Littwin: This election will be a referendum on Trump
Fair and Unbalanced
For those keeping score at home, we are back to the Donald-Trump-is-doomed phase of the game.
It should be familiar to all of us by now. Trump says something so offensive — or several things so offensive — that he reveals himself, at last, as the dangerous demagogue/carnival barker that he surely is. Republican leaders either condemn him while still vowing their support (see: Ryan, Paul) or they slink away unheard and unseen (see: Gardner, Cory).
And in each case, just when you think that Trump’s campaign must implode, it doesn’t. Somehow, instead, he has marched triumphantly past 16 Republican challengers and without benefit of anyone whispering sic transit gloria mundi into his ear, although Chris Christie does apparently whisper his offer to get the boss a Big Mac.
But this time is different, because it has to be. Because a general election is different from a primary. Because GOP donors are backing away from him. Because top Republicans won’t work for him. Because, come on. This is Donald Trump running for president.
And look at the polls. A Washington Post/ABC News poll says 7 in 10 Americans view the Donald negatively and 56 percent view him strongly negatively. He had pulled even in the polls with Hillary Clinton — whose negatives are very high but not nearly that high — a few weeks ago but now trails her, according to the Real Clear Politics poll of polls, by around 5 percentage points.
As one who once predicted Trump would drop out before the first vote was cast in Iowa, I want to believe that this really is the end. But as Paul Ryan once said, I’m not there yet. After all, we’ve been here before.
I mean, when John McCain, the intermittently noble and ignoble Arizona senator who is desperate again to get re-elected, says Barack Obama is “directly responsible” for the Orlando attack, you see McCain and yet you hear Trump. And even though McCain said he “misspoke” after the reaction to his comment was at least 56 percent strongly negative, he basically revised his statement to say Obama was indirectly responsible. Trump may be losing, but he’s still winning.
This past week tells us everything. When everyone should be focused on the victims and on why they were killed, we are still talking about Trump, who turns every story into one about him.
It has been, of course, a time of unspeakable tragedy. It is a time in which normal people do sadly normal things in abnormal times — they mourn the dead in Orlando; they comfort the living; they search desperately for answers. They remind us that gay Americans, even in this time of advance in gay rights, are still being routinely targeted. They remind us of the dangers of a sick mind hardened by internet strains of a sick ideology who still has access to lethal weapons.
And then there’s Trump. Coming off one of the low points of his low-point-ridden campaign, in which he had questioned the fairness of an Indiana-born “Mexican” judge, Trump went full McCarthy. He doubled down on his Muslim-ban approach to radical Islam, which is to keep them all out, even though Omar Mateen was born, like Trump, in Queens. He casually conflates refugees with terrorists and says, apocalyptically, that if Muslims keep coming, “everything will be gone.” Meanwhile, he blames American Muslims for shielding terrorists in their community. “They know what’s going on,” he says, without any evidence whatsoever. And he tops it all off by giving his latest birther offshoot, saying that Obama is the Manchurian Muslim who is either sympathetic to or in league with the terrorists. In other words, the onetime birther-in-chief now accuses Obama of treason.
“He doesn’t get it,” Trump says, “or he gets it better than anyone understands.” Yes, he says that. He says “something is going on,” and he’s right. Trump is the would-be leader who thinks empathy is a sucker’s game.
It’s fearmongering at a historic level. You’ve seen and heard this stuff before, from back-bench Republicans, on Fox News or talk radio, on the conspiracy-infected internet fringes, but Trump has become Trump by saying these things aloud, with the presumption being that this is what Americans actually believe and were just waiting to hear from a leader with the nerve to speak the words.
And the presumption worked, to the point that he is now the presumptive Republican nominee. (Those who think Republicans are going to somehow still dump him in Cleveland are living in a dream world. Does anyone really believe Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are about to lead a revolution? They know the party regulars who voted for Trump would destroy them and the party if they tried — although you could argue that doing nothing may amount to the same thing.)
The conventional wisdom is that Trumpism is a violent strain of the Republican Party that its leaders have let loose. But the question now is whether Trumpism will spread. He won’t pivot. He won’t change. He’ll play the fear card until he’s used every card in the deck, and then he’ll just reshuffle. Fear has always sold well, and there’s never been a media platform so conducive to making the sale. In fact, this campaign is nothing so much as a cheap Hollywood thriller in which the world veers toward apocalypse, except that there’s no obvious hero to save the day.
Obama would play the part, but he is, of course, a lame duck. George W. Bush, who has said he’s befuddled by Trump, has returned to work for vulnerable down-ticket Republicans who fear Trump will take them all down. Gary Johnson is the third-party candidate a few libertarian-style Republicans (and Democrats) will support. George Will would lead the intellectual right and says that conservatives need to ensure that Trump loses all 50 states in order to save the movement. Elizabeth Warren is running a scorched-earth campaign against Trump, matching him taunt for taunt on Twitter. And Clinton is, of course, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who knows that her path to victory is to make this election a referendum on Trump.
It will be a referendum on Trump. He’ll make sure of that. At this point, predicting anything else means you haven’t been paying attention.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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