Letting Trump Be Trump Is the Only Strategy Left

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You do you.Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s campaign shake-up, Paul Manafort’s Ukraine ties, and the cancellation of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.

Donald Trump is trying to bounce back from his lousy August by adding two potent personalities to his team this week. Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News is the new campaign chief executive, usurping Paul Manafort, and Roger Ailes has reportedly been recruited to prepare Trump for the presidential debates. Will either be able to prove that Trump is not, as other advisers have recently opined, “beyond coaching”?
Those dreary Trump “presidential” speeches — the “policy” addresses he has lately been reading listlessly from teleprompters — have bought him nothing. Trump is indeed beyond coaching, and, with Manafort sidelined, Trump is free to be Trump full-time again. Bannon and Ailes are both pugilists likely to pump his volume back up to the full Mussolini-Giuliani timbre. It may not make a difference come November, but I’d argue it’s the only way for Trump to go.

As we’ve learned over the past year, Trump’s supporters don’t care about the journalistic investigations debunking his career and ethics, or about his complete disregard for facts, or about his chilling, unworkable, and destructive prescriptions to “make America great again.” When he said that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and still hold on to his hard-core base, he had a point. So he might just as well be as outrageous and noisy as he possibly can. Reaching every conceivable aggrieved white American out there, particularly the “poorly educated” whom he admires and particularly those who might not be regular voters, is his best hope, however faint, for achieving a putsch. (Particularly if some October surprise upends his opponent.) The time for Trump to woo, say, undecided suburban voters by attempting (incompetently) to mimic lunchtime speakers at the Council on Foreign Relations is over. Indeed, given Breitbart’s history of hurling abuse at GOP elites, it’s not inconceivable that Trump will soon name Paul Ryan and John McCain as additional co-founders of ISIS.

The arrival of Ailes as debate adviser should give the Clinton campaign pause. Thanks to the Herculean reportage of my colleague Gabriel Sherman, we are finally starting to see Ailes’s full Bill Cosby–like dimensions as a human being. But Democrats shouldn’t now forget that Ailes is also brilliant and ruthless at what he does professionally: plotting and executing scorched-earth attacks on television. And he has been perfecting that dark art for nearly a half-century, back to the day when he took the skills he’d learned in his 20s as a producer of Mike Douglas’s second-tier daytime talk show to the 1968 Nixon campaign to help make one of the most uncomfortable television performers in the history of the medium palatable to a mass audience. With Trump, unlike Nixon, Ailes will be working with an accomplished television performer. Hillary Clinton, not a natural in that arena, will need to arrive with her best game. Her campaign must reach well beyond the usual list of presidential debate coaches.

Another asset that Ailes brings to the debates is his unique knowledge of Fox News and its personalities. One of Sherman’s most important scoops was the revelation that the network’s star anchor Megyn Kelly was among those who accused Ailes of sexual harassment; it’s possible that she as much as anyone brought him down. If Kelly is a debate moderator, and if she once again roils Trump with questions he doesn’t like, it’s a safe bet that Trump will be armed with opposition research, courtesy of Ailes, to try to knock her out.

Investigators in Ukraine found evidence of millions of dollars of secret cash payments from a local pro-Russian political party to Paul Manafort, then a Washington fixer, between 2007 and 2012. Will Manafort’s denials and his demotion be enough to squelch the issue?
Where is Trey Gowdy, the Inspector Javert (or, more accurately, Inspector Clouseau) of the GOP House when we need him? He and all of the others on the right who have spent years trying and failing to find Clinton guilty of murder at Benghazi have fallen completely silent about the seemingly widespread collusion between the Republican presidential standard-bearer and his erstwhile campaign manager and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Even before the latest Manafort revelations, the longtime CIA hand Michael Morell was suggesting that Putin had recruited Trump “as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” The use of “unwitting,” it is becoming clearer by the day, may have been generous on Morell’s part. While there are many reasons why Trump is hiding his tax returns, it’s possible that his financial connections to Russian oligarchs in the Putin coterie are the most explosive.

But you’ll notice the cowardly silence of Ryan and Mitch McConnell, of McCain and Kelly Ayotte, and all of the other supposedly national-security-conscious Washington Republicans who have endorsed Trump. Unless and until they and other Republicans like them in power acknowledge that they are supporting a man who is a national-security risk, this issue will be on hold, if not squelched. A party that during the Joe McCarthy era prided itself on rooting secret Communists (real or imagined) out of the federal government is now looking the other way when its own presidential candidate and one of his top operatives are in open, even proud, cahoots with a Kremlin hostile to America’s national interests.

Comedy Central announced that The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore will end this week, after a year and a half on the air. Why wasn’t Wilmore able to use this campaign cycle to become a star?
Larry Wilmore is a funny writer with a sharp social conscience whose show was no more uneven than most of his competitors’. Like Trevor Noah at The Daily Show, he had a tough act to follow — an act so tough to follow that even Stephen Colbert himself hasn’t been able to follow it in his post–Colbert Report iteration as a late-night host at CBS. If there’s a television format lesson to be learned from the Nightly Show’s failings, it’s that panels are truly wearing out their welcome, at least in my opinion. They can be problematic on Bill Maher’s show, too: everyone trying and often failing to get a word in edgewise, too many panelists bringing talking points (or prefab jokes) to the table, too little focus. I’d also argue that it’s very hard to do a smart solo monologue of comic political commentary four nights a week. Colbert didn’t do “The Word” every night; John Oliver has a week to craft and perfect his Sunday night tours de force.

But what probably contributed most to Wilmore’s failure to resonate (as Comedy Central characterized his shortfall) had nothing to do with any of this, and neither did it have to do with his race, which he wielded as a comic asset and which made his commentary distinct and often fresh. I’d argue that the elephant in the room in this case is age. Wilmore is 54; his comic beats and sensibility, at least as expressed in his show, don’t lend themselves to viral replays the morning after. That’s not a criticism or a fault. He was true to who he is, and, as he has demonstrated in his other work as a television creator and producer (Black-ish and Issa Rae’s coming HBO series Insecure), his more natural forum may be prime time, and his natural audience may be more likely to congregate there than in late night.