Scott Adams, the Donald Trump of Punditry

by Alex Knepper

Anyone who has subjected himself to the stream of brain-droppings of pundits and their peanut galleries on social media has undoubtedly crossed paths with some intrepid soul heralding the Gospel of Scott Adams. Mr. Adams, the creator of the witty comic strip Dilbert, has cultivated a cadre of disciples breathlessly proclaiming that he not only predicted the rise of Trump, but has unlocked the psychological secrets behind Trump’s masterly art of persuasion. According to Mr. Adams, Trump is, whether by nature or study, privy to a host of so-subtle-only-a-fellow-master-can-detect-it techniques in rhetoric, body language, and more. He is playing four-dimensional chess while Hillary is playing checkers. More than this: a Trump landslide is likely impending, owing to a reserve of ‘shy Trump voters‘ who are charmed by the man but won’t admit it to pollsters — hell, maybe not even to themselves.

One obvious retort to this argument is that it is curious that a master of persuasion would find himself as the least-popular presidential nominee in American history — less popular than a woman Adams regularly suggests is a lying, dying, weak, weird, probably-criminal, uniquely unlikable representation of everything bad about ye olde Status Quo.

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Adams’ disciples will usually brook no criticism of their guru owing to their false belief that nobody predicted the results of the Republican primary with the same degree of accuracy. Well, I did:

* Before the voting started, I declared that Trump has put Reaganism on death-watch and that the rank-and-file Republican voter is far less devoted to conservative ideology than the DC-NYC set believes.

* After Marco Rubio’s strong third-place showing in Iowa and the betting markets pegged him as the likely nominee, I called him overrated, said the edge is still with Trump…

* After Trump’s strong first-place showing in New Hampshire and Rubio’s humiliating fifth-place finish, I said that the race was “effectively over,” that Rubio blew his opportunity, and that Ted Cruz would meet the same electoral fate as Rick Santorum

* After Rubio’s strong second-place showing in South Carolina and Bush’s withdrawal, I said Rubio’s standing in the race is an illusion…and reiterated that Cruz has no path to the nomination…

* After Super Tuesday, I called Trump’s triumph ‘staggering‘ and pointed out that he was building a non-traditional North-South coalition…

…so let’s move on to the dissection of Mr. Adams’ work.

I should note that we cannot discount the possibility that Adams is a masterly troll enacting an election-long social experiment to see how many suckers he can reel in by imitating Trump’s communication methods. Dilbert itself is a clue to this: it’s strange to imagine Adams, who famously skewers corporate culture and capitalist excesses, would see a kindred spirit in Trump. But perhaps the comic is rooted in a sense of cynicism rather than irony; perhaps Adams truly believes the grandiose liars, shameless manipulators, and propagandists really do run the show in America, and wants to show off that knowledge.

At any rate, the essence of his appeal is that he performs the role of elections-analysis guru, projecting extraordinary confidence in his highly general predictions with the flimsiest of evidence: armchair ‘psychologizing’ is the most common trope in his quiver of pseudo-analysis, but he also employs convoluted marketing propaganda to convince his readers that up is down and black is white. When a birther-related controversy popped up for Trump last year, Mr. Adams argued that his juvenile rebuttals — a series of tweets — were in fact making use of a brilliant marketing technique called ‘thinking past the sale,’ in which Trump throws so much shit at the wall that something is bound to stick — something is bound to burrow in your mind and subtly move your perceptions of Trump as a possible president one or two tics closer to the zone of acceptability. The fact that this ‘opportunity’ took place in the context of bizarre incompetence, lies, and genuine racism is apparently irrelevant; all is subordinated to the ‘wizard’-like principles of marketing.

Adams virtually never tells Trump supporters anything other than what they want to hear — but with his ‘guru’ cap on, he intimates not only that what his readers want to hear is the truth about the election (though he cynically hedges his bets by declaring that he’s not, strictly speaking, a truth-teller — whatever), but that they are actually special people for hearing that truth. He doesn’t state this directly: the seduction has to retain at least a gloss of subtlety for the one being seduced. But it is simply impossible to interact with his fans on social media and not perceive that this is the effect he has on his loyalists. The logical extension is that the guru has the most truth of all, and anyone who was also right about what the guru was right about could have only been right because their reasoning so happened to overlap with that of the guru.

