–By Robert Kuttner – – – – –
Trump took a lot of things off the table.
This was going to be a tough election for Hillary Clinton. She represented continuity and establishment politics, at a political moment when unhappy voters wanted change.
She was pushing 70. Most of her prospective GOP opponents were more youthful, some of them a whole generation younger, reinforcing the image of Clinton as a candidate of the past.
She had a lot of baggage — Bill’s affairs, potential embarrassments from Clinton Foundation deals, a very long public record of public service, with inevitable gaffes and contradictions as targets. Even her strength in national security and foreign policy was blemished by misadventures such as the email mess.
And then along came Trump.
At first, it seemed as if Trump, in the role of faux populist, tribune of working class discontent, and media genius, might mean big trouble. But lately, Trump has been making Clinton look not just presidential; compared to Trump, she’s Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
He’s older than she is! So age is off the table.
Bill Clinton may be an odd first spouse, even a risky one. But ever since her plagiarism episode, Melania Trump has been missing in action. It now appears that she may have worked illegally for years in the U.S. on a tourist visa before she got her green card, which takes a certain zing out of Trump’s anti-immigrant rants.
The Clinton Foundation may have done some dubious deals. Clinton’s Wall Street speaking fees may have been outlandish. But compared to what? Trump’s stiffing of small business contractors? Trump University? His refusal to release his taxes? His serial bankruptcies?
The biggest worry for Clinton has been the risk of some major terrorist attack, which might drive voters to Trump as the strong hand in a crisis. But after last week, voters will have second thoughts about who has the steadier hand on national security.
Trump, himself a draft-dodger, insulted gold star families, and wouldn’t let up. He didn’t know that Putin had invaded Ukraine. He made casual comments about using nuclear weapons and abandoning NATO allies. On foreign policy, he reveals himself as an impulsive fool.
Republicans usually begin as the party superior at the mechanics of politics and the use of media. But Trump’s impulsiveness disdains professionalism, undermines the consistency of his campaign, and demolishes those structural advantages.
For one speech, on Friday, Trump actually managed to stay on message. After intense pressure from RNC chairman Reince Priebus, his own campaign staff, and anyone else who could get through to him, Trump reversed himself and announced that he was endorsing House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte after all. He even managed to avoid continuing the disastrous insults to the Khans and other gold star families.
But that discipline is very unlikely to continue. There has been a charming debate in the media about whether Trump’s bizarre character more closely corresponds to the American Psychiatric Association’s textbook definition of narcissistic personality disorder (grandiosity, self-absorbtion, lacking in empathy) or mania (inability to control outbursts, obessive “flights of ideas”).
I’d vote for both.
In the past week, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had some potentially awkward moments such as her mischaracterization of FBI Director Comey’s view of her truthfulness, and the revelation that the Administration had paid $400 million in cash to Iran as part of a prisoner exchange . But Trump, in his obsessive sensitivity to slights, managed to keep the (negative) spotlight on himself, and keep potentially damaging Clinton stories off the front pages.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Trump’s penchant for stealing attention was a positive—billions of dollars in free media. Now it’s a clear negative.
In the Democratic convention speech by Khizr Kahn and its aftermath, the Democrats stumbled on a strategy that will serve them well throughout the fall campaign: Goad Trump into responding with insults to a criticism on which Democrats clearly have the high ground, knowing that he is incapable of not taking the bait.
As the ancient Greeks put it, character is fate. It took a while for Trump’s true character to be revealed. But there it is, rampant, florid, and repulsive. Those who live by tweets perish by tweets.
In all likelihood, Trump will continue to amplify the splits in the GOP. The spotlight will stay on him — pulling younger voters, independent voters, sane Republican voters, and Bernie voters tempted by Jill Stein back into the Hillary camp.
All of this should be cause for relief, but not complacency. After all, a competent demagogue with greater mental stability — channeling racism, misogyny, white working class economic rage, anti-immigration anxiety and fear of terrorism — could well have beaten Clinton. Those demons will not be quelled any time soon.