Republicans in Denial That the Debate Exposed Donald Trump As Unfit for Office

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you’re a Republican who has been clinging to the wan hope that Donald Trump might somehow, in his eighth decade on Earth, develop into a plausibly competent president of the United States, the first debate should have been your moment to abandon ship. Trump displayed the factual command of a small child, the emotional stability of a hormonal teen, and the stamina of an old man, staggering and losing the thread as the 90 minutes wore on. Instead, Republicans — without a single exception I have seen — have responded very differently. They have treated their candidate’s glaring unsuitability for high office as, at worst, a handful of discrete errors that in no way reflect on his character, and at best, the dastardly unfairness of the liberal media.

Among the optimists was conservative columnist Holman Jenkins, who registered his approval with the candidate’s ability to clear two impressive hurdles: make it through the debate without literally dying, and display the ability to make at least one planned action. “He is not a lifelong politician like Mrs. Clinton and it showed,” writes Jenkins. “But he survived on stage. Notice, he also apparently made a strategic decision not to raise Bill Clinton’s infidelities and stuck to it.” Jenkins is at least conceding implicitly that the debate would be considered a loss for Trump if he had keeled over dead. But to pat him on the head for having made a “strategic decision” — i.e., a decision — not to attack Hillary Clinton for her husband’s infidelity and then follow it is setting the bar very low. The ability to follow through on a decision is a developmental step in children that ranks just above object permanence. (Perhaps Jenkins would be impressed if Clinton left during a break and Trump noticed she was gone.) The triumph of Trump planning not to bring up the affairs, and then managing not to, is also mitigated by the fact that he immediately expressed his regret for it afterward.

National Review, which had published a splashy issue devoted to denouncing Trump during the primary, used its post-debate editorial not to remind readers that the array of disqualifying traits it had once denounced were on vivid display, but instead to chastise moderator Lester Holt for exposing them. “We have our criticisms of Donald Trump, too,” wrote National Review, in the only* sentence in the editorial that even hinted at any flaw on Trump’s part. “But his electoral fate should be up to the voters, not Lester Holt and his colleagues.” Likewise, Paul Beston decried Holt’s query to both candidates if they would respect the outcome of the election as his “lowest moment,” asking indignantly, “[H]ow he could even pose such a question.” Perhaps Holt asked because Trump has repeatedly called the election “rigged” and told his supporters that massive fraud is “the only way we can lose.”

Holt’s alleged bias was a favorite subject on the right. Every question that exposed Trump’s unprecedented violation of political norms simply proved to conservatives that their party was being singled out for unprecedented scrutiny. Conservatives expressed a mix of resentment and confusion that Trump faced hostile questions and scrutiny for his refusal to take the expected and routine step of releasing his tax returns. They present Trump as an innocent man, guilty of nothing worse than failing to adequately defend himself. “These columns warned Mr. Trump—and GOP voters—during the primaries that by not releasing his returns he was giving Democrats an opening to assert what he might be ‘hiding,’” warns The Wall Street Journal. Note the scare quotes around the term “hiding,” as if it is a hyperbolic and unfair term to apply to the act of not revealing something that is customarily shared. “Trump did not refute Clinton’s charge — reminiscent of Harry Reid’s no-evidence attack on Mitt Romney in 2012 — that Trump pays no federal income taxes,” complains Byron York. “’That makes me smart,’ Trump said, which sounded, if anything, like a confirmation of Clinton’s accusation.” The charge had no evidence, yet Trump said words that sounded to people who understand words like a confirmation of the charge — almost as if the charge is somehow true. Is it possible that Trump is refusing to disclose his returns because they would show something disqualifying? Conservatives do not even consider the scenario anymore. Trump is simply the victim of a combination of insinuation and his own poor salesmanship.

The New York Times, which recently published a harrowing account of Trump’s debate preparation, or lack thereof, today has an equally harrowing account of his failures. Trump surrounds himself with completely unqualified advisers offering bad advice (a “large number of voluble people on his prep team, including two retired military figures with no political background”). His advisers are hoping after the first debate to “impress upon him the need to stick to a strategy and a plan of battle.” Trump has a childlike attention span (“he did not seem to pay attention during the practice sessions”) and found his efforts at serious preparation derailed by the influence of serial predator Roger Ailes, who turned the sessions into gripefests around the fallout from his serial predation:

There were early efforts to run a more standard form of general election debate-prep camp, led by Roger Ailes, the ousted Fox News chief, at Mr. Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J. But Mr. Trump found it hard to focus during those meetings, according to multiple people briefed on the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That left Mr. Ailes, who at the time was deeply distracted by his removal from Fox and the news media reports surrounding it, discussing his own problems as well as recounting political war stories, according to two people present for the sessions.

So Trump, according to the people trying to help him win, is unable to pick good staff, manage his time, follow advice, or even accept the connection between preparing for an event and succeeding at it. Republicans have so internalized Trump’s wild unsuitability for the presidency that they have decided to treat these facts as mere hurdles to overcome on the path to the presidency. But why are they trying to help him win in the first place?

Update: The sentence I originally cited was not the editorial’s only criticism of Trump. National Review’s editorial does gently upbraid him for failing to anticipate the unfair questioning he faced, and for not adequately attacking his opponent: “The institutional slant of the media being what it is, the Republican nominee is always at a disadvantage when it comes to debate moderators, and should prepare accordingly. It was clear from his performance last night that Trump did not adequately prepare for what were entirely predictable lines of questioning; he also missed several opportunities to go on the offensive against a uniquely vulnerable opponent.”