Of course, it could be that what we see is what we get. It could be that Mr. Adams is a true-blue Trumpian charlatan who truly thinks he’s an elections-analysis guru. In this case, his work is best read as unconscious autobiography. For instance, when he makes a claim like “Trump is a master persuader,” we should instead read this as: “Trump is a master at persuading me, Scott Adams.” If he says “There are lots of Shy Trump Voters,” all it means is “I, Scott Adams, am a Shy Trump Voter.” In this interpretation, Mr. Adams recognizes a fellow charlatan-entrepreneur in Trump and is convinced that being a bullshit artist always pays off when it comes to wealth, prestige, and power. Adams fundamentally agrees with P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken that there is a sucker born every minute and that no one has ever gone broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Basically, then, Adams is just rooting for one of his own.

Let us now examine at his piece about the first presidential debate:

Clinton won on points. She had more command of the details and the cleaner answers. Trump did a lot of interrupting and he was defensive. If this were a college debate competition, Clinton would be declared the winner. I call that victory on the 2D chess board. But voters don’t care about facts and debating style. They care about how they feel. So let’s talk about that.

Adams strongly implies here that he has special insights into what we could call voter psychology. He provides not a shred of empirical or theoretical evidence for this — just an emphatic tone (“Believe me!”). He also props up a false dichotomy — that the question before us is either about facts and style, or else feeling — rather than being about a mixture of many factors. He takes the dichotomy he made up as obviously accurate and simply moves on.

For starters, Trump and Clinton both seemed “presidential” enough. That mattered more for Trump. We haven’t seen him off the teleprompter lately. So Trump passed that test by being sufficiently serious.

Says who? According to what? Not the opinion polls. But, alas — we cannot interpret the polls without the help of the guru, since the guru knows something special about the polls; therefore, no appeal to evidence to the contrary will do, since other analysts lack the guru’s unique interpretive methods.

Clinton looked (to my eyes) as if she was drugged, tired, sick, or generally unhealthy, even though she was mentally alert and spoke well. But her eyes were telling a different story. She had the look of someone whose doctors had engineered 90 minutes of alertness for her just for the event. If she continues with a light campaign schedule, you should assume my observation is valid, and she wasn’t at 100%.

Adams can ‘just tell’ — based on his private reading of what her eyes looked like — and if Clinton’s campaign schedule continues as it is (which is likely!), we must assume his irresponsible and empty speculations are true because — because — well, because we just should..!

Clinton’s smile seemed forced, artificial, and frankly creepy. I’m already hearing on Twitter that mentioning a woman’s smile is sexist. I understand the point. But when someone goes full Joker-face and tests the uncanny valley hypothesis at the same time, that’s a bit different from telling a woman to “smile more.” My neighbor Kristina hypothesized that Botox was making her smile look unnatural. Science tells us that when a person’s mouth smiles, but their eyes don’t match the smile, they look disingenuous if not creepy. Botox on your crow’s feet lines around your eyes can give that effect. But whatever the reason, something looked off to me.

Here, Adams puts a fig-leaf over his completely arbitrary and childishly nasty insult by appealing to a ‘hypothesis.’ The specifics of the hypothesis are irrelevant; what’s important is that he is able to appeal to one at all. A gross insult becomes somehow legitimate if the guru can attach a ‘hypothesis’ to it. It gives his insults the gloss of Science.

By tomorrow, no one will remember what either of them said during the debate. But we will remember how they made us feel.

Clinton won the debate last night. And while she was doing it, Trump won the election. He had one thing to accomplish – being less scary – and he did it.

