Since its start, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has often been accused of illegitimacy. The popular narrative has been that Trump is not a permissible candidate, and that his campaign cannot be taken seriously in the context of America’s political climate. Trump, if begrudgingly, has started to recognize the need to change this reputation, and to do so quickly.
His trip to Mexico in August was an attempt to do just that: To position Donald Trump on an international stage, demonstrating that he has what it takes to be the leader of the free world. Though the trip failed to achieve these goals, it nonetheless served as a good example of the Trump campaign’s modus operandi: capriciously engaging in a single tactic while ignoring the necessity for a broader strategy.
An international trip for a presidential nominee has in the past been an effective tactic. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama was also a newcomer to national politics, inappropriately attempting to seize the presidency. While Obama’s young status often communicated him as a refreshing disruptor to the perfunctory politics of Bush-era Washington, it also exposed how exceedingly inexperienced he was to become president.
Obama looked even worse when juxtaposed with his rival, Senator John McCain. In fact, by the 2008 election, McCain had been in the Congress for over half of his opponent’s lifetime, and had in that time distinguished himself as a veteran “maverick” that often compromised across the board. The Democratic nominee, by contrast, was a first-term senator whose unprecedented popularity was rooted in his incredible charisma and his few, yet highly praised, books and speeches. The Obama campaign knew that they needed to reposition Obama as a potential commander-in-chief. If the narrative was one of inexperience, they’d lose to McCain.
In this election, Trump faces a problem similar to Obama’s, but to a greater extreme. Trump has never held public office, served in government, or served in the military. Throughout his lifetime, in fact, Trump’s interest in politics has appeared capricious at best and sometimes even nonexistent. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the other hand, has had the most expansive government career in the history of presidential nominees. Her resumé would be intimidating for any campaign rival but is insurmountably daunting for an opponent as lacking as Trump.
The Trump campaign, then, also needs to reposition Trump as a president in the making.
Back in 2008, to transform Obama's image, his campaign took him abroad. They hoped that an international trip would successfully position the Democratic nominee as a world-class leader. In the context of far reaching Bush foreign policy, the international community was likely to be receptive to the fresh American leadership at the core of Barack Obama’s campaign strategy. The tactic worked: Obama was greeted by the heads of state at every stop and was greeted by overflowing crowds before his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin. The trip was lauded internationally, and branded Obama as a legitimate presidential contender qualified to serve.
To reposition Donald Trump, his campaign stole a page from the Obama playbook and accepted President Enrique Peña Nieto’s offer to visit Mexico. Unlike Obama's trip, however, Trump’s expedition was not a successful ploy.
While Obama approached an international community eager to welcome him, Trump entered a country whose people unequivocally hate him. Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump has not only incessantly antagonized Mexico and its citizens, but has also forcefully expressed that a Trump administration would bend Mexico toward American interests. Trump could only lose in a personal confrontation with Mexico, since social norms—in this case, avoiding the faux-pas of censuring someone in their own home—would prevent him from engaging in anti-Mexico rhetoric. Trump placed himself in the impossible situation of positively addressing a country that he has said nothing but negative things about.
Instead of branding himself as steady-handed and capable, Trump once again presented himself as inconsistent and unsure. As has been the pattern, Trump’s disdain for strategy and careful planning foiled an opportunity to potentially advance his campaign. Overall, the trip made Trump look weak abroad and at home, and inept at sticking with one game plan.
Obama’s international campaign succeeded only after extensive reflection and careful planning. Trump’s trip was spontaneous, sloppy, and was doomed to fail. It is now apparent that Trump’s strategy for winning in November shouldn’t be to execute poorly-planned tactics, but to stick by his low-income white coalition and hope that on Super Tuesday they turn out stronger than anyone can predict.
Pablo Ordóñez PO '18 is from Miami, Fla. and is majoring in Public Policy Analysis with a concentration in Economics.