When you’ve dug yourself into a hole, as an old saying goes, stop digging. Most people are smart enough to follow that advice. They aren’t Donald Trump.
In the two weeks after their parties’ conventions, the Republican presidential nominee has been digging himself into a hole, falling badly behind his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the polls - and he keeps on digging.
At a rally near Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, for example, he came up with a new piece of nonsense that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton “founded” the Islamic State, or ISIS, our No. 1 jihadi enemy these days.
Like a small child who has discovered a new word - or a salesman who has run out of new things to say - Trump was too delighted by the phrase to stop repeating it in his rambling rap, at least a half-dozen times. Count ’em.
“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” he said. “ISIS is honoring President Obama! He is the founder of ISIS! He’s the founder of ISIS, OK? He’s the founder! He founded ISIS, and I would say the cofounder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Cofounder, crooked Hillary Clinton. And that’s what it’s about.”
Or, at best, getting a rise out of a crowd seems to be what Trump is all about. His audience erupted into cheers and chants of “Lock her up” as Trump smiled and engaged in what appears to be his favorite activity: basking in applause.
Trump appears to have abandoned the widely held belief that he needs to pivot to a more presidential-acting Trump. Since the Grand Old Party’s Cleveland convention, he has picked fights with party elders and with Gold Star parents. He has invited Russian spies to penetrate Clinton’s emails and joked in a way that sounded like he was inviting “Second Amendment people” (i.e., gun enthusiasts) to assassinate a president who didn’t agree with them.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to throw a lifeline to Trump on the Islamic State issue. In an on-air interview, Hewitt suggested that the wealthy developer meant to say that the policies of the Obama administration led to the rise of the Islamic State when Clinton was secretary of state.
“I know what you meant,” said Hewitt “You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”
But Trump refused to hit that softball. “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” he replied. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
But never mind. Early Friday Trump tweeted that his ISIS accusation was only “sarcasm.” Shame on us for taking him seriously.
Trump may be having fun but his unpredictability has cost him. Two weeks after the conventions, Trump’s narrow convention bump was gone. He was trailing Clinton by more than six points in Real Clear Politics’ daily average of the most recent nationwide polls.
And in interviews he actually acknowledged the possibility that he could lose, a major concession for a man who promised “so much winning” that we would grow tired of all the winning.
Yet even after his advisers suggested that he had achieved a new level of discipline in delivering his economic address on Monday in Detroit, Trump insisted that he would not change his strange ways. “At the end, it’s either going to work,” he said in a CNBC interview, “or I’m going to, you know, I’m going to have a very, very nice, long vacation.”
Maybe that’s his problem. Maybe he needs a rest. Or maybe he never expected his presidential campaign, which seemed to start as another one of his brand-building projects, to get this far.
Now he sounds perplexed that the childish name-calling that boosted his primary campaign (“Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie” Sanders .) falls flat in his general election campaign. What will he blame on Obama and Clinton next? Earthquakes? Hurricanes? The Zika virus?
At last, the man who proudly declared, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” to a cheering crowd in South Carolina last September may be learning the hard way that manners still do matter in politics. You can’t insult your way to the White House, Jeb Bush told Trump in a primary debate, but Trump is still trying.
Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters criticize news media for bias against Trump. They weren’t saying that when Trump was winning. In fact, Clinton’s scandals would be getting a lot more attention, rightly or wrongly, if Trump didn’t keep stealing the spotlight.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.