As a piece of writing, the editorial published on the front page of the Washington Post on July 22 was pretty good. Donald Trump, the paper’s editorialists opined, is “uniquely unqualified to serve as president” and presents a “unique and present danger” to the Constitution. It outlined Trump’s litany of lies, contradictions, hate speech and bellicose indifference to the inner workings of the government he hopes to lead. “Mr. Trump campaigns by insult and denigration, insinuation and wild accusation,” the editorial reads.
Every one of the editorial’s 1,400 words was true, and no doubt it warmed the cockles of many liberal hearts. I’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds, of these types of things over the last several months, each echoing the very obvious fact that he has no business being president.
And it is precisely why the editorial serves less as damnation of the man than confirmation for him and his base that he’s doing something right. Trump’s evolution from carnival clown to dangerous fool to calculating perpetual outrage machine couldn’t have taken place without the reams of morally indignant broadsides launched at him over the last 14 months.
For Trump, long a man of establishment tastes and proclivities, each piece of invective cements his anti-establishment bona fides that have kept him in the race. He remains within spitting distance in the polls precisely because he isn’t a media darling. For his stubborn, unalloyed and largely homogenous base, the hair-pulling rage Trump provokes from the media isn’t a demonstration of his own buffoonery; it’s proof that he’s speaking truth to establishment power. And until now it has rendered him bulletproof.
As far as shticks go, it’s not particularly original. Rob Ford used virtually the same strategy to get elected Toronto mayor in 2010. With a few exceptions, the media coverage of Ford was so uniform in its damnation that it allowed Ford, a multimillionaire with a taste for Cadillac SUVs, to pitch himself as the put-upon everyman fighting the establishment.
Like Trump, Ford aimed his brand of populism squarely at the haughty elitism of his predecessor. Populism, the art of applying bumper sticker solutions to complex problems, requires catch-all slogans. Ford wanted to stop the gravy train. Trump will make America great again. Ford’s targets were the media and the political class. Trump’s targets are exactly the same—along with Mexicans, Muslims, foreign workers, women and the occasional baby.
The only difference between the methods of these two men are the stakes. Ford oversaw garbage collection and parking permits. Trump would have access to the codes of the largest nuclear weapons arsenal on Earth.
Stakes aside, Ford and Trump share a persona that imbues a sense of invincibility. Ford could literally smoke crack cocaine on camera, then lie about it, then lie about it some more; he could get drunk in public, utter racial slurs and bowl over a councillor during a city council debate. His support base, and his hold on Toronto’s mayoral office, remained largely intact throughout.
As for Trump, there isn’t enough space to list his transgressions. A sample, plucked from the headlines over the last week: he referred to Hillary Clinton as “the devil”; he lied about a letter he received from the NFL regarding the debates; he said terrorists “by the thousands and thousands” had infiltrated the United States; and, most notably, he repeatedly insulted the family of a dead war hero. Yet as of this writing, he is three points behind Hillary Clinton in the New York Times poll aggregator.
The seeds of Trump’s defeat won’t be printed on the front page of the Washington Post, or tumble from the mouth of a frothed-out Clintonite on yet another CNN panel, or through the gobs of Twitter rage directed at him. Trump’s defeat, which is likely, lies with his base and in the candidate himself.
Unlike most mayoral candidates, would-be American presidents have to proselytize beyond those who would ordinarily support them—which, in Trump’s case, is white men. Those dazzling aggregated poll numbers mask his weakness. Poll after poll after poll has Trump trailing Clinton in every demographic save for white males.
And Trump’s support amongst white voters, a diminishing demographic to begin with, currently trails that of Mitt Romney in 2012 by six percentage points. Trump’s challenge is far greater than Clinton’s: he has to increase his support, while Hillary just has to convert her current support into votes.
Finally, there is the candidate himself. As it turns out, a presidential campaign is an ideal setting for a man addicted to the narcotic pleasure of his own hubris. But the resulting infallibility has a limit, which Trump apparently reached when he attacked the family of Humayun Khan, the American soldier who died in the Iraq war in 2004.
To be fair to Trump, the Republican Party has a history of smearing war heroes for political gain: witness Democratic candidate (and multiple Purple Heart recipient) John Kerry in 2004, and John McCain during the Republican nomination in 2000.
But by tethering the Khan family to his delusions about security and Muslim terrorism, Trump crossed some sort of threshold. Not with the press, mind you, but with Republicans themselves, who realize that they will be held hostage by Trump’s mouth for about another 90 days. Most are still in the grumbling stage; some, like Meg Whitman, Richard Hanna and Brent Scowcroft, are voting for Clinton.
Trump’s press coverage long ago showed his lack of decency, and continues to do so. It hasn’t mattered one bit. For Republicans, though, it’s far worse: Trump has less electability by the day.