Really? No one will remember what they said? No one will remember what Trump said about his birther crusade, his tax returns, Rosie O’Donnell, his failure to pay contractors, or his obnoxious interruptions? Really? I suppose one mustn’t doubt Mr. Adams…

I cannot say with any certainty whether Adams is not pulling one over on us. But there are throngs of intelligent and thoughtful people who take his writings at face-value. Most of them are Trump supporters enjoying rallying around a writer who keeps the faith alive that their candidate knows what he’s doing and will ultimately prevail. They do not perceive themselves that way: they perceive themselves as having access to the special insights of a master analyst of a master of persuasion. This is clearly not true — again: Trump is profoundly unpopular, and Adams’ reliance on pop-psychology and marketing rhetoric is impossible to take seriously once it’s perceived for what it is. But whatever is at the bottom of things, Adams’ act makes him the Donald Trump of punditry — a transparently phony con artist who relies on forcefulness, repetition, sleight-of-hand tricks, and marketing gimmicks rather than depth of insight. He saw Trump coming — but he was not the only one. Whatever he has said that’s right is better expressed elsewhere, and what he gets wrong he gets horribly wrong. His wager that many people cannot tell the difference between his act and the real deal is, alas, at least to some degree, true.

Cheer Up, Trump Fans!

by Cinzia Croce

After the first presidential debate four years ago between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the president’s supporters were frustrated with their candidate for not bringing up Romney’s infamous “47%” remark. Last night, it was Trump’s supporters’ turn to feel frustrated: somehow, their candidate neglected to mention some of the most familiar attacks on Hillary Clinton — particularly, about Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation.

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Four years ago, I argued that bringing up the 47% remark — or Bain Capital — would have simply provided a prepared Romney an opportunity to respond with a rehearsed line before an audience of millions. Last night, Trump denied a prepared Hillary an opportunity to respond to the Benghazi accusations and attacks over the Clinton Foundation and spin them to her advantage. The Clintons’ greatest asset has always been Republicans who can’t help but overplay their hand. It helped Bill Clinton survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for instance. And last night, Hillary made use of her best comeback to questions about her stamina when she reminded the audience about her 11 hour testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, itself a product of Republican overreach. Partisans are disappointed — but undecided voters were probably relieved not to hear the all too familiar attacks.

Continue reading

What’s At Stake In the First Debate

by Alex Knepper

The eve of the first debate of the Election From Hell is now upon us, and for all of pundits’ chatter about Donald Trump’s unpredictability, I’m actually highly confident in Hillary Clinton’s ability to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. Her greatest strength in this election has always been the widespread public perception that she and not Trump is actually capable of performing the daily duties of the presidency — in a word: temperament, the topic of her very first general election speech. Clinton’s entire career has prepared her for this moment: nobody is going to have any question by the end of Monday night about which of the two nominees has a greater mastery of policy and the demands of governance. And let us remember, too, that it is one thing for voters to consider this question in the abstract — and quite another to examine the two candidates side-by-side in an exchange about ‘the issues’ over the course of 90 minutes.

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I anticipate that Trump’s lack of familiarity with the format will be fatal to his ability to gain the upper-hand. Clinton will be eager to exploit the lessons she’s learned from her experience debating one-on-one against President Obama and Senator Sanders. There is simply no way for Trump to BS his way through this kind of event. During the brawls of the Republican primary, he could fall back on his skills as an entertainer when his answers became muddled or rambling — but in this format, he will not be able to spar directly with either Clinton or the moderator, he cannot appeal to the audience with applause lines or insults, and his limited attention span will surely lead him to go on tangential spiels more than once. Expectations for Trump are rock-bottom, yes — but it’s still more than possible to imagine him imploding in front of nearly 100 million people. All it takes is one moment.

In the end, Trump’s best hope is probably to pull a Palin: if he can make it through the debate without tripping all over himself, that will be treated as a kind of win, even though Clinton is nearly certain to be judged the overall winner of the night, just as Joe Biden was in 2008. Biden was boring and dry, too — and Palin crossed the very low bar set for her. But even though Palin received some salutary compliments, both public opinion polls and news coverage declared Biden the undisputed winner. And although it is easy to imagine Trump imploding, it is also easy to imagine his animal drive to win concentrating his mind to the extent that he can make it through the occasion sounding — and acting — presentable, if not exactly ‘presidential.’

