When the definitive history of the 2016 Presidential Campaign is written, the events of last week will be seen as the forces that conclusively turned the tide in favor of Hillary Clinton. To put the week in context you have to look first at the run up to Monday night’s debate which unveiled the real Donald Trump to 86 million viewers.
Through a combination of Trump campaign spin and media laziness, the bar for Trump’s performance had been set so low as to be scraping the ground. Yet he somehow was able go even lower and astonish even his own supporters with his lack of preparation, boorishness, and total unfitness for the presidency.
Before the debate Trump kept sending the message that he was too smart to need the standard debate practice. In fact, however, even when his handlers tried to get him ready, he demonstrated the attention span of a gnat. Still, those shortcomings were not the real problem.
Instead, Trump failed most spectacularly in the attribute that he claimed as a strength, his temperament. Teenagers have more self-control than Trump. Young children don’t interrupt as constantly as he did. For a self-professed expert at negotiations, he kept missing opportunities to make his case.
By contrast, Clinton acquitted herself brilliantly. She demonstrated her usual mastery of the facts; she never lost her composure; and she managed to push the buttons that brought out the worst in Trump. Clinton made it look easy and we should give her credit for doing that under incredible pressure. A cough, too much or too little smiling, a misstatement, and the press, as well as her opponent, would have jumped all over her. She never gave them the opportunity.
The rest of the week saw Trump unraveling as the negative reviews of his debate performance poured in. He retreated deeper and deeper into the cocoon of Fox News and into his own fantasy world. He claimed to have prevailed in a poll that never happened. He also asserted that he won the debate based on polls widely recognized as unscientific. And then, to contradict his spin, some of his proxies wondered whether he should participate in the remaining debates.
More amazingly, he kept playing the losing hand of a public debate with a former Miss Universe whom he had demeaned. Clinton clearly baited him in the debate and he jumped in with both feet, apparently unable to help himself. Some temperament! Trump, in those exchanges, including an early morning flurry of tweets, became smaller and smaller right in front of our eyes.
Meanwhile, the scrutiny by the press that Trump managed to avoid during the nominating process is finally catching up with him. Three stories, any one of which would seriously damage most campaigns, appeared at the end of the week.
David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who has been investigating the Trump Foundation throughout the campaign, turned up evidence that the Foundation has never applied for the necessary certification from the State of New York to be allowed to accept charitable donations. On Monday, New York’s Attorney General ordered the Trump Foundation to cease operating. While that disclosure is unlikely to dissuade his loyal supporters, it is a measure of the careless way in which he does business.
Potentially more damaging was the revelation that a Trump business explored opportunities in Cuba in the 1990s. Given his very vocal opposition to President Obama’s recognition of the Castro regime, his hypocrisy on this issue may well undercut his support with the Cuban community in the all important state of Florida.
But the really big bombshell exploded on Sunday when the New York Times revealed that it has obtained partial tax returns which suggest that Trump probably evaded taxes for up to 18 years. Coming on top of his debate comment that not paying taxes made him “smart”, this is an issue which should persist with real impact through the remainder of the campaign. How Trump handles questions about his taxes in the remaining debates, if he shows up, will get lots of attention.
Additionally, a number of newspapers around the country, many of whom have never before endorsed a Democrat, came out in favor of Clinton this past week. While endorsements probably don’t mean nearly as much as they once did, the position of those conservative papers reveals an uneasiness about Trump that is shared by a lot of Republicans.
Trump’s disastrous week is unlikely to change the minds of many of his supporters. That reality shows just how polarized our politics are today and, even worse, how Trump’s message of racism, misogyny and xenophobia resonates with some Americans.
On the other hand, the stark display of his ignorance, mean spiritedness and non-presidential temperament will raise the energy and enthusiasm level of Democrats, encourage the uncommitted to realize that Clinton is the only sane choice in this election and highlight the risk of throwing a vote away on Gary “Aleppo” Johnson or Jill Stein.
There’s almost a month to go until Election Day and lots of work to be done, but Donald Trump has managed to make an irrefutable case against his election.