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 dangerous rhetoric, the last presidential debate, and the potential future of the GOP.
Despite the protestations of his party, his campaign, and his family, Donald Trump still refuses to state outright that he will unconditionally accept the results of the election. Could he be too isolated for this stance to be dangerous?
It’s true that Trump has virtually no allies at the top of the GOP when it comes to his new crusade to delegitimize the results of a presidential election. When Charles Krauthammer, a conservative pundit who gave Trump more rope to hang himself than many, calls his stand “political suicide,” and when a proven right-wing nutcase like Maine’s governor Paul LePage tells Trump to “get over yourself,” you know you’re out on the fringe.
But being on the fringe does not mean Trump is isolated. It’s not for nothing that, as the Boston Globe recently reported, his supporters are talking about armed uprisings and assassinations if he doesn’t win. These furies have been fueled not only by Trump but by his campaign chieftain, the Breitbart warrior Stephen Bannon, and the whole alt-right zoo that has now found a home in the Republican Party. Are there enough of these people to win a national election? No, but let’s not forget that the polls (the real polls, not the online “polls” cited by Trump) consistently show that roughly 40 percent of those watching felt that Trump won this week’s debate. There are more than enough of them to make the election and its aftermath hell. Before the debate, after all, Trump was all but inviting those “Second Amendment people” he’d previously encouraged to take aim at Clinton to take their guns to polling places in cities with major black populations to intimidate minority voters. The Times reports that few are heeding his call. But it only takes a few to turn Election Day very dark indeed. This is what we should be worrying about rather than another empty threat by Trump to file a lawsuit if he doesn’t like the election results.
What the Republicans who are separating themselves from Trump this week don’t seem to realize is that they are too late — way too late — to hop off Trump’s kamikaze mission unscathed. Instead of releasing press statements taking issue with Trump’s latest ravings — and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell haven’t even done that, by the way — they might start making some amends by mobilizing behind a proactive plan to keep the Trump mobs from interfering with voters on Election Day. But given the larger GOP’s record of trying to suppress minority voters with unconstitutional state laws and lying — a project that long precedes Trump’s ascent — they are unlikely to do so. And they will own whatever happens on Election Day.
The standard narrative of the past few weeks blames Trump’s fortunes on his own missteps, but after the last debate some pundits are coming around to the idea that Hillary Clinton set a series of very effective traps. Should she get more credit?
Without question, Clinton set a brilliant trap near the end of the first debate: her telling of the story of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who was a twofer as a victim of Trump bigotry — he’d disparaged her both as a woman and as a Hispanic. His campaign has never been the same since. The airing of this incident set him off on a Twitter bender and set the stage for an outpouring of sexual-assault allegations (some of which were seemingly confirmed by Trump himself, with Billy Bush as prompter). What’s also been impressive about Clinton’s debate performances was her sheer professionalism as a debater: She was usually poised, retained her sense of humor, and steadfastly avoided getting down in the muck with Trump under very trying circumstances. Best of all, she executed superb psychological warfare, irritating him with her continued use of “Donald,” confronting him with precise regurgitations of some of his most embarrassing quotes, and maintaining her self-control so that he could hang himself with his constant interruptions, his bizarre stage perambulations in the town-hall debate, and a repertoire of inane or blustery facial expressions that made you wonder if he was channeling Alec Baldwin rather than the other way around.
He was so amateurish that you have to ask again: Why did so many conservatives go into primary season convinced that the field of Trump opponents was so talented? That field of 16 was up against a guy who did no preparation, knows no facts, runs out of attention span and stamina like clockwork after 15 minutes on stage, and in general behaves like a child with ADHD who has no parent at home to make sure he takes his medication. The universal excuse for his GOP opponents’ poor performances was that with so many of them cluttering the stage they had no chance to slay him. My alternative theory is that they were ill-prepared, lazy, and made no attempt (as Clinton did) to study and game out the narcissistic buffoon they wished to vanquish. They lost not because there were so many of them, but because Trump in fact outsmarted them in the arena.
Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that Clinton had her problems in the debates, some of them visible at the final one: She has never come up with a persuasive explanation for her email carelessness and she offers no real defense for the many conflicts of interest haunting the Clinton Foundation. Compared to Trump’s transgressions — including, as Clinton pointed out, his own utterly bogus “foundation” — hers are misdemeanors. But the first thing she should do on November 9 is shut down the Clinton Foundation and find a transparent, independent mechanism for adjudicating any ongoing conflicts between its donors’ interests and a Clinton administration.
In a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted last weekend, only 24 percent of Republicans said that, if Trump loses in November, he should be the national face of the GOP (and only 15 percent picked Ryan). Is there anything the party can do to bring itself together?
Far and away the most interesting thing about the poll is who Republicans’ want most as the public face of their party: Mike Pence (at 27 percent, only slightly ahead of Trump). Pence is a raving homophobe and anti-abortion-rights zealot whose gubernatorial endorsement of a “religious liberty” law in Indiana last year had to be walked back lest it devastate business in his own state (much as has happened in North Carolina after its Republican governor signed on to a legislative trampling on LGBT rights). Pence’s popularity at home was collapsing at the time Trump alighted on him; he was eager to join the ticket for the simple reason that without it he might have to go look for a job. In his short time on the national stage, he has been consistently caught lying, even when the proof of his dissembling is a Google search away on video, handy to be cut into a Democratic campaign ad within hours after he’d left the debate stage with Tim Kaine. This is the best the GOP has to offer?
Maybe so. The GOP elites would have it that Ryan is the great white hope (and I do emphasize white) of their party, the “adult” who will inherit the Earth once the Trump fever has passed. But as this poll shows yet again, the Republican base doesn’t want Ryan any more than it wanted a Kasich (10 percent). It wants another Trump, a new and improved Trump: That’s why the aggregate percentage in the poll for the base favorites of the GOP — Pence, Trump, and Cruz — is 70 percent as opposed to a total of 25 percent for Ryan and Kasich. So Pence is serving as a placeholder until the next shining demagogue comes along.