Just when we think the campaign has hit rock bottom, the Republican candidate astonishes everyone with a new outrage. This year’s campaign, as all reasonable observers agree, is unprecedented in modern history. The traditional tools of analysis have not been particularly helpful. Campaigns usually have strategies that can be assessed and end up either working or failing. Trump’s efforts are more a series of lurches and stream of consciousness comments.
Moreover, until recently, journalists were perplexed about how to cover this most unconventional of candidates. In the last two or three weeks, they have discovered that actually reporting his words can be incredibly effective. Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz made a serious effort to pin him down on his answers during the last debate and he hated it. That was exactly the point at which Trump began talking about a media conspiracy against his campaign.
Another difficulty with discussing Trump’s candidacy is that normal language doesn’t do it justice. Various surrogates have tried frequently to explain what Trump “really meant.” For example, Mike Pence claimed that the candidate would accept the results of the election and that Trump’s remarks to the contrary just referred to media bias. A flurry of tweets from Trump immediately doubled down on his claim that the election is rigged.
The efforts to explain away Trump’s language on the Access Hollywood bus are another case in point. It was just “locker room talk”, or, as Melania Trump tried to argue, “boy talk.” More astonishingly, she claimed that this wannabe leader-of-the-free-world was tricked into his “naughty” comments by a television gossip show host. It was refreshing to hear a number of professional athletes point out that the language of their lockers rooms is really quite different, often about their stock portfolios.
What about his insistence that he would put Hillary Clinton in jail if he is elected president? Is that a metaphor or a literal call to action? Can anyone associated with the Trump campaign explain how that comment, repeated constantly at his rallies, is anything less than an appeal to disregard or even discard the constitution?
One of the big problems with the need to explain and clarify Trump’s comments is that many of his supporters seem to be taking them as rallying cries to action. The endorsement of Clinton by the Arizona Republic newspaper has produced harassment and even death threats against employees of the paper. Imagine threatening the paperboy because you don’t like a position taken by the editorial staff of a paper.
How do you describe a candidate who claims that no one respects women more than he does, but then talks incessantly about whether or not they are attractive? Trump promised to provide evidence that his accusers were lying about his groping and harassment, but so far his best explanation is that he wouldn’t have touched them because they weren’t attractive enough. He even offered that assessment of his opponent after lurking behind her during the second Presidential debate.
Trump has taken lying to a new level, as every fact checker has verified. Lying actually doesn’t adequately describe what he does. Instead, he spins tall tales about Hillary Clinton, immigrants, crime in big cities (which is at near record lows despite his claims), the international conspiracy of bankers, Barack Obama’s place of birth (You didn’t forget that one, did you?) and nearly every topic that comes out of his mouth. He promises evidence of his assertions but never delivers. It is pretty clear that not even he can keep up with the barrage of lies that he spouts.
Wednesday night is the third and final debate. It is, hopefully, Trump’s last appearance before a television audience that large. Given his track record, I certainly can’t predict what he will do or say, but the odds are that he will reach another new low.
It’s not clear whether Trump is even trying to win the election anymore. His actions don’t make a lot of sense politically. Some will argue that his non-traditional campaign has continually exceeded expectations and that we shouldn’t count him out. While it’s not safe to do that until all the votes are in, elections are ultimately about voters and he has alienated many of the groups that he needs to appeal to if he is to have any chance.
In recent campaign stops, Trump has started talking about his movement and how he will fight to preserve it. Many hear those words and his repeated references to the “rigging” of the election as a prelude to contesting the results of the election. Unfortunately, whether or not he means that, some of his supporters will think that it’s time to man the barricades, get out the pitchforks (and the guns), attack people who don’t look like them and “make America great again.”
I actually think Trump is just trying to rationalize away an electoral loss that may well be of historical proportions. His ego, which seems large but is actually incredibly fragile, wouldn’t allow him to acknowledge that he actually lost. The only acceptable explanation is some devious conspiracy to steal what is rightfully his.
A sad fact is that Trump probably doesn’t really care that much. He can, as he has said, go back to his very comfortable and self-indulgent life. There is considerable speculation that his real end-game is to create a new media empire with his buddy Roger Ailes.
The suckers in this story are his supporters who went along on the ride thinking he was their knight in shining armor. A few years ago, we were told that the Tea Party arose out of conservatives’ unhappiness with Republicans consistently failing to deliver on their election promises. How will they react if they realize that their carnival barker has just played them for saps again?