The Clinton campaign did not have a great weekend.
On Friday night, the Democratic nominee appeared to suggest that roughly 20 percent of the American electorate was deplorably racist, which, as all objective pundits know, is “the dictionary definition of bigoted.” (Public-opinion surveys suggest Clinton’s figure may actually be too low, depending on what level of racial animus one finds deplorable. What’s more, some Broadway musicals have suggested that the percentage of Americans who are either deplorably racist or forgivably racist is roughly 99.9 percent).
Then, on Sunday, Clinton staggered out of a 9/11 memorial service because of an episode of “overheating.” After a somewhat unconvincing performance of good health, her campaign revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday.
No candidate wants a video of her stumbling from dehydration to dominate a news cycle. And yet, for a moment, it seemed possible that Clinton’s malady could actually aid her campaign: In expressing contempt for her rival’s supporters, the Democratic nominee had violated a genuine taboo of American politics. In getting sick, she had merely confirmed her own humanity. But would Donald Trump really grok that distinction?
After all, both of Clinton’s mishaps fit into narratives perpetuated by the GOP nominee. By calling some of his supporters “deplorables,” Clinton aided the story line that she is an out-of-touch elite; by appearing ill in public, she aided the narrative that she has a severe brain disease and may, in fact, be already dead.
One of these narratives has purchase among a broad swath of the voting public; the other, among a broad swath of 4chan users. But could the Republican nominee really restrain himself from tweeting out the National Enquirer’s latest exposé on Clinton’s failing liver and raging Alzheimer’s?
“I hope she gets well soon,” Trump told Fox & Friends on Monday, in a shocking display of human decency. “ I don’t know what’s going on … I see what I see. The coughing fit was a week ago, so I assume that was pneumonia also. I mean, I would think it would have been.”
So, the mogul may have thrown one or two “Hillary is secretly dying” dog whistles to the alt-right crowd. But he kept things largely gracious, saying, “I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail and we’ll be seeing her at the debate.” Trump proceeded to promise that, for his part, he would be releasing the results of a recent physical later this week.
Then he milked “deplorables” for all it was worth.
“I think it’s the single biggest mistake of the political season,” Trump said. “You’re president of all the people. You’re not president of 50 percent or 75 percent, you’re president of all the people, you’re president of everybody.”
Is this a credible message from a candidate who’s repeatedly suggested that second-generation, nonwhite immigrants aren’t really Americans — and who has made more gargantuan political mistakes this “season” than one can enumerate without scientific notation?
Of course not. But it’s a question that much of the media will want to hear both sides on. Which is to say: Trump handled this interview with basic political competence.
Maybe the shortsighted, impulse-driven, name-calling side of the GOP nominee’s campaign is over. Maybe he’s finally ready to discipline himself, exploit the media’s eagerness to normalize him, and chart a steady course from here to November.
Or, ya know, maybe not.