Can Trump get out of the trap of running against himself?
Donald Trump is not so much running against Hillary Clinton as against the inner demons of Donald Trump.
The 2016 election still should easily be his to win.
Americans do not historically like the twelve-year regnum of any party.
The termed-out incumbent Democratic president can win approval ratings of 50 percent only by staying quiet, out of the public eye, and doing as little governing as possible. Whenever Obama emerges from his hip cocoon and talks off his teleprompter, he reminds us that he is typically petulant, untruthful, and rambling. Witness his latest pathetic assurances that sending cash on pallets at night to obtain simultaneous release of hostages was not ransom. Even the obsequious pajama-boy D.C. press corps did not quite buy that. As so often, Obama’s soft-spoken prevarication comes across as being as coarse as Trump’s crudity.
Hillary Clinton is the weakest Democratic candidate since her moral superior Jimmy Carter in 1980. She reminds us of her liabilities daily, whether lying repeatedly that the FBI director had not systematically stated she had been untruthful about her unlawful e-mails, or, in a screeching voice, proclaiming her determination to raise taxes on the middle class — not to reduce the $600 billion deficit but to add more entitlements. Is a young lathe worker or forklift driver to pay more so that a Bernie Sanders supporter can get free tuition? Next, she seemed to have fallen into a bizarro world when she remarked, “The Trump kids have killed a lot of animals.” Pundits forget that at any given moment, a “short-circuited” Hillary Clinton can say anything — or do anything, such as discussing the fate of a soon-to-be-doomed Iranian scientist on an unsecured e-mail server. Never Trumpers often fail to appreciate that Hillary is quite capable of trumping Trump in controversy and self-destructiveness — with the force multiplier that she is not a potential public servant but someone who has been almost nothing but one.
Half the public hates the political and media elite of the Eastern corridor and their West Coast bookends in Hollywood and the tech industry. A David Brooks takedown of Trump or another Hillary endorsement from a Silicon Valley billionaire seems free Trump publicity. Is the working class reassured of Hillary’s credentials by a Warren Buffett endorsement or a nod from Meg Whitman?
The news cycle of the next 100 days also favors Trump: weekly more of the same of Islamic-inspired international terrorism, coupled with Chamberlain-like, politically correct Western appeasement. Black Lives Matter, with the sanction of the Democratic party, will only grow more brazen. (But how does one top disrupting a moment of silence for slain policemen or using a bullhorn to segregate journalists by race?)
There is little long-term optimism to make us forget the daily news disasters. Permanent near-zero interest rates, unsustainable new debt, Obamacare, insidious overregulation, record labor-force non-participation, and tax hikes will keep the economy stagnant — if we are lucky. An entire forgotten population of the former working American public has simply disengaged from the economy and turned to government support, help from friends and family, drugs and drink, or apathetic hopelessness. They almost seem the majority in my hometown.
Abroad, the world is in shambles, mostly as a result of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry foreign policy, which ignited the Middle East, empowered Vladimir Putin, ignored Chinese aggrandizement, appeased Iran, turned off allies, and was humiliated in its attempted outreach to “special” friends like Recep Erdogan. If we get to November without a major international crisis or a regional shooting war, it will be a miracle.
The EU is unwinding, unable to deal with the latest financial and immigration manifestations of the perennial “German problem” of the last 150 years. NATO resembles the British and French alliance of the late 1930s: impressive in its serial assurances of mutual assistance, creepy in the reality of its moral impotence.
Despite a media blackout, the Clinton Foundation — currently never praised or even mentioned by either Clinton — is revealed as little more than a pay-to-play enterprise of dubious legality, designed to dose family members with freebies and keep political flunkies employed between elections. Around late 2015 Bill Clinton suddenly resigned his honorary university chancellorship and quit quid-pro-quo speaking on the premise that he was doing nothing wrong and so thought it wise to stop doing nothing wrong.
All of the above would have ensured that almost any Republican could take at least 45 percent of the vote, regardless of the shortcomings of the candidate or campaign.
Trump’s strategy, then, should have been clear and easily attainable. He could have found the remaining 6 percent of the electorate necessary to win in the key swing states by simply doing two things: concentrate on all of the above issues, and do so with his accustomed energy and outside-the-box candor.
In practical terms, that should have meant that Trump — every speech, every day, every hour — would remind Americans that Hillary Clinton is an inveterate fabricator and utterly corrupt, with a record as secretary of state that has led to disaster abroad. He would have reviewed the moribund economy, reminded his audiences that the existing political and media status quo has no solutions, given that it was largely culpable for the problem. He would then have allowed the public to take in the tragic daily news cycle — more terrorists, more attacks on police, more disclosures about Clinton corruption, more leaks about Obama’s ineptness — as he confirmed his diagnoses of the malady.
To the degree that the fixtures of the old international financial and political elite — from Hank Paulson, Meg Whitman, Brent Scowcroft, and Mitt Romney to Barack Obama and François Hollande — were outraged at his crass populism and blasted him as unfit, Trump would only benefit, reminding his supporters why such elites logically hated his candidacy.
To ensure that he picked up the necessary final margin of support, he could have easily appealed directly to black voters, pointing out that the Obama agenda has only left them poorer and more estranged from the wealth and power of America. He might even have reminded them that the Democratic party is run by wealthy liberals who find exemption for their own apartheid existences through abstract and empty progressive boilerplate.
