Trump brand goes from winning to whining

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Many are questioning Trump's image
  • Trump's campaign seems out of control, Zelizer writes

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump's campaign has always been about Trump. It hasn't been about the party and it hasn't really been about policy. It's been about the man himself. And for many months, it seemed that there was ample room in the GOP, and even in broader parts of the electorate, for his renegade style.

But in recent weeks, the value of the Trump brand has been plummeting, especially since the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape. Polls show that the distance between Hillary Clinton and Trump is growing.
    Congressional Republicans are seriously worried about the possibility of Democrats retaking control of the Senate and possibly the House. Trump's campaign theme seems to have switched from "Make America Great Again" to "I'm a victim."
    The New York Times reported that several major donors are urging the Republican National Committee to separate themselves from the Republican nominee for fear the party will suffer irreversible damage.
    Trump delivered a conspiratorial -- and, some thought, borderline anti-Semitic -- speech in Palm Beach: "Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plan the destruction of global sovereignty in order to enrich these global interest powers."
    This speech, combined with his scorched-earth attacks on Bill Clinton's sexual past, have led many to conclude that his campaign is literally spinning out of control.
    Clinton is thriving in what might be called the "stand-aside" strategy of just letting Trump be Trump. This was captured in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch of the first presidential debate, when viewers could see Clinton on the split screen, played by the comedienne Kate McKinnon, struggling to keep a straight face as her jaw dropped listening to Trump, played by Alec Baldwin. Clinton slowly pushes her jaw back up so she can keep a straight face.
    There are many reasons that the Trump style is steadily losing support outside of his loyal base. Certain pillars that undergirded his success have fallen away.
    The insurgent appeal depended on his being someone who stood outside the mainstream political institutions. When he took on Republicans like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he could legitimately claim that he really had very weak connections to the mainstream political establishment. That is no longer the case.
    Trump has thrived in the news media throughout this campaign, taking advantage of the click-bait environment and endless desire for content. He became a political star in an oversaturated news media market that is constantly in search of a good story.
    He also won the nomination, gained the support of many of the party's leaders and had the full apparatus of the GOP standing behind him.
    Even after the outrage over the "Access Hollywood" tape, many Republicans walked back their threats to drop their support for him. But when he claims to be fighting an establishment in October 2016, the arguments sound more conspiratorial and like an effort by someone who is losing to find a scapegoat.

    Trump's targets are real people

    Trump's attacks on immigrants, Muslims and women are not new. But after the "Access Hollywood" tape surfaced, Trump's comments have sounded different to independents, undecided voters, and even many Republicans as real faces and real people who have accused Trump emerged on the scene to show what he was talking about.
    When historians look back at this campaign, one of the key turning points will undoubtedly be the Democratic convention, where Khizr Khan delivered a riveting speech castigating the arguments that Trump had made. When Trump responded by attacking Khan and his wife, the parents of a slain Muslim-American soldier,, many Americans were dismayed by what they saw.
    Some Americans who might agree with his attacks on curbing speech in the name of "political correctness" might not have felt as good after watching and hearing the off-camera clip from "Entertainment Tonight" in 1992, when Trump can be seen glancing at a group of young girls and saying that he, a 46-year-old, would be dating one of them in about 10 years.
    His "I'll get things done" approach looked less and less like the words of a man who would be efficient and productive and more like someone who employs authoritarian rhetoric. Many opponents had been warning about this, starting in the late summer as Americans witnessed events and heard comments that seemed to make the warnings more real.

    'Lock her up' is what dictators do

    When the Republican convention revolved around the chants of "lock her up," referring to Clinton, the tenor of the campaign became darker.
    When Trump quipped at the second debate that if he was president, Clinton would be in jail, many observers shuddered, hearing the kinds of threats that fly in the face of our democratic traditions.
    "It's a chilling thought," commented Michael Chertoff, who served as secretary of Homeland Security under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "It smacks of what we read about tin-pot dictators in other parts of the world, where, when they win an election, their first move is to imprison opponents."
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    The entire Trump brand name was built upon him being a winner, not a whiner. The promise was that he claimed he knew what to do. "Believe me" is a phrase we have consistently heard, and people excused some of his unconventional and often-controversial remarks.
    But he has not been winning. The stories about his checkered business past are now merging with very real evidence of a failing campaign.
    For core supporters, none of this matters. They love their candidate and will support him until the very end. But there are not enough of them to win the election, and for voters outside of that group, Trump now looks very different -- even to some who might have been willing to vote for him.

    Ruining the brand?

    It could be that, somehow, Trump miraculously transforms the dynamics of this campaign in the final weeks or that something happens to make Clinton's campaign implode. The best bet for Trump is that the power of party polarization prevents the bottom from totally falling out as Republican voters are more willing to vote for him over any Democrat.
    Right now, though, it is not looking good for the GOP -- or for its candidate. There are fewer and fewer customers lining up to purchase Trump products. (In fact, New York Magazine reports, Trump's brand-new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is struggling to find customers.)
    Some even want to return their goods to the store. Politically as well as commercially, the Trump brand is in trouble.