About half an hour into Thursday night's presidential debate, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump took a moment to call me out for the worst prediction of my career.
It happened when a moderator asked him to respond to a recent BuzzFeed News report that he had secretly hedged on his hardline immigration proposals during an off-the-record interview with liberal New York Times editors.
Trump responded, characteristically, with a small declaration of victory.
"First of all, BuzzFeed, they were the ones that said under no circumstances will I run for president, and were they wrong," Trump said.
He was referring to a 2014 profile I wrote, titled, "36 Hours On The Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump." In the story, I chronicle two accidental days spent inside the billionaire's bubble, and I make the case that his 25-year history of flirting with — and then abandoning — various presidential bids constitutes a "long con" designed to generate publicity.
"If history is any judge," I wrote at the time, "Trump is about as likely to run for president in his lifetime as he is to accept follicular defeat."
Two years later, Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Of course, as Trump himself acknowledged on the debate stage, I was not the only political journalist to get this particular prediction wrong. But I was wrong earlier, and at greater length. Not only did I write a 6,000-word profile utterly dismissing his claims that he was serious this time; I spent the next year making the same argument on TV every time "Trump 2016" speculation meandered into the news cycle. I have a vague recollection of offering, at one point, to bet my entire annual salary that Trump wouldn't appear on a ballot in Iowa. Thankfully, no one at the MSNBC roundtable that day took me up on it.
When Trump declared his candidacy last year, I called him the "bearded lady" of the campaign season, and for several days I publicly questioned whether he would actually file paperwork to make his campaign official. (He did.)
I continued my streak of wrongness through much of last summer, routinely tweeting that Trump's flameout was inevitable. When he attacked John McCain's war record, I mused that military families might angrily turn against him. (Wrong.) When he went to war with Fox News, I suggested conservatives would side with their favorite network over Trump. (Nope.)
Eventually I gave up altogether on predicting Trump's 2016 trajectory. But by then, I had already racked up enough faulty forecasts to fill years' worth of the "what I got wrong" columns.
Yet for all my predictive misfires over the past two years, Trump's debate-stage dig Thursday night suggests there's at least one thing I didn't get wrong about him. From my 2014 profile:
...among the chorus of “Yes, Mr. Trump”s and “You were great, Mr. Trump”s that tumble out of his yes-men at even the faintest prompt, the Donald can still hear the din of guffaws coming from a political class that long ago stopped taking him seriously. And it’s driving him crazy.
Trump's obsession with gaining the attention and respect of political-media elites was the thing that most struck me during my time with him. For Trump, it wasn't enough to have Celebrity Apprentice viewers gawking at his reality TV antics each Sunday. He wanted serious people to take him seriously — and in the wake of his 2012 "birther" crusade, he was generally regarded by the political class as a buffoon. The billionaire's presidential candidacy seems motivated, in part, by a fierce desire to prove those haters wrong.
As Maggie Haberman reported in the New York Times, a key moment that spurred Trump's eventual candidacy took place at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, where he was made to sit at a table in the middle of a packed ballroom while President Obama mercilessly skewered him, and all of official Washington laughed. "Five years later," Haberman wrote, "he seems determined not to be humiliated again, and to stop those who laughed at him."
In another story, Haberman reported that Trump "still recalls, often and with a bit of an edge, how many people predicted that he would never formally get into the race, or would prematurely get out."
Over the past nine months, friends and media types on Twitter have made a running gag out of blaming me for Trump's candidacy — and I've often played along. But lately, the meme appears to have spread beyond colleagues in the political press, and the tweets that now daily populate my @ mentions seem to be taking on an increasingly accusatory tone. If Trump did, in fact, launch his presidential bid to prove the "haters" wrong, it's fair to assume that category is considerably bigger than a single profile-writer. But just in case it will help, allow me go on the record now:
Mr. Trump, I underestimated you. You can leave the campaign trail and return to Trump Tower secure in the knowledge that you've put me fully in my place. Consider this hater duly scorned.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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