Donald Trump was playing with us all along.
He chose today to tell the world what many had suspected all along, that he’s not running for president—a day that, it just so happens, NBC was meeting with advertisers about its fall schedule. If Trump was still exploring a White House bid, the network couldn’t have pitched his Celebrity Apprentice at the upfronts.
In what has become the standard I-coulda-won statement from Republican dropouts, Trump said in a statement: “This decision does not come easily or without regret; especially when my potential candidacy continues to be validated by ranking at the top of the Republican contenders in polls across the country. I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and ultimately, the general election.
“I have spent the past several months unofficially campaigning and recognize that running for public office cannot be done half heartedly. Ultimately, however, business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.”
Of course business—the business of marketing himself—is his greatest passion. The Donald is hardly a natural politician, given his propensity for outrageous statements occasionally punctuated by F bombs. The remarkable thing is that the thrice-married real-estate developer was, for the briefest of moments, the Republican presidential frontrunner.
He had done this tease before, but never to this extent. My sense is that the flirtation was originally a lark, albeit one that would bring massive publicity to the Trump brand. But when he shot up in opinion surveys, I believe he was tempted and started taking his pseudocandidacy more seriously. The field was weak, and money would not have been an issue.
Had he stayed in the 2012 hunt, though, Trump undoubtedly would have imploded. There were signs that this was already happening when he pulled the plug.
The most bizarre aspect of Trump’s short, strange campaign was his initial obsession with the birther issue. The media establishment challenged and even mocked him for pushing the nonsense that President Obama wasn’t born in America, but it didn’t seem to hurt him—at least not with the nearly half of Republican voters who already harbor doubts about the president’s citizenship.
Trump declared he was “proud” of himself for essentially forcing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate, but that—and the president’s humiliating jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner—made clear that he had been peddling a load of garbage. And the successful strike against Osama bin Laden the next day made the whole episode seem, in retrospect, like small potatoes. His poll numbers quickly collapsed.
Any honest assessment of the Trump Moment has to acknowledge that he touched a nerve. To be sure, part of it was the successful businessman and Washington outsider railing against a dysfunctional system that many Americans already resent. When Trump complained that the United States needs to stand up to China and the OPEC sheikhs, he tapped into a deep vein of discontent with our conduct of world affairs.
Never mind that Trump’s prescriptions were wildly unrealistic—he would just seize Libya’s oil as one of the spoils of war, or bludgeon Middle East potentates into lowering the price of oil. They felt good. And politics is about emotional responses as much as the intricacies of policy.
Not only that, but Trump is a master showman. The media love covering him. He obliterated coverage of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and whoever else is running these days.
Had he stayed in the 2012 hunt, though, Trump undoubtedly would have imploded.
But Trump’s fleeting success also contained the seeds of his self-destruction. As news organizations began taking him more seriously, they started digging into problems with some of his condo projects and his modestly named Trump University—which I wrote about for NEWSWEEK and which as recently as last week hit the front page of The New York Times. And there were a slew of pieces about his draft deferments, past contributions to Democrats, failure to vote in past elections. The Donald had to be asking himself how much more scrutiny he was prepared to face if he ran—along with the inevitable stories about his extramarital affairs.
It was an exciting and symbiotic relationship while it lasted, Trump and the media feeding their mutual love of bombast and hatred of boredom. But the relationship would not be consummated. It was like a spring romance that flamed out before anyone had to make a serious commitment.
In his statement, Trump served notice that he will not fall silent: “I will not shy away from expressing the opinions that so many of you share yet don’t have a medium through which to articulate.” Trump’s medium is himself, and media outlets will continue to channel him.