It is two months since Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, promising us a “Trump” who would now be “presidential.”
So let’s take inventory of the improvements.
He used his new platform to spew personal grievances at the “Mexican” judge — a native of Indiana — presiding over a lawsuit against the patently fraudulent Trump University. He accused American soldiers in Iraq of massive stealing. He revived the absurd claim that Vince Foster was murdered; suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; and expressed doubt as to whether Mitt Romney was a “real” Mormon.
In the wake of the Orlando massacre, he insinuated that American Muslims knew about prospective acts of terrorism; renewed his call for the surveillance of Muslim communities; and intimated that President Obama sympathized with ISIS. He appeared as the guest of a lunatic talk show host who claims that 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing were either fabricated or perpetrated by the federal government — assuring this madman that “your reputation is amazing.”
Confronted with a tape from the 1990s which he pretended to be a PR guy in order to brag about his own wealth and romantic conquests, Trump simply lied. Indeed his litany of lies accumulated daily and, it sometimes seemed, hourly. All the while he neglected the real work required of a general election candidate — organization and fundraising — preferring the roar of the crowd to the responsibilities of a leader.
Among GOP professionals, the light slowly dawned. The man who thrived in the hothouse of disinformation and resentment peculiar to Republican primaries was, ineluctably, a one — trick narcissist who has no second act.
Faced with their concerns, Trump told them to get over it. “Don’t talk,” he said of party leaders. “Please be quiet. [B]ecause they have to get tougher… they have to get smarter, and we have to have Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself.”
But left to his own devices, Trump has the self – destructive self – involvement common to malignant narcissists. He refuses to learn; or to bone up on policy; or to listen to advice; or, in general, to do anything which suggests a sense of obligation to his party — let alone the country.
Trump is his own campaign and his only cause, obsessed with feeding the boundless need for admiration fueled by his psychic emptiness. He is not “off — message” — in his own mind, he is the message. Thus his disastrous trip to Scotland was vintage Trump, rich, as ever, in the self- infatuation which renders him oblivious to everything and everyone but the wonder who is “Trump.”
He graced Scotland to, of all things, hype his renovation of the golfing resort at Turnberry — blithely ignoring the misgivings of party professionals racked with worry about the chaos of Trump’s campaign. Despite arriving mere hours after the Brexit vote, he devoted his press conference to, no kidding, a long account of how he had “made Turnberry great again” — “built to the highest standards of luxury” — capping this with a loving description of two hotel suites in a lighthouse. His numerous broken promises to the local community went conveniently unmentioned.
Pressed to address the small matter of Brexit on a day when markets were crashing worldwide, Trump cheerfully opined that a decline in the value of the pound would be terrific for his business interests. After a few gratuitous shots at David Cameron and some kind words for Vladimir Putin, he proffered the remarkable suggestion that the prospective breakup of the European Union was a good thing, intimating that — as, no doubt, everything does — it reflected the influence of his own campaign.
With his usual inattention to matters occurring outside his own head, he commended the Scottish people for “taking their country back” — ignoring that over 60% of Scots had just voted to remain in the European Union. Asked if he had consulted about these matters with his foreign policy advisers, he answered, “I’ve been in touch with them but there’s really nothing to talk about.” Including, it seems, the prospects of a global economic calamity.
As ever, oblivious. But no longer impervious. For the media worm has very much turned.
For weeks now, various media apologists have denied any responsibility for Trump’s rise — even though the $3 billion in free media he received had, in large measure, the journalistic rigor of an infomercial. Now a study from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard confirms that, during the primary season, the media gave Trump a boost unprecedented in modern political reportage.
Well before his poll numbers soared, the study shows, a wave of favorable coverage propelled Trump ever upward. This was essential to his success. He started with no constituency, credentials or organization worth the name – nothing but celebrity, a message of primitive outrage, and a media megaphone to spread it. No media, no Trump.
Whether from professionalism, shame or both, the media has started covering him in depth. For a mendacious ignoramus who has no depth, this is deadly.
No longer can Trump lie or change positions with impunity — reporters are checking facts and asking follow-up questions, the building blocks of decent journalism. And a few commentators dared to state what has always been true: that the only explanation for Trump’s behavior was a disqualifying psychological condition — narcissistic personality disorder.