How much is really at stake in the debates, though? The conventional wisdom about ideological polarization is mostly true, and these nominees have universal name ID and have been a major part of American public life for the last three decades. Clinton’s advertising money has mostly gone to waste, judging by recent polls (although one could argue it helped prevent a slide). So where can the needle be moved? The remaining undecideds are mostly young progressives and moderate Republicans considering voting out-of-step from their usual patterns. Clinton has the potential to gain from both groups; Trump, only the latter. But it’s easy to imagine Hillary trying to appeal to both and ultimately appealing to neither. So to the extent that either of the candidates will try to tailor their messages to undecideds in particular rather than to a general audience, Clinton has a more difficult tightrope act — but also more of an opportunity to gain. On the other hand, to the extent that the election will be a test of which of the parties can better mobilize their base, Clinton has an easier task: just as Trump’s debate expectations are low enough that he can achieve a victory of sorts, Clinton is so chronically tagged with the reputation being boring, ‘unlikable,’ and aloof, that even momentary flashes of humor, candidness, and self-awareness could be enough to ‘humanize’ her once again and excite her base at a critical moment.

The bottom line is this: Hillary had a spectacularly horrible September, Trump’s got all the momentum — and we are still on track for a solid Clinton victory. Really, Clinton only needs to survive this debate, but yet has the opportunity to thrive. But Trump has to thrive; he has to prove he can address the issues he’s raised in a longer format, with details, in a formal setting. Nobody really knows whether he can do it — least of all Trump himself. We are all about to find out, with the world watching.

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton From a Supporter

by Alex Knepper

Dear Hillary,

I want very badly for you to win this election. Politicians say during every election cycle that it is the most important election of their lifetime — but this time, at least for this 26-year-old’s short lifetime, it’s probably true. I also want you to know that I’ve taken a lot of heat for you: after a decade of exclusively — and very publicly — supporting Republicans, I chose this time to throw my support to you, a candidate passionately hated by many people I regard as friends and colleagues. I suspect I may have even closed certain professional doors by publicly supporting you. I’ve written three different op-eds supporting you for president and have defended you time and again on issues regarding the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, and even your private server. At this point, I am not a fair-weather supporter.

So, understand the urgency in my voice when I say that, while I want very badly for you to win this election, I also want very badly for you to know that you screwed up very badly this time. You have once again failed to plan for a worst-case scenario, and once again it is because you decided to put your personal preference for privacy first. Personally, I don’t give much of a damn about most of the stuff people — especially reporters — drone on about regarding ‘transparency.’ I can’t stand how self-righteous they are about it. They sound overly pious, and their motives are usually questionable. I think most people would make wiser political decisions if they didn’t know as much about how the sausage is made — we both know that being 30% informed is worse than being 5% informed, and we both know very few people take the time and energy to get to 80% informed so they can understand the 30% in that broader context. And I know you think the press trumps up a whole lot of trash and whips the mob into a frenzy over nothing — and you’re totally right about that, too! They do that all the time. But for a lot of people, especially reporters, this kind of thing matters a lot — and — I’m being honest with you, right? — being open about current health ailments is far from unreasonable.

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Here’s the thing: a reasonable degree of openness and public-mindedness not just in policy but also in personality is one of the demands of public life in a democracy. So it’s not that you’re being a liar, as your critics say. I really don’t think you are hiding something disqualifying. No — the problem you have is that you’re being selfish, because when you aren’t being open about this, your supporters end up having to waste all their time defending you over stupid bullshit, again and again, instead of talking about the future and the stark differences between what your presidency would look like and what Donald Trump’s would look like. Coming down with pneumonia right now is incredibly inconvenient and unfair, given the malicious rumors, and you’ve probably gotten away with hiding illnesses before. But this is a critical moment — and you have got to trust that enough voters will understand how to contextualize a president being sick. A certain degree of transparency is in your self-interest — it’s not just to throw bones to the press. You’re not going to be applauded for it, no — but you do it anyway, so you avoid incidents like this, which unsettle even your staunchest supporters and has them speculating unnecessarily.

 

The country doesn’t want Donald Trump. You are on the verge of winning the presidency practically by default. Now is the time when you have to use all the discipline you’ve cultivated over the last 68 years and put it to work to tame this tragic flaw. You can do this — you must do this. The stakes are simply too high.

 

Love,

 

Alex

Roundtable: The State of the Race and the Question of the Status Quo

by Cinzia Croce and Alex Knepper

After a month off, we’re back and ready for an unforgettable general election season. Our ’roundtable discussion’ format was well-received last month when we discussed the Pence VP nomination, so we’ve decided to use it again as we dissect the state of the race…

AK: So, the race always goes into a bit of a lull period between the conventions and the debates, but it appears that there is not going to be any ‘pivot,’ and a Hillary landslide looks more likely than a Trump victory at all, at this point. I see you being a good soldier for Trump when you debate, but — I’ve gotta wonder: are you resigning yourself to defeat? Do you see a way for Trump to turn it around, given what we know about his MO?

