From the beginning of Donald Trump’s candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, I have consistently said that I do not expect him to win the nomination, or, if he does capture it, to win the election. My reasoning has had nothing to do with whether Trump actually believes in the positions he has adopted for his campaign, or his rocky relationship with the Republican Party, or the strength or lack thereof of his campaign machinery. It has had everything to do with Trump himself, and whether he will be able to sustain his own interest in the presidency long enough to restrain himself from making some major gaffe.
And so, as I write this on the morning after the Iowa Caucuses, I must be feeling vindicated, right? After all, pundits are blaming Trump’s second-place showing on his decision to forgo the final debate before the caucuses.
Not so fast. I am now beginning to rethink my assessment of Trump’s chances, precisely because of the results in Iowa and Trump’s decision to snub FOX News.
To the extent that the pundits are right, Trump’s action seems foolhardy. The safe call would have been to take part in the debate, and Trump knew that. He gambled, and he lost Iowa.
But it was a calculated risk, and the gamble may actually pay off in the future. Trump could afford to lose Iowa, especially to Ted Cruz; he can’t afford to lose New Hampshire. Standing up to FOX News cemented Trump’s reputation as being outside not only the conservative political establishment but the conservative media establishment (especially coming as it did on the heels of National Review’s pathetically weak “Against Trump” issue). That was always bound to play better in New Hampshire than in Iowa. And FOX News played right into Trump’s hands with its ridiculously petulant press release—apparently written by Roger Ailes himself—attacking Trump for withdrawing from the debate. Any remaining pretense to objectivity (“We Report; You Decide”) has vanished.
Viewed that way, Trump’s risk-taking looks less like egotism and arrogance and more like a willingness to delay gratification in order to go the distance. He was willing to risk the loss of a skirmish if it would help set up the conditions for winning the war.
And that means that I may have underestimated Trump. He may just want the presidency badly enough to do what it takes to win.