This analysis allowed reporters — and Hillary Clinton — to assess Trump in terms of “character,” “judgment,” and “fitness.” And so, at last, the central question surfaced: “Who is this man?”
Trump’s answer was a blacklist of media banned from covering him, tended by the man himself, supplemented by verbally incontinent twitter attacks. His spleen knows no constitutional bounds — he has spoken of changing libel laws so that he could more easily sue the media, and using his power as president to target those which displeased him.
All this was duly noted. So, too, was Trump’s contempt for the rule of law in general. His assertion that judges could be disqualified based on their ethnicity. His prior attempts to disqualify judges who displeased him. His unconstitutional proposals to ban all Muslims from abroad, and spy on Muslim communities at home. His ludicrous threat to go after the Professional Golf Association for moving a tournament from one of his courses.
This behavior evokes a tinpot dictator from some banana republic — as rendered by The Onion. But Trump is the nominee of one of America’s two major parties. So the press began to examine his one supposed qualification for the presidency — his business career. Which, it transpired, was marbled with dishonesty, self — dealing, and catastrophic failures of judgment for which others, but seldom Trump, paid the price.
A favorite tactic was using the Trump name to pitch courses which have no actual value, in which Trump played no actual role. One such scam was “ Trump Institute,” a supposed wealth creation seminar for which Trump claimed “I’m teaching what I’ve learned.” In fact, Trump had nothing whatsoever to do with the course, whose real operators used plagiarized materials and were trailed by numerous charges of fraud and deceit. In the words of one participant: “ It was like I was in sleaze America. It was all smoke and mirrors.”
Thus Trump University — a pastiche of shallow seminars to which Trump lent his imprimatur but, the sales pitch notwithstanding, no actual thought. He did not, as advertised, handpick instructors or concern himself with content, let alone provide “priceless information” to make his students wealthy. Instead Trump U was an exercise in hucksterism, in which salespeople pressured the economically vulnerable to enlist in his most costly form of worthless education — the “Gold Elite Program.”
True, the Gold Elite Program is unavailable anywhere else — like Harvard. All this might be funny save for the pressure on students to incur often crippling levels of debt so that Donald Trump could get a little richer.
But preying on others has always been his modus operandi. In a devastating article, the New York Times explored Trump’s history in Atlantic City. The short of it is this: He put in little of his own money. He borrowed excessively, at ruinously high interest rates. He shifted personal debts to his casinos. He collected millions in salary, bonuses and expenses.
He took four trips to bankruptcy court. He stiffed investors, subcontractors and suppliers, ruining numerous small business people. His casinos lagged far behind the competition. His only gift, it seems, was for self- enrichment at the expense of others. As an analyst remarked: “There’s something not right when every single one of your projects doesn’t work out.”
Neither, when examined, would Trump’s plans for the American economy.
Moody’s Analytics, a respected research firm, studied the main components of his economic program: enacting large tax cuts slanted toward the rich; deporting millions of undocumented workers; and imposing tariffs on Mexico and China. Assuming that a President Trump got his wish list, Moody’s forecast a deep and lengthy recession; a 2.4% drop in gross domestic product; and a rise in unemployment to 7.4%. Add to this a $9.5 trillion drop in the revenues over decade; a ballooning deficit; and government borrowing at ever higher interest rates. Inevitably, inflation follows such disasters.
But then nothing in Trump’s business background had ever suggested that he knew anything about managing the world’s largest economy. Or, for that matter, a political campaign.
Trump’s primary campaign, it turns out, was a political Potemkin village — understaffed, financed on the cheap, and sustained by the gift of free media in unprecedented amounts. In the small world of Republican primary voters, this was enough to overwhelm a feckless field of opponents too busy sniping at each other to go after Donald Trump.
A general election campaign is a different matter. So is Hillary Clinton. And Trump is monumentally unprepared to deal with either.
Belatedly chartered to build an organizational and financial structure, professionals like Paul Manafort are digging out of a very deep hole. Trump’s campaign structure is skeletal. His minimal staff is, for the most part, short on experience. He has little or no infrastructure in key states. His Super -PAC is feeble.
