And now, less than six weeks from the election, what is the main event of the day? A fight between the Republican presidential nominee and a former Miss Universe, whom he had 20 years ago called Miss Piggy and other choice pejoratives. Just a few weeks earlier, we were seized by a transient hysteria over a minor Hillary Clinton lung infection hyped to near-mortal status. The latest curiosity is Donald Trump’s 37 sniffles during the first presidential debate. (People count this sort of thing.) Dr. Howard Dean has suggested a possible cocaine addiction.
In a man who doesn’t even drink coffee? This campaign is sinking to somewhere between zany and totally insane. Is there a bottom?
Take the most striking — and overlooked — moment of Trump’s GOP convention speech. He actually promised that under him, “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end.”
Not “be reduced.” End.
Humanity has been at this since, oh, Hammurabi. But the audience didn’t laugh. It applauded.
Nor was this mere spur of the moment hyperbole. Trump was reading from a teleprompter. As he was a few weeks earlier when he told a conference in North Dakota, “Politicians have used you and stolen your votes. They have given you nothing. I will give you everything.”
Everything, mind you. “I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years.” No laughter recorded.
In launching his African American outreach at a speech in Charlotte, Trump catalogued the horrors that he believes define black life in America today. Then promised: “I will fix it.”
How primitive have our politics become? Fix what? Family structure? Social inheritance? Self-destructive habits? How? He doesn’t say. He’ll will it. Trust him, as he likes to say.
After 15 months, the suspension of disbelief has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice anymore. We are operating in an alternate universe where the geometry is non-Euclidean, facts don’t matter, history and logic have disappeared.
Going into the first debate, Trump was in a virtual tie for the lead. The bar for him was set almost comically low. He had merely to (1) suffer no major meltdown and (2) produce just a few moments of coherence.
He cleared the bar. In the first half-hour, he established the entire premise of his campaign. Things are bad and she’s been around for 30 years. You like bad? Stick with her. You want change? I’m your man.
It can’t get more elemental than that. At one point, Clinton laughed and ridiculed Trump for trying to blame her for everything that’s ever happened. In fact, that’s exactly what he did. With some success.
By conventional measures — poise, logic, command of the facts — she won the debate handily. But when it comes to moving the needle, conventional measures don’t apply this year. What might, however, move the needle is not the debate itself but the time bomb Trump left behind.
His great weakness is his vanity. He is temperamentally incapable of allowing any attack on his person to go unavenged. He is particularly sensitive on the subject of his wealth. So central to his self-image is his business acumen that in the debate he couldn’t resist the temptation to tout his cleverness on taxes. To an audience of 86 million, he appeared to concede that he didn’t pay any. “That makes me smart,” he smugly interjected.
Big mistake. The next day, Clinton offered the obvious retort: “If not paying taxes makes him smart, what does that make all the rest of us?” Meanwhile, Trump has been going around telling Rust Belt workers, on whom his electoral college strategy hinges and who might still believe that billionaires do have some obligation to pay taxes, that “I am your voice.”
When gaffes like this are committed, the candidate either doubles down (you might say that if you can legally pay nothing, why not, given how corrupt the tax code is) or simply denies he ever said anything of the sort. Indeed, one of the more remarkable features of this campaign is how brazenly candidates deny having said things that have been captured on tape , such asClinton denying she ever said the Trans-Pacific Partnership was the gold standard of trade deals.
The only thing more amazing is how easily they get away with it.