NYT: Trump insiders complain that they've failed at "Pygmalion-like transformation"

It’s not much of a stretch to assume that Team Trump isn’t terribly happy about the arc of the general-election campaign in its first three weeks. The way in which their candidate keeps stepping on the message has to have them frustrated. Even so, the level of despair portrayed by the New York Times’ Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman seems difficult to entirely credit. According to their story, Team Trump has surrendered on polishing Trump into a trustworthy and effective candidate, and Trump himself has become “bewildered” by his lack of success:

Nearly two months later, the effort to save Mr. Trump from himself has plainly failed. He has repeatedly signaled to his advisers and allies his willingness to change and adapt, but has grown only more volatile and prone to provocation since then, clashing with a Gold Star family, making comments that have been seen as inciting violence and linking his political opponents to terrorism.

Advisers who once hoped a Pygmalion-like transformation would refashion a crudely effective political showman into a plausible American president now increasingly concede that Mr. Trump may be beyond coaching. He has ignored their pleas and counsel as his poll numbers have dropped, boasting to friends about the size of his crowds and maintaining that he can read surveys better than the professionals.

In private, Mr. Trump’s mood is often sullen and erratic, his associates say. He veers from barking at members of his staff to grumbling about how he was better off following his own instincts during the primaries and suggesting he should not have heeded their calls for change.

He broods about his souring relationship with the news media, calling Mr. Manafort several times a day to talk about specific stories. Occasionally, Mr. Trump blows off steam in bursts of boyish exuberance: At the end of a fund-raiser on Long Island last week, he playfully buzzed the crowd twice with his helicopter.

It usually pays to take these kinds of stories with a grain of salt. Burns and Haberman are good reporters, but in this instance have very few on-the-record sources for these claims. Those who do go on the record only corroborate the “despair” narrative along the margins; we don’t even get to that until the 17th paragraph, and the criticism is relatively mild. When campaigns struggle — and there’s no doubt that Team Trump and its candidate is struggling — leaks begin appearing from people who have axes to grind, and in almost all cases they don’t want their names attached to the axes.

Of course, that’s a signal in itself. When a team is winning, everyone wants to take some credit for the success. When a team is losing, however, everyone wants to point the finger at everyone else. Notably, we don’t hear too much of this coming from Team Hillary. That might be because the media is less inclined to pursue that narrative, but it also might be that a perception of winning has produced fewer malcontents and/or frustrated loyalists. But ask this question: if the mood on Team Trump is truly this suicidal, why aren’t we seeing a mass exodus of personnel trying to distance themselves from the disaster?

What makes this story work is that it fits within predefined narratives of this campaign. Many pointed out that Trump’s seat-of-his-pants style would get him into trouble in a general-election campaign, and predicted a lack of self-discipline would derail him. Voilà! Three weeks in, we’re seeing that unfold, and not just in terms of media narrative but also in polling. All of the reasons that many, including me, were skeptical that Trump could compete in a general election appear corroborated if not vindicated by the campaign itself in this article. That makes it very easy to believe, and makes it easy to forget that we should be skeptical about these reports, especially at this stage of the game.

Maybe the panic button is warranted. But that’s not to say that it looks this bleak, at least not yet. We have over eighty days until Election Day, and Labor Day is still as far away as the conventions were from this point. Plenty could still happen, and Trump could still adapt. It’s foolish to think that a candidate as mediocre as Hillary Clinton, with as many skeletons in the closet as she has, has this election wrapped up with three months to go. There are still far too many variables — and unless Team Trump is populated with nothing but rookies, it seems likely they know that, too.