Trump might have also convinced some in Hispanic audiences that unchecked illegal immigration was a cynical tool of the Democratic party whose effects fell most heavily not on Mark Zuckerberg’s neighborhood or on the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., but on poor schools, entry-level workers, and crime-infested barrios. Juan Hernandez, not Chelsea Clinton, is more likely to be hit by a driver who flees the scene of the accident without license, registration, or insurance, just as Gracie Lopez’s children, not those of Univision’s Jorge Ramos, will struggle in schools in which half the students do not know English. The point would have been not to appease identity groups so as to win 50 percent of their vote, but to speak the truth and thus win 15 percent of the black vote and 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, which would have translated into close wins in states like Colorado, Nevada, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
All of the above was doable and could have ensured Trump the election, despite the unethical and historically unprecedented entrance into the campaign of a contrite Barack Obama, the institutional prejudices of the media, the usual big-city voter fraud, and even the withdrawal of the Republican elite who could not countenance Trump’s innate vulgarity, swashbuckling style, and demagogic appeal to the white working classes. We are, after all, in a war between the National Enquirer and NPR, Marlboro Man against Pajama Boy, Clint Eastwood versus Tom Hanks, amateurish fantasies opposed to established, polished lying.
Instead, here we are with less than 90 days before the election, and Trump may be lucky if he finishes within 5 percentage points on Election Day.
To negate Trump’s advantages, the Democrats had a simple strategy: bring out the demonic Trump. Hillary Clinton would simply lie about her e-mail records ad nauseam. In possum style, she would snore about the economy. She would avert her eyes from the world order’s breaking apart. She would ignore the populist furor with a corrupt Washington and media establishment.. Against this stultifying backdrop, the ego-driven Trump would be allowed to grab the headlines, and the headlines would be petty and embarrassing.
Democrats would seed the summer and autumn election battlefields with new and updated models of politically correct IEDs. They used this technique very effectively in 2012 to render a decent Mitt Romney as a tax-cheating, greedy Wall Street vulture, who ignored his regular garbageman, beat up kids in prep school, and strapped his terrified dog to his car top. Four years earlier the Democrats had blown John McCain to smithereens and left him little more than a closet racist and an adulterous and senile coot, who could not remember how many estates he owned nor the shenanigans of his pill-popping spouse. To avoid the rain of shrapnel, Romney had to battle both the moderator and his opponent in a presidential debate while contextualizing his own personal success and fortune. McCain, meanwhile, swore off referring to the racist personal pastor of Barack Obama and to Obama’s own litany of “typical white person” and “get in their face.” We forget that long before the wild man Trump, the most un-Trumpian, sober and judicious McCain and Romney were flattened by bogus charges against their spouses and false claims, respectively, of adultery and tax-cheating — and were completely unable to defend themselves from such smears and slanders.
Instead of staying on a winning message and avoiding the subterranean traps, Trump on cue tramped right through this progressive minefield. The explosive result was predictable. He wasted precious hours rudely taking on a Mexican-American judge — who, to be fair, had foolishly joined a “La Raza” lawyers’ organization (imagine a white counterpart as a member of a local legal organization with “The Race” in its name) — or jousting with a Gold Star family, indifferent to the fact that the father was an immigration lawyer who logically would oppose Trump’s immigration moratoria.
So when all these mines went off, Trump in theory always had some sort of legitimate counter-argument: Yes, Megyn Kelly was not commensurate in her sexism questions, in that she did not ask Hillary Clinton to account for her own sexist past, whether laughing over aspects of a case involving a rapist client, or demonizing Bill’s victims of coerced sex. And, yes, it was also a fact that bombastically inviting Putin to find Hillary’s missing 30,000 e-mails could not be a breach of security if they were truly about yoga and Chelsea’s wedding.
But such legitimate counter-arguments against explosive devices do not matter. Words are not as loud as Semtex and C-4. As Trump blew himself up on these mines, campaign time was irrevocably lost.
No one was asking Trump to go mute when Obama or Clinton attacked him in unprecedented fashion. The key instead was circumspection. Strike back quickly and only at major targets, to create deterrence against future smears, and then after 30 seconds get back on topic — and never step on a Democratic landmine out of curiosity whether it would really blow up. Translated, that means ignore assorted journalists eager for five minutes of cable-news attention, political flunkies, private citizens — both heroes and scoundrels — grieving widows, the disabled, the underage, and the elderly — in other words, all the cover plates that supposedly moral progressives use to mask their explosives.
Is it too late for Trump? So far, what he has thrown away in the polls Hillary so often seems to give back.
Because he is a postmodern candidate for whom established decorum doesn’t seem to apply, and because the nation and the world are in chaos, no one quite can calibrate his powers of resilience. And so we are left only with a probability rather than a certainty: The odds are even that Trump’s self-destructive recklessness and narcissistic crudity (which so far seem not to have turned off 40 to 45 percent of the voters) are so embedded in his DNA that he will likely fall prey to each new Khan family and Judge Curiel trap, and not win over the necessary additional 5 to 6 percent of the electorate.
So is character really fate? Or is there any chance that the outer Trump’s business savvy and heralded self-interest might half tame his inner Trump to avoid subterranean mines, to keep him on message, and to relax and ride the wave of the disastrous daily news fare to the White House?
If there is, it will be largely because in summer 2016 enough voters see the current reality of polished lying and corruption in the White House and at the head of the Democratic ticket as more dangerous than the potential of a crude counterpart on the 2017 horizon.