Conflict within the campaign continues — new faces keep leaving shortly after being hired. Most recently, two members of Trump’s surrogate team quit, one after having been publicly contradicted by Trump. Firing Corey Lewandowski solved nothing; the problem is Trump himself. And the primaries taught him nothing but what a narcissist will always believe: that Trump himself is enough.
He has raised virtually no money. He barely tries. He repels donors. Unsurprisingly, more than $6 million in campaign money has gone to Trump businesses or to reimburse Trump and his family for expenses. The situation got so bad that, as June began, his campaign had but $1.3 million on hand. And so instead of campaigning in battleground states, he was forced through a gauntlet of emergency fund raisers in search of dollars to get up on the airwaves.
In the last week, we have seen yet another attempt — no doubt spurred by Manafort and company – to make Trump more sedate. As always, this effort was spotty — he responded to the tragedy in Istanbul by calling for waterboarding and more elaborate forms of torture. And when he read from a script, he trashed decades of Republican economic dogma, excoriating NAFTA and the TPP, denouncing free trade in general, and promising a trade war with China.
Here, for the party, the problem was not that Trump was a text deviate but that, to the express horror of the Chamber of Commerce and other Republican pillars, he quite deliberately deviated from protecting their interests. The idea, of course, is that Trump can round up the votes of white working-class folks damaged by globalization. But this has its own problems.
As the self-proclaimed protector of American workers, Trump must, as often, confront himself. His clothing and furniture products are made in countries he identifies as the enemy, like Mexico and China, and in the past he has exploited undocumented laborers. And, yet again, Trump exposed the rifts within the party, providing fresh evidence for the donor class — some of whom still fantasized about exercising a modicum of control – that Frankenstein had escaped the lab.
In truth, Trump can never escape his own compulsions. Within a day, he once more veered sharply off script — at a time when he desperately needs to consolidate party support by playing the statesman, he used a raucous campaign rally to lash out at former GOP rivals who have failed to support him, placing his personal grievances above all else. Surprise.
As this was happening, the Clinton campaign was battering him in battleground states with millions of dollars in negative ads. The Trump campaign could afford no ads. As one bewildered operative remarked: “It’s political malpractice.”
All this endangers Republican candidates in down ballot races, including for the Senate. To this Trump seems quite indifferent. Indeed — wholly contrary to the behavior of a normal nominee — Trump has suggested that he will leave the work of organizing in swing states to the already overtaxed Republican National Committee, further draining its resources. And so, at last, Reince Priebus is discovering how it feels to be a subcontractor for Donald Trump.
Pity poor Priebus. Much like a Trump casino, his party is headed for Chapter 11.
Two months in thrall to Trump have taken a serious toll. Trump’s poll numbers are slipping – every national poll shows Trump trailing Clinton. To the GOP’s dismay, the race is shaping up as a referendum on Trump.
Perhaps partisan polarization will spare Republicans the worst. But the GOP may well be tethered to a dead man walking who, in his death throes, will drag the party into his own grave.
Not, for Priebus, a cheerful thought.
But the show must go on. The Republican national convention looms ahead — zombie candidate or no.
And what a show it promises to be. Trump boasts that his very own convention will reflect his gift for “showbiz”. His main idea is for a “winner’s night” of sports figures to speak on his behalf: Bobby Knight, who once physically attacked his own player; Ben Roethlisberger, formerly accused of sexual assault; and Tom Brady, who merely deflates footballs.
This is partly driven by necessity — even rising Republican politicians otherwise hungry for attention fear speaking at Trump’s carnival in Cleveland. Such is the vacuum that Trump has proposed filling it with Sarah Palin, stretching nostalgia to the breaking point. So, like it or not, it’s a fair bet that we’ll be hearing from Trump’s wife and kids. Indeed, at one point a Trump advisor suggested that The Donald himself might speak on all four nights.
Faced with this, Apple joined a string of companies cutting or eliminating their financial support for the convention — oddly, they seem uncomfortable underwriting the coronation of a race – baiting demagogue. Indeed, some Republican delegates are so appalled by this prospect that they are mounting a desperate bid to block him which, while doomed, will surely add to the entertainment.
