Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Donald Trump’s rise, Bill Cosby’s fall, and a founding father’s Broadway debut.
Donald Trump’s lead in the polls has been called “the classic pattern of a media-driven surge,” which means that his numbers, like those of Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in 2012, could crater in mid-campaign. But one factor in his success may be his ability to fill the vacuum left by the faded Tea Party, giving voice to the frustrated GOP white underclass. Will the candidates criticizing Trump this week eventually have to integrate part of his message to win over this part of the Republican base?
Whatever else is to be said about Trump, he is a master salesman. And in the GOP presidential marketplace, he has a near-monopoly on the product he is selling now: hard-line, unapologetic, xenophobic opposition to both immigration reform and Mexican immigrants. Immigration is the fault line of the GOP. The party’s establishment — from its corporate backers to The Wall Street Journal editorial page to Jeb Bush (when he’s not hedging) — want immigration reform. They know that no national Republican ticket can win without Hispanic voters. But the base that dominates the primary electorate loathes immigration reform — so much so that even Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, had to retreat from his original embrace of it to be a viable presidential contender. Hence, the question you ask is classic Catch-22: If the ultimate Republican presidential candidate does appropriate some part of Trump’s message to win the nomination, he will be as doomed as Mitt Romney was after he embraced “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants in 2012. Or more doomed, given the trajectory of the Hispanic population explosion in America.
For all the other much-discussed factors contributing to the Trump boom — the power of celebrity, his “anti-politician” vibe, his freak-show outrageousness, his Don Rickles–style putdowns — it is the substantive issue of immigration that remains the core of his appeal to his fans. That’s why Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are defending him; it’s why Bill Kristol did until last weekend. And those Republicans who are now demanding that he desist are mostly hypocrites. John McCain himself, after all, enabled and legitimized those Trump partisans he now dismisses as “crazies” by putting Sarah Palin on the ticket in 2008. Other GOP leaders waited too long to disown the conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate that Trump would eventually exploit to reboot his political aspirations. Romney ostentatiously courted and received Trump’s endorsement in 2012. Many of the Republican politicians now condemning Trump for attacking McCain’s heroism in Vietnam were silent (or worse) when John Kerry’s Vietnam heroism was Swift Boated in 2004.
The GOP can blame the media all it wants, but the party has no one to blame but itself for weaponizing Trump. It subsidized and encouraged the market for what Trump is now selling. Now the Republicans’ only really hope is that Trump will blow himself up, Herman Cain style. Maybe he will, and he certainly has no chance of getting the nomination no matter what he does. But in the meantime he can keep wreaking havoc. Nine other GOP candidates were onstage at the Ames, Iowa, forum last weekend where he trashed McCain, and no one remembers anything anyone else there said unless it was in response to Trump. The same may well happen at the first national debate on Fox News on August 6, which is likely (because of Trump, and much to his delight) to be the highest rated primary debate in history.
Even over the short term, the Republicans are clueless about how to deal with him; they keep playing into his hands. A classic example was yesterday, when John Kasich, regarded by some Republicans I know as perhaps the most substantive and qualified prospect the party has, announced his presidential candidacy. His announcement was drowned out not just by Trump, with his stunt of revealing Lindsey Graham’s private cell-phone number at a campaign event, but by Graham himself, who took the bait by taking to Twitter and television to joke about it — thereby making certain even a minor Trump stunt would keep depriving the rest of the GOP field of oxygen.
You’ve been keeping an eye on the unraveling of what you once called the “idealized Cosby myth” for almost two decades. Do last weekend’s Bill Cosby revelations change anything about your view of the recent rape and sexual-assault allegations against him?
Hardly. Everyone from the president on down now knows the story here. The question is why everyone — the public, the press, Cosby’s show business colleagues — looked the other way for so long. When I was writing about the “idealized Cosby myth” in 1997, it was after the tragic shooting of the Cosbys’ son, Ennis, had produced an outpouring of deification of Bill Cosby conflating his fictional character on a television sitcom with the real man. Time called Cosby “everyone’s Dad” and the patriarch of “America’s premier family.” The Times declared him “the all-American Dad” and “the best a father, black or white, can do.” But then a young woman emerged in the immediate aftermath of Ennis Cosby’s murder purporting to be Bill Cosby’s illegitimate daughter. Cosby’s spokesman unequivocally denied it, and attacked the woman’s motives and veracity. Finally, Cosby confessed to Dan Rather on CBS that he had an extramarital affair (which he euphemistically labeled a “rendezvous”) with the woman’s mother. But such is the American cult of celebrity that this smoking gun about Cosby’s personal life was soon forgotten. By 2004, he was being widely celebrated for his stern lecture preaching moral standards and personal responsibility to black America.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, gearing up for its August 6 Broadway opening after its previous run at the Public Theater, had some very special guests at a recent preview: President Obama and his daughters. How do you think the show will do with the mass Broadway crowd?
The suspense being whipped up in the press about Hamilton’s Broadway transfer — what if this groundbreaking musical fails once forced to confront the tourist heathens uptown? — is completely bogus. The genesis of it is that another contemporary musical that mashed up American history, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, moved from the Public to Broadway in 2010 and died in a bit over three months despite rave reviews in the Times and elsewhere. But rave reviews don’t mean what they once did: otherwise Honeymoon in Vegas would still be running on Broadway and On the Town wouldn’t be playing to poor houses. The audience has a bigger vote, and even in the highly unlikely event that the critics reverse their opinions about Hamilton when revisiting it in its new and bigger digs, its success is already certain. Its $28 million advance may not be quite of Book of Mormon magnitude, but it dwarfs the advances of the hit musicals showcased in June’s Tony Awards. And sales continue to build during previews before the critics have returned — a sign of enthusiastic word-of-mouth.
The only controversy surrounding Hamilton is not Hamilton but the pending removal of Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make way for a long-overdue female successor. One solution to this problem is for the Treasury to bring back the $1,000 bill, which originally also had Hamilton on it. (He was later replaced by Grover Cleveland.) A thousand bucks will come in handy for those seeking to see Hamilton: That’s the price a pair of prime orchestra seats was commanding on StubHub this week.