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: the Trump outrage train keeps chugging, National Review writer David French’s potential third-party candidacy, and what Peter Thiel means for journalism.
Since Donald Trump lashed out at the press over questions about his fundraising for veterans, his week has only gotten worse, with former staffers at his Trump University calling the school a fraud and “a total lie.” Do either of these criticisms have a chance of swaying Trump supporters?
By any civilized standard, Trump has had about the worst week a presidential candidate could have. He was caught trying to cheat America’s veterans out of the $6 million he had promised them. He nastily assailed the press for daring to question his bogus philanthropy. He not only attacked the legitimacy of the U.S. district judge presiding over the Trump University case, but tried to denigrate him as “Mexican.” (The judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana.) Then there’s Trump U itself: a scam worthy of Bernie Madoff that preyed on victims far more vulnerable than most of Madoff’s clients. And the week is not over. There’s still time for more Trump outrage. Maybe he’ll slap a baby instead of kissing one at a campaign event.
The question remains, however, whether any of it matters to those voters who see Trump as their champion and have stood steadfastly by him even after he previously insulted one of America’s most famous veterans, mocked a disabled member of the press, slimed Mexicans as rapists, and all the rest. We won’t know until November, I’m afraid, if anything will shake their loyalty.
The more fluid question is whether Hillary Clinton can vanquish him. It was a positive step that she wasted no time in decrying Trump University in unequivocal language (“scam … fraud”). This is a refreshing change from her default mode with Trump — trying to stay above the fray — which has showed few signs of working. It would also be a good idea for her to make her own peace with the press, which she hates as much as Trump does. She hasn’t held a press conference since last December. Last week the Washington Post reported that she had not given the paper “a single interview” in the 13 months since she announced her candidacy. By contrast, Trump, for all his detestation of the press, will talk to almost anyone; he would give an interview to Highlights for Children if asked. He will keep getting “free media” because he makes himself available and keeps making news, even if in the ugliest ways imaginable. It’s time for Clinton to get in that arena with him. Today Clinton will give a serious speech assailing Trump’s so-called foreign policy, but if she keeps speaking and playing by Washington’s established rules, he’ll once again find a way to drown her out.
Over the weekend, Bill Kristol announced that he was recruiting a third-party candidate “with a strong team and a real chance,” and it’s now looking likely to be constitutional lawyer David French. Does French fit the bill?
I’d say “constitutional lawyer” is a bit grandiose for this guy, a National Review blogger whose writings include homophobic screeds (gay people “redefine sin as freedom” in his formulation) and who is also known for forbidding his wife (a Sarah Palin ghostwriter) to exchange emails with any men while he was serving in Iraq. Despite Kristol’s claims, French has no team and no chance. Nor is he, as Kristol also promised, “impressive” — unless you count Kristol’s past political protégés, Palin and Dan Quayle, as such.
Nonetheless, Mitt Romney immediately tweeted that he took Kristol’s nominee seriously as “an honorable, intelligent and patriotic person.” Romney, you may recall, has been vocally #NeverTrump for a while now — the most prominent #NeverTrump Republican by far — and last week gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal congratulating himself for his heroic stand: “I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”
How self-deluded can Romney be? What his grandkids will see is that he did nothing to stop Trump except blather. He waited until very late (too late) in the Republican primary to take a stand in the first place. Then he refused to endorse a single candidate in the remaining presidential field who might have theoretically rallied the anti-Trump forces in his party. Then he refused to marshal either funds or troops to stage a serious third-party challenge when it was still doable. (State deadlines for getting on the ballot are passing rapidly.) Now he is lending at least 140 characters of credence to a crackpot Kristol scheme that seems about as real as Trump University. Like many of the GOP elites who have railed against Trump but done nothing other than tweet, give speeches, or write op-eds to stop him, Romney will look quite silly in the judgment of history and possibly that of his grandkids. He thinks of himself as Charles de Gaulle, but he’s actually Marshal Pétain.
The David French “candidacy” and Romney’s lame reaction to it were not the only examples of the impotence of the withered GOP elites this week. Let’s not forget “Little Marco” Rubio. You may recall that Rubio once accurately called Trump a “con artist,” but now he has capitulated to Trump at the very moment we’re learning all of the details about the Trump U con. Is Vegas taking bets on how many more weeks it will take Paul Ryan to fold?
Some journalists worry that the lawsuits Peter Thiel is pursuing against Gawker could threaten the way the press works for years to come. Is it time for reporters and publishers to be, in Nicholas Lemann’s words, “arming themselves for a protracted war”?
Journalism is already at war, doing battle daily with the heavy-handed tactics of the Obama administration and the ticking time bomb of economic survival in a day when nearly every news organization worthy of the name is cutting costs and coverage. Thiel adds another and particularly insidious peril. You don’t have to like Gawker to believe it’s a threat to the First Amendment when billionaires deploy their fortunes to destroy any press outlet that they despise. As the lawyer Stuart Karle pointed out in the Washington Post, Thiel’s tactics “resemble nothing so much as the legal maneuvers white racists used to threaten the national press with ruin” when it covered militant resistance to desegregation in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the landmark 9–0 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan that raised the bar for defining libel grew directly out of the Times’ battle with Alabama racists out to punish the paper’s civil-rights coverage with costly litigation. And Thiel, unlike his antebellum predecessors, tried to pull off his scheme under the veil of secrecy.
It’s not happenstance that Thiel is a California Trump delegate. Trump has the same views and has already pledged to “open up” libel laws and to sue the press for “negative” articles with the hope of costing them “lots of money.” This is surely the tactic that he would use on the Post, to take one example: It was the insistent prodding of that paper’s reporter David Fahrenthold that finally shamed Trump into writing his promised $1 million check to veterans’ groups last week. The Post, owned by a billionaire (Jeff Bezos) who actually has the kind of wealth Trump claims to have, could handle the assault. Many, if not most, others can’t.
Worse, Thiel is the longest-sitting board member of Facebook after Mark Zuckerberg. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has said Thiel will remain on the board — a curious signal to send at a time when Facebook, arguably now the world’s most powerful distributor of news, is rightly being asked for more transparency in how it guarantees freedom of expression in its vast digital realm.