CC: As far as I am concerned, the Trump candidacy is a win no matter what happens on election day. He has changed the debate within the Republican Party, and I don’t see the party going back to the Bushes or the same stale policy prescriptions that were so soundly defeated during the primary. Besides, while I understand your eagerness to call the race in August, I think it is premature. I believe Trump is probably 4 or 5 points behind, and that is not insurmountable. The race is in Trump’s hands; he needs to demonstrate that he can be disciplined, that he is serious, and that he has the temperament to be president. If he does, he wins. If questions about his temperament continue to dominate the news, he loses.
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AK: How many chances at-bat does he get? We’re under 3 months away from the election. It seems to me that the debates are the only chance he has now to make up for it — he’s not going to stop being who he is; he has to demonstrate he can meet the moment in a high-stakes atmosphere. But every time he tries to ‘pivot,’ he ends up sticking his foot in his mouth 48 hours later. I think what we’re seeing really is his temperament, he’s a 70-year-old man, he’s been successful with this approach all his life — why would he change now? It’s not in Trump’s character. He is who he is. Then again, it wasn’t in his character to pick Pence. Pence at least provides Trump supporters a ray of hope insofar as he indicates that Trump is willing to buck his gut if he thinks the moment calls for it.

CC: Actually, it is not that hard for Trump to avoid “sticking his foot in his mouth”. All he needs to do is follow Hillary’s script: deliver a scripted speech every 2 or 3 days, avoid interviews, press conference and leave Twitter to the professionals. Freelancing at rallies is what gets him in trouble. He likes to have fun with the crowd, he likes to entertain. But the time for fun is over. He has to show a level of seriousness that can only be delivered through set policy pieces.

AK: He can’t help lashing out at his critics, though. He loves causing a stir, there’s no shortage of people talking about him, and it’s not only fun for him, but habitual. Everything in his life has taught him that it pays off to remain on offense and that no critic should be allowed to get away with being ‘unfair’ to him. It’s not that he can’t deliver solid attacks on Hillary or that he can’t deliver policy proposals, but that he can’t not mouth off. It’s in his nature. And that is why I have said since from the beginning — if Trump gets the nomination, the election is going to end up being about Trump and whether he’s fit for the presidency, because his behavior is not in any meaningful sense an act, as much as some people want to believe it is.

CC: Above all, I think Trump likes to win. It is clear from the polling that his usual tactics are not working. We will find out whether an old dog can learn new tricks.

AK: I think he wants to win the election, but not actually govern. I think he wants it to be close enough that he can claim the election was stolen from him. If he loses in a landslide then he looks like a loser, but if he loses by a few points, then he can talk his supporters into thinking he lost only because of fraud.

CC: I don’t believe we have a legitimate process, and I felt this way long before Trump came on the scene. We have the appearance of democracy, but the reality is that the deck is very much stacked in favor of maintaining the status quo. All Trump has done is shine the light on the unfair process and made more people aware. As far as Trump not wanting to govern, I think there are few issues he cares about like trade and that he would genuinely would like to renegotiate NAFTA and other agreements if for no other reason to prove himself as the greatest deal-maker in history.

AK: Who in the history of politics has ever arranged a system to work against their desires? Of course the deck is stacked in favor of the status quo. Trump supporters’ beef isn’t the stacked deck — it’s with the nature of the status quo. As with everything in Trumpworld, ‘fairness’ is clearly determined by whether you like it. Which is fine — that’s how a lot of politics goes, after all. But Trump’s character says to me that he’s not a guy who tries to un-rig systems but rather a guy who tries to re-rig systems for the benefit of him and his friends.

CC: Yes, Trump supporters are unhappy with the status quo and want to change it. When do we get the opportunity to discuss policies and the record of the status quo? Look at the so-called “national security experts” who have endorsed Hillary. Do they talk about their failed record? Of course not, they talk about Trump’s temperament or lack of knowledge. Their expertise certainly has not produced a safer America or world. But they don’t want to be held accountable so they have invented the issue of Trump not having the proper temperament. Who gets to define what is the proper temperament? The status quo. Very convenient.

