Donald Trump is going to lose this election. His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is going to lose this election. Even if they would never admit it, they know Donald Trump will never be president. Trump and Conway are on the political death march. (This, to be clear for the Trump fans, is a political metaphor, not an actual death wish.)
This is the part of a losing campaign that exposes the true character of all those involved. So it should come as no shock that Donald Trump and his staff are failing this test in the most shameful and divisive manner imaginable.
Trump knows he’s on a death march, which is why he has reverted to his purest id over the past few days. Belittling women whom he is alleged to have sexually assaulted, concocting racist conspiracy theories about the global elites and minority communities rigging the election, and proffering bombastic lies about his opponent that he knows cable news can’t help but cover.
The death march is why Conway has begun to resurrect a time-honored practice: duplicitous political operatives throwing their boss under the bus to try to save face. In an attempt to preserve a lucrative fee on the public speaking circuit after the campaign, Conway has sent a series of tweets over the past week trying to position herself as both in on the joke with Saturday Night Live and the conscience on Trump’s shoulder trying to get him to behave. As a fellow anti-Trump conservative pointed out, Conway is officially playing the role of “punch clock villain.”
To a casual observer, this behavior might seem counterproductive to the goal Trump and Conway share: winning the election. But the reality is the only goal either has in mind now is self-preservation.
The death march to an inevitable political loss is an emotionally taxing slog that is harder to psychologically deal with than I think many people appreciate. Having been on the losing end of a number of races (seriously, check my LinkedIn — ouch), I have seen the many different ways that candidates and staff handle these losses. It is one of the great tests of character that I have seen up close.
Every utterance is judged for signs that you are acknowledging defeat, every supporter you talk to either needs a pick-me-up or wants to offer advice, every tweet or article you read about yourself or your campaign is caked with the stink of impending defeat.
In some ways, it must be akin to being the quarterback for the 0–6 Browns and having to suit up for 10 more games knowing that there is no hope for the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl title. Except there are no days — or even moments — off, no chance to get meaningless wins to spare your bruised ego, no next season to look ahead to. Or maybe it is more like being dumped by your significant other, but having it broadcast on every channel in the country, with commentators dissecting all the things you did to deserve public humiliation.
The first losing candidate I worked for was a Marine vet, and he compared the final losing stretch to boot camp. He said to me, “Tim, I thought when I signed up for boot camp that I could handle anything for 12 weeks. But I never realized how long 12 weeks could be until I lived them one second at a time.”
On Jeb Bush’s campaign, we experienced one of the most painful and seemingly unending death marches imaginable. From the top of the polls in June to all but dead by October, with three long winter months to go before preliminary voting even began. There are days when you just dream of not getting out of bed and having to see or talk to anyone to just have a momentary respite from the constant reminder of your failure. Any good mood could be stripped away by one glance at your phone revealing a new poll showing the campaign losing ground. It is all-encompassing.
Yet every day you have to wake up with steely resolve and go out into the world and make the case for why you or your candidate are the best person to lead, even when it appears that you will not. Why people should ignore all the polls and the news and the criticism and put their faith in you, even when you’ve already lost faith that you can actually win.
It can be too much for staffers to bear. In 2007, on John McCain’s first death march — he resurrected only to march again in 2008 — I was working for the campaign in Iowa when news came down that there were going to be layoffs. When I was brought into the campaign manager’s office to hear my fate, I am embarrassed to report that I was overcome with despair after I heard the news — I had been retained. My death march was going to continue.
As hard as it is on the staff, it is the candidate who faces the real test.
Some candidates fail it badly. I’ve seen them lash out at the staff, descend into depression, point fingers.
Others can take the pain. Jeb handled our agonizing death march with more grace and dignity than I could’ve imagined, shouldering all the responsibility, picking up those around him, and bowing out with his head held high and conceding with a message that seems prescient today.
But that path is not in Donald Trump’s makeup. And I cannot overstate this enough: This is not your typical death march.
Even those candidates who handle losing poorly often have the basic decency or self-awareness to attempt to fake it. Or at minimum, they feel a faint sense of responsibility to a democratic system that is based on a peaceful transfer of power.
None of that is in Donald Trump’s character. Trump does not place value in virtue. There will be no trying to go out with his head held high. There is only the low road. There is only an emotional toddler lashing out because he hasn’t been given what he wants.
When a man whose entire candidacy and public standing is predicated on the myth that he is a winner has to face in every single moment a reminder that he is going to face one of the biggest, most humiliating losses in presidential history on the biggest stage imaginable, you better believe he will lash out. We cannot predict exactly the manner it will play out, but we have seen the embers already and they are ugly.
Before the second debate, Trump, Conway, and the rest of the high command, backed into a corner, decided the right path forward was not to focus on the Obama-Clinton failure in Syria or the skyrocketing Obamacare costs, but instead to hold a press conference featuring women who accused Hillary Clinton’s husband of sexual assault.
Over the past week, the campaign deployed their surrogates to go after women who made sexual assault claims against Trump. They claimed that one couldn’t have been assaulted because of airplane armrest technology, they found a “witness” who had a history as a fabulist, and they even went so low as to say the women weren’t pretty enough to be assaulted by Trump.
And Monday morning Trump reiterated his claim that he will lose only because of imagined widespread voter fraud, attempting to undermine the peaceful transfer of power. Unable to take the loss like a grown-up, Trump will instead try to pretend the other side cheated to try to spare his fragile ego.
As Obama strategist David Axelrod said, “presidential campaigns are like MRIs for the soul.” This is the campaign that Trump, his family, and his campaign manager have chosen to run, and it has exposed a darkness unlike any we have ever seen. The only silver lining of this noxious behavior is that hopefully it will further expose to some of my fellow conservatives just how unfit Donald Trump is for the White House and forever taint those who enabled him and encouraged his election.
Until then, death march on.
Tim Miller is a partner at Definers Public Affairs. He has been spokesman for Jeb Bush, the Republican National Committee, and a bunch of other Republicans. He tweets a lot at @timodc.