capacity and a tiny fraction of the million ticket requests Parscale claimed to have received. Trump, who has clearly suffered severe withdrawal symptoms from his addiction to rally crowds, has scapegoated Parscale since then, according to CNN, "frequently cutting Parscale off during meetings and disagreeing with nearly every position he takes".
Trump, whose only two personality traits are narcissism and being a dick, loves to find someone else to blame for his failures. And to be clear, Parscale, like everyone else who voluntarily joins with Trump, deserves every ounce of the public humiliation that is built into the Trump experience.
Still, demoting Parscale probably won't work to revive the floundering Trump campaign, because the problem with the campaign (thank the stars) is the candidate himself. Trump has been openly floundering around for a message, and is now trying to get people to believe his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is somehow a great socialist threat and will turn this country into both Communist China and Soviet Russia.
This it's worth noting, is the exact opposite of the strategy that Trump used effectively against Hillary Clinton. Trump won in 2016, as weird as it is to say this, by attacking Clinton, fairly consistently, from the left.
I'm not claiming that Trump ran as a leftist in 2016 — he didn't. He had all the standard right-wing opinions across the board, though he'd occasionally mix it up and pretend, say, to ponder the possibility of universal health care. But by and large, both his own statements and his campaign platform were far to the right.
None of that stopped Trump from criticizing Clinton relentlessly from the left, sometimes on somewhat legitimate grounds, and sometimes by indulging conspiracy theories that appealed to leftists. The idea was simple: Get the idea that Clinton was somehow anti-left into the bloodstream, so that a small but crucial proportion of likely Democratic voters decided to stay home, or, in the most extreme cases, even vote for Trump or a third-party candidate as a way to stick it to Clinton.
"For all of those Bernie Sanders voters who will be left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms," Trump declared in June 2016, on the night Clinton secured the Democratic nomination.
Aided by WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence services, hustled hard to sell this narrative that Sanders would have won the nomination if "Crooked Hilllary" hadn't "rigged" the primary race (she didn't), and the strategy worked like a charm. Not only was the Democratic National Convention drowning in boos from Sanders delegates who bought into this conspiracy theory, but an estimated 12% of Sanders' primary voters voted for Trump, which helped tip the race in crucial swing states.
But instead of trying to appeal to Sanders voters this time around, Trump has gone the opposite direction, trying to vilify Biden by tying him to Sanders, and painting them as a socialist threat to the nation.
"The Biden-Sanders agenda is — agenda is the most extreme platform of any major party nominee, by far, in American history," Trump said during his unhinged rant in the Rose Garden Tuesday.
He kept it up on Wednesday, raving on Twitter about a "pact" between Sanders and Biden that is "further left than even Bernie had in mind."
In other words, instead of trying to encourage Sanders voters to stay home, Trump is telling them that a vote for Biden is basically a vote for Bernie.
Trump played the same game with Clinton on certain issues, especially around race relations. His campaign tried to convince Black voters that Clinton was a racist and they shouldn't bother voting. He lambasted Clinton for supporting the draconian 1994 crime bill and, especially, for her use of the racist term "super-predator" in defending the bill at the time. (For which she apologized.) The Trump campaign even placed an ad highlighting Clinton's past use of racist language.
Initially, Trump made a move toward using the same playbook with Biden this time around, half-heartedly attacking the longtime Delaware senator for his enthusiastic support of the same 1994 crime bill. But events have intervened, and since then Trump has dialed up his own racist rhetoric significantly while trying to implicate Biden in some of the more radical proposals of Black Lives Matter activists, such as abolishing the police. (There are merits to that proposal, but Biden has not endorsed or embraced it.) Rather than criticizing that draconian crime bill from 26 years ago, Trump has embraced all its worst aspects, calling for the continuation of mandatory minimum sentences and blasting the very idea that resources should be "invested directly into those communities" instead of wasted on locking people up.
Trump's campaign argument in 2020 — that Biden is secretly much further left than his public persona would have you believe — is no doubt thrilling to the hardcore Republican base, which loves to call anyone to the left of Nixon a radical or a socialist. But Trump doesn't need to win those people over. They will vote for him again, no matter the personal cost, out of a desperate unwillingness to admit it was dumb to vote for him the first time around.
But when it comes to replicating the success Trump had in 2016, convincing huge numbers of potential Democratic voters to stay at home or waste their votes, this strategy is likely to backfire. There may indeed be typically-Democratic voters who might hesitate to vote for Biden, but mostly because they think he's not progressive enough. Trump is out there telling them that, on that front at least, Biden will give them everything they want. It's a baffling and self-destructive decision.
This failure to execute a competent, if sinister, campaign strategy is Trump's fault, no matter who else he blames. Stressed out by falling poll numbers, the pandemic and the collapsed economy, Trump is retreating into the Fox News bubble, a world of nonstop right-wing hysterics that have no currency outside that milieu. He's abandoned any effort to persuade anyone else not to vote for Biden, and at times seems like he's practically campaigning for Biden when it comes to those younger, more left-leaning voters who might be the hardest for Biden to turn out.
Of course, the base-only strategy could still work, for the simple reason that Trump clearly plans to cheat in the election. As Dan Froomkin wrote on Wednesday for Salon, there's "ample evidence that Republicans will make unprecedented efforts to suppress the Democratic vote." Trump doesn't think he can convince Democratic voters to stay home, but he is still exploring opportunities that might force them to. Moreover, there's good reason to believe that Trump's relentless whining about the election being "rigged" shows that he intends to reject any election results that show him losing and will refuse to leave the White House.
Still, at least for now the spread between Trump and Biden is so big in the polls that even cheating may not wipe it out, or even get the results close enough for Trump to justify claims it was "rigged." Trump knows this, which is why he's panicking and scapegoating his campaign manager. But he only has himself to blame. He's the one who refused to do anything substantive to contain the coronavirus. He's the one who is resisting efforts to save the economy by paying people to stay at home. And he's the one who appears, in his stress, to have forgotten the strategy that worked so well against Clinton in 2016, which was to discredit the Democratic nominee in the eyes of the left.
Trump's one genuine strength was that he was a great troll, and it served him well in 2016. Now he can't even do that. His only remaining hope for 2020 is that Republican cheating is extensive enough to wipe out Biden's big lead.