Melania Meets the Media

by Cinzia Croce

Although Melania Trump’s convention speech was initially met with universal praise, the pundits quickly began to breathlessly report that potential First Lady Melania Trump’s speech contained two paragraphs that were strikingly similar to a speech current First Lady Michelle Obama delivered during the 2008 Democratic Party Convention. Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign manager and current MSNBC contributor, declared “Now you have brought scandal to a potential First Lady.” Scandal? Plagiarizing Deval Patrick certainly did not impede Barack Obama from reaching the White House. It didn’t even hurt his reputation as a thoughtful wordsmith and orator. But we live in a world where if President Obama borrows lines, it is an unfortunate coincidence, but if anyone else does the same it is a crippling “scandal” — even when the person in question is not even seeking elective office.

It must be very difficult, if not impossible, to write an original speech for the wife of a candidate who cannot engage in a long discussion of policy proposals. That would be too reminiscent of Bill and Hillary’s “two for the price of one” approach, which was a complete failure. It turns out that the American public is not a fan of ‘co-presidencies’ or the sharing of any public office. But once policy is off the table, the topics a wife can touch upon are limited to praising her husband; speaking about his softer side that is hidden from the public; charity work, children, and values. Notions of passing along what we’ve worked for to the next generation, the value of hard work and keeping your word, and the importance of treating people with respect are common bromides that have filled countless political speeches. If pundits really cared to be honest in their criticism, they would acknowledge that we have been hearing the same basic political speech for the last several decades — talking about the greatness of America, the need to come together, providing opportunity to all Americans, and offering a better future to the next generation. In Democratic speeches, references to social justice are peppered throughout, while in Republican speeches the references are to Reagan and traditional values. Every election is “the most important election in a lifetime” that presents “a stark choice” to the voters. Our politicians have been reading from the same script for a very long time, and the first candidate who went off it, Donald Trump, is assailed every day by the media for being undisciplined. Continue reading

Donald and the Dead Weight

by Cinzia Croce

Donald Trump owes Jeb Bush an apology. After mocking him for his “low energy” at a time when the country needs spirit, Trump has selected a veritable cadaver to be his vice president — and just like that, the Trump Train has been derailed. It is still possible to put it  back on track, but it is severely damaged. Instead of barreling to the finish lines, Trump and his dead weight — sorry, running mate — may straggle across it.

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A few hours after Trump confirmed his selection via Twitter, Mike Pence made his first media appearance, on Fox’s Sean Hannity Show. He delivered a respectful, albeit extremely laid back, performance — laid back to the point that I frequently wondered if he had pulse. Pence was a little shaky addressing Trump’s controversies, such as the temporary ban on Muslim migration, which he had previously denounced as “offensive and unconstitutional.” The next day, both Trump and Pence appeared together for the formal introduction of the ticket. It was a no-frills event — one that did not even include any signage featuring both candidates’ last names. Pence delivered the standard conservative stump speech with the requisite homages to Ronald Reagan and nods to fiscal discipline, strong defense and traditional values. He showed some signs of energy — but one can imagine fast-paced, mile-a-minute New Yorker Trump pushing Pence to pick up his pace a little.

But the real problem was written all over Trump’s face. He came across like a trapped man, and for the first time since the night he lost the Iowa Caucuses, he looked unhappy. The only time he seemed to enjoy himself was while dancing on the grave of the failed #NeverTrump effort, which failed to force a floor vote to plunge the convention into chaos. This, combined with Trump’s admission that he chose Pence to unify the party, lends credence to the speculation that the ticket was a backroom deal. The GOP establishment would deliver a drama-free convention, a united party, and donors with open checkbooks — and in return, they’d get their man on the ticket. But Trump has never struck me as the type of personality that is willing to accept a situation not to his liking for very long. He is an intelligent man, and must know that the GOP establishment is not interested in helping him get elected. All they care about is maintaining their majorities in Congress. Their hope is that once Trump is gone, they put the populist wave that swept through the primaries behind them — and go back to their old, comfortable ways. I would not be surprised at all if Trump is already plotting ways to dump Pence after Cleveland.