Sometimes a politician rises not despite his pathologies, but because they suit the moment. Donald Trump’s vulgarity, crude insults, and braggadocio fired the resentments of Republican primary voters and rode them to the nomination. His racism and sexism were not a problem with them. He read the room, as a performer would say, and gave it what it wanted. His diehards thought they were his accomplices, though they were his marks.
Seasons and audiences change. The trash talk that got Trump attention in the noisy lounge of the primaries does not work in the main room of the general election. I owe this metaphor to Rev. Al Sharpton, who learned about performance venues long ago from singer James Brown and shared it with Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart last year. But Sharpton, like most in the commentariat, thought Trump’s act wouldn’t work at all in a presidential campaign. He told Capehart, “You can’t talk about [John] McCain like you’re talking about the real estate guy bidding against you for a building in downtown Brooklyn.”
In fact, that kind of talk took Trump a long way. He had his finger on the pulses of the nation’s demons of intolerance and know-nothingism. They carried him into a virtual dead heat with the Democratic nominee.
Trump’s lounge magician act has entertained us daily with his denials of having said things that we have on tape, and with his echolalia, where he repeats a falsehood as if saying it three times makes it three times more true. He magically raises the crime rate, unemployment rate, and budget deficit by lying about them, similar to the way he erases business debts by declaring bankruptcy. He regards himself as genetically superior to harder working and less rapacious citizens while proudly contributing nothing to the federal treasury.
He promises to destroy ISIS, restore lost industrial jobs (which were exported by people like him), end crime, and return us to the white old days, by the sheer force of his personality, or a triumph of the will.
Trump is not taking on Washington, he is taking on reality. In his world, you don’t have to prepare for a debate, study the issues, or remember what you said yesterday. His supporters prefer vague, sweeping promises without a plan over the hard work of creating change. Instead of blaming Washington gridlock on Republican obstruction, blame both parties equally. Mock knowledge and experience as elitist. Recruit old men on their third wives as surrogates, since families are great and those guys started as many as they could.
Trump miscalculated in thinking his improvisation would work in the fall as it had in the spring. On September 26, he met Hillary Clinton on the debate stage. Unlike him, she had prepared. She brought the toughness and seasoning of experience. While he took every bit of bait she tossed his way, she let his insults roll off her. As he wilted, she shone.
For several days following the debate, Trump worsened his wounds by defaming a Latina former beauty queen Clinton mentioned whom he had insulted twenty years before. He doubled down on his increasingly desperate mockery of Clinton’s alleged lack of stamina. But his trash talk about women being fat pigs, and his boasting about stiffing contractors and paying no taxes, are no match for the political heavyweight he now faces.
Trump does not learn from his mistakes because he refuses to admit he made them. By contrast, Hillary listens to people, and has the discipline to ignore the mockery while pursuing a campaign strategy.
None of this is to suggest the campaign is over. As I write this, five long weeks remain until Election Day. Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone is warning of dire revelations. Republicans persist in their voter suppression efforts despite adverse court orders. But, amazingly enough, there is also something called journalism being done. The New York Times late last week reported on tax documents it received that showed Trump declared $916 million in losses for 1995. His loudly proclaimed business acumen has devolved into success at writing off mammoth losses as tax deductions.
The election remains too close to call. Go to your battle stations.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2016 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.