By NEAL GABLER
AUG. 19, 2016
AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — People run for the presidency for all sorts of reasons. But Donald J. Trump may be the first to run because he sees a presidential campaign as the best way to attract attention to himself. There seems to be no other driving passion in him, certainly not the passion to govern.
He isn’t an ideologue like Ted Cruz, an opportunist like Marco Rubio, a movement builder like Bernie Sanders, a political legatee like Jeb Bush or a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton. For all of them — for any serious candidate — attention is a byproduct of a campaign, not its engine. For Mr. Trump, attention is the whole shebang.
That may be the lesson of his campaign “shake up” earlier this week. The shift is from politics to grabbing attention, and, quite possibly, from winning the election to winning the defeat, which is how he has spent practically his entire career.
Mr. Trump, the real estate magnate, is, after all, the master of taking a property, squeezing out the profit and leaving it for dead, then miraculously turning the loss to his advantage. A failing building or a failing Republican Party: To Mr. Trump, it may be the same thing.
Attention has always been the foundation of Mr. Trump’s modus operandi. Basically, he sells his name: Trump steaks, Trump water, Trump University. You have to hand it to him, though. He discovered that, in a celebrity society like ours, where so many people are competing for attention, running for president puts you a leg up even on the Kardashians.
The demotion of Mr. Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and the elevation of his second, Paul Manafort, was supposed to be a political decision. Mr. Manafort was acclaimed as a veteran strategist, a pro, who could facilitate Mr. Trump’s so-called pivot from primary firebrand to general election Solon and make him palatable to mainstream America. Not incidentally, Mr. Manafort would also professionalize the campaign, coordinate with the Republican National Committee, set up a field operation and devise a ground game.
That’s politics. What Mr. Manafort may not have realized, however, is that Mr. Trump’s was never a political campaign, either in the sense that it was operating under traditional political rules or in the sense that winning the election was its real objective.
Mr. Trump is no fool. He couldn’t possibly have thought that insulting the Khans, who had lost a son in combat, or dithering over whether to support the speaker of the House, Paul D. Ryan, or disingenuously hinting that the only way to stop Hillary Clinton was to shoot her, would have boosted his prospects for winning. They only boosted the attention paid to him.
Now, with Stephen K. Bannon, the Breitbart News chairman, and the pollster Kellyanne Conway taking over the campaign, the prevailing analysis is that those choices were a strategic decision: an attempt to improve messaging, to find operatives who could work with Mr. Trump rather than change him and to rally his base on his terms.
Of course, since the candidate hadn’t been doing anything other than on his own terms, the decision wasn’t a political one any more than Mr. Trump’s is a political campaign. It was a decision designed to make sure he continues to be an attentionmonger rather than another pol. Mr. Bannon, a provocateur at Breitbart, has never run a campaign, but he knows a lot about how to get media attention.
Nevertheless, that attention, as we are seeing, won’t necessarily help Mr. Trump win the election, which isn’t to say that there might not be a method to his narcissism. Winning means different things to different candidates. It doesn’t always mean winning the vote.
Mike Huckabee used the attention he got in his losing campaign to land a gig on the Fox News Channel. Sarah Palin used hers to get a reality show and enormous speaking fees. Ben Carson used his to sell books. Losers at the ballot box, they were all winners in a manner of speaking.
Television shows, books and speeches would be small potatoes for Mr. Trump, whose dictum, according to his daughter Ivanka, is, “If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” And that is where attention meets victory.
If you think of his campaign as a real-estate negotiation, the man who coined the term “art of the deal” has taken a huge edifice, plastered his name all over it without investing much in it, and is very likely to abandon it as a troubled asset once the election is over and its value is diminished, leaving others holding the bag, just as he reportedly did during his serial bankruptcies. Only, in this case, the edifice is the Republican Party. It is Mr. Trump’s biggest deal ever.
And Mr. Trump leaves not only with 18 months of headlines and cheering crowds, but with an even bigger brand. Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair and Brian Stelter of CNN have speculated that Mr. Trump may want to use his new notoriety to build a media empire. His alliance with Mr. Bannon may help him do that. So may his reported linkup with Roger Ailes for campaign advice.
One can well imagine a postelection Citizen Trump crowing that while Hillary Clinton is saddled with four years of headaches and a measly $400,000 salary, he is using the attention he got to make billions more as a media mogul.
Now who’s the loser?