But the deeper meaning of all this is distinctly unamusing. For the convention will hold up a mirror to the GOP’s division, dishonesty, incoherence and shame.
To head off open dissent, Trump and Priebus have allied, admonishing delegates that repudiating their pledge to Trump violates party rules, and threatening to deny speaking slots to prominent officeholders – including John Kasich and Ted Cruz — who do not endorse him. The question is whether that they can stifle opposition to Trump at whatever cost, reducing the convention to an ersatz version of the Soviet Comintern, or whether a principled minority will be free to express their conscience for the country to see.
In his honorable opposition, Mitt Romney describes the stakes for his party and the country. Electing Trump, he said, could change the character of the country, licensing “trickle-down racism,” “trickle-down misogyny,” and “trickle-down bigotry.” Like Romney, the last two Republican presidents — the elder and younger Bush — have refused to endorse their party’s rogue nominee.
So, too, numerous Republican governors, senators, representatives, consultants, commentators, and foreign policy analysts. Senator Mark Kirk stated but one of many compelling reasons: “Donald Trump does not have the temperament to command our military or nuclear arsenal.”
Whatever their more personal motives, these men and women are doing what is often discussed but little seen — putting country before party. The Republican dilemma throughout the convention and beyond is that Trump was chosen, with a truly disturbing enthusiasm, by the party’s base voters.
And so most prominent Republicans have chosen to support him. Many barely mention his name. Instead they muster the most threadbare of excuses — that they owe it to the country to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president. And so they hope, not without reason, that they can use political polarization to stem off electoral disaster — by adding to it.
It is hard to describe how contemptible this is. Even viewed through the most partisan lens – GOP accusations of dishonesty, venality, poor judgment and bad policy choices — Clinton falls within the normal parameters of past major party candidates.
Not so Trump. In the history of presidential politics, he is a mutation — shockingly ignorant, unwilling to learn, indifferent to fact, addicted to lies, blindingly self- absorbed, reckless in his behavior, wholly unpredictable, and gripped by a profound personal disorder which renders him not merely unfit, but an existential menace to the country.
All the more shocking, then, is the GOP’s Stockholm syndrome — the effort to persuade themselves, and us, that through some mystical process this terminally unstable pretender can be channeled for the national good. Yet the GOP has already seen his unruly harbingers in prior races — Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. Here Republicans are captured in a black irony of contradictions: Trump is at once a nominee of unique and frightening incapacity, and the utterly predictable product of all the party has become.
To advance the economic agenda of its donors, ideologues like Paul Ryan contravened the desires of the base, embracing free trade, tax cuts for the rich, slashes in entitlements, and an immigration policy congenial to commerce. To secure the votes of its most embattled loyalists, they substituted scapegoats — government, minorities, welfare recipients and the godless. Their product was anger — not hope, not inclusion and not, in truth, much compassion for anyone but those who financed the Republican party.
On some level, people like Ryan and Priebus knew that this was a demographic cul-de-sac — hence the post — 2012 autopsy which argued for greater inclusiveness. But it was too late — for too long, resentment of minorities had been a critical bridge to less fortunate whites. And then came Donald Trump to give the game away.
He doubled down on xenophobia and racism directed at minorities — Hispanics, Muslims and, with scarcely less subtlety, blacks. As deadly, he ripped the mask off the GOP establishment, attacking free trade and defending entitlements. And the base rose up to follow him with a full – throated roar.
The Ryan agenda is comatose. The party’s trafficking in tacit racism is now overt. Its nominee views its leaders with contempt. Its various factions are at war, their incompatibility exposed. Threadbare of credible ideas, the GOP has become a compendium of plutocrats, conspiracy theorists, free-market purists, climate change deniers, anti — tax fanatics, gun nuts, racists, nativists, protectionists, fundamentalists and devotees of big oil, held together by dishonest rhetoric, diversionary attacks, and phony “facts.”
As malignant as he is, Trump is but a symptom. The disease lies deep within the GOP. That is why the party will still be sick long after Trump loses, a dead weight on the country which it has helped make sick at heart.