One supporter leaving Donald Trump’s rally in this increasingly blue suburb of Washington, D.C., remarked, with some relief, “Well, I didn’t hear anything over the top.”
Indeed she didn’t. The Trump event at Briar Woods High School was the third rally in a row in which Trump refrained from mentioning the Khizr Khan flap. But Trump still ended the day surrounded by controversy as far as the eye could see.
On the Khan matter, Trump no longer needed to provide fuel to keep the fire going. As fans drove to Briar Woods, talk of Trump-Khan dominated much of cable TV. And after Khizr Khan did a weekend and a Monday of high-profile media appearances, he stayed out of sight Tuesday as President Obama picked up the ball, telling reporters Trump is “unfit to serve” as president.
“The notion that he would attack a Gold Star family that had made such extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our country ??? means that he’s woefully unprepared to do this job,” Obama said.
The president spoke as the overflow crowd, 35 miles away, waited for Trump. The rally was in the school’s auditorium, which seated maybe a thousand people, less considering the areas set aside for the press and TV cameras. Even as the room filled, there were enough people to fill it (at least) once again waiting outside. Trump has adopted the time-honored practice of booking a too-small room and bragging about a packed house. But he left a lot of hopeful supporters standing in the hot sun, listening to his speech on a big outdoor speaker.
Trump’s speech was pure Trump, minus some of the things that have gotten him in trouble lately. These are some of the points he hit, in order, from my notes:
1) His Virginia golf club.
2) Hillary Clinton’s interview with Fox News Sunday.
3) Clinton’s claim to be a “change maker.”
4) His recent fundraising: $35 million, average contribution $61.
5) His intention to spend $100 million of his own money on the race.
6) His RNC acceptance speech.
7) His recent remarks on Russia.
8) His polls.
9) His media coverage, especially from CNN and the New York Times.
10) ISIS, Angela Merkel, European migration, and the border wall.
11) NAFTA and TPP.
12) Obamacare and the Supreme Court.
13) His coverage on Fox News.
14) Clinton’s refusal to have news conferences.
15) His endorsement by Carl Icahn.
16) China trade.
17) The Mexican wall.
18) The latest weak GDP report. (Note: It took Trump 53 minutes to get to the GDP news, which many Republicans consider one of their best arguments against giving Clinton what would amount to Obama’s third term. But he did get there.)
19) The Virginia economy.
20) His pledge to make America great again.
Trump’s supporters left the school auditorium happy. They told me they thought the speech was great, and even if they had been apprehensive going in about Trump’s lack of discipline in the Khan matter, they firmly believed he is the only choice for Republicans facing a possible Clinton presidency.
Most were probably on the way home when they heard about Obama’s gambit. This is just a guess, but it seems likely that hearing the Democratic president suggest Republicans abandon their nominee probably did not sit well.
But what was also happening as they headed home was that Trump was doing an interview with the (once banned) Washington Post in which Trump pointedly declined to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan for re-election. “I’m just not quite there yet,” Trump told the Post on the subject of endorsing Ryan.
Those, of course, were almost precisely the same words Ryan used when he pointedly refused to endorse Trump after Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee in May.
Trump’s words could only be described as trolling. And his trolling of Ryan showed, again, how little use Trump has for the conventions of traditional politics. Under those conventions, Trump should have referred to his “good friend” Paul Ryan and heartily endorsed the Speaker for another term. But Trump couldn’t do it. Back during the primaries, Trump would sometimes express amazement at politicians who clearly hated each other but then acted like buddies for public consumption. That’s not Trump. Three months after Ryan stuck it to him, Trump could not resist the opportunity to stick it to Ryan.
Just for good measure, Trump also refused to endorse John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.
The cumulative effect of the day ??? more fallout from Khan, the Obama “unfit” squeeze play, then the Ryan flap ??? settled on some Republicans like an additional ton of bricks on top of previous tons of Trump bricks. The commentator and former GOP operative Mercedes Schlapp, who supports Trump, appeared on Fox’s “Special Report” and described a feeling of deep weariness.
“There’s a NeverTrump camp, and then there’s the exhausted Trump camp,” Schlapp explained, “which is those individuals who have supported Trump, been willing to be on the front lines for Trump, but then at the same time, Trump has made these significant mistakes that he needs to clean up. And these Republicans are very worried that he’s not staying on message.”
That’s an understatement. Schlapp and others want to hear Trump pound home an economic message and attack the Obama/Clinton record. Trump does that, but not in the focused way GOP professionals want to see.
Back in February, after another Northern Virginia rally ??? it was for Marco Rubio ??? I talked with Republican voters who described to me their feelings of fatigue at the sheer intensity of the Trump-dominated campaign. At the time, the race was consumed with Trump’s interview about David Duke and the KKK, the Chris Christie endorsement, and Rubio’s emergence as a Trump insult comic. For some, it was just too much. “Everyone has a certain tolerance level for uncertainty, disorder, and controversy,” I wrote:
If a candidate’s campaign stays below that level, all is fine. If it climbs above that level, a voter may begin to think a candidate is more trouble than he’s worth. The voter sees the campaign as a taxing experience ??? it’s just one thing after another ??? and looks for an alternative choice.
The problem is, Trump has an apparently infinite tolerance for uncertainty, disorder, and controversy. He can be comfortable and prosper in a campaign that just wears some of his voters out.
Now there is an entirely new set of issues and controversies. But the fatigue is there, and even those Republican politicos who support Trump are having trouble making peace with it all.