Out of his depth, Trump clings to de­cep­tion

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— There is a story from the his­tory of pro­fes­sional wrestling in which a man­ager named Fred­die Blassie comes to the edge of the ring and, while the ref­eree is dis­tracted, of­fers his cane to break over the head of the op­pos­ing wrestler. Af­ter the match an in­ter­viewer asked Blassie, “Where’s that cane of yours?” He replied, “What cane? I didn’t have no cane!”

Dur­ing the last po­lit­i­cal year, life has im­i­tated pro­fes­sional wrestling. Those ex­pect­ing such an­tics from Don­ald Trump dur­ing the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate were not dis­ap­pointed. When con­fronted with his claim that global warm­ing was a hoax per­pe­trated by the Chi­nese, Trump replied, “I did not [say it].” He did. When Trump’s claim that he could not re­lease his tax re­turns be­cause of an IRS au­dit was ex­posed as false, he still in­sisted on it. When charged with say­ing that he could per­son­ally ne­go­ti­ate down the na­tional debt, he said this was “wrong.” The charge was right. When Trump’s trans­par­ently de­cep­tive claim to be an early op­po­nent of the Iraq War was de­bunked, he dou­bled down in a bab­bling de­fense cit­ing Sean Han­nity as the ul­ti­mate ar­biter.

It is not sur­pris­ing that Trump in­hab­its his own fac­tual uni­verse, in which truth is de­ter­mined by use­ful­ness and lies be­come cred­i­ble through rep­e­ti­tion. What made the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate ex­tra­or­di­nary — re­ally un­prece­dented — was not the charges that Trump de­nied, but the ones he con­firmed.

When Hil­lary Clin­ton claimed he didn’t pay any fed­eral in­come taxes, Trump said: “That makes me smart.” When Clin­ton ac­cused Trump of de­fraud­ing a con­trac­tor out of money he was owed, Trump re­sponded: “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was un­sat­is­fied with his work.” When Clin­ton crit­i­cized Trump for ca­sual misog­yny and for call­ing women “pigs,” Trump brought up Rosie O’Don­nell and said, “She de­serves it.” When Clin­ton re­called a Jus­tice Depart­ment law­suit suit against Trump for hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, he dis­missed it as “just one of those things.”

When Clin­ton at­tacked Trump for cod­dling the Rus­sians, Trump at­tempted to ex­cuse them of hack­ing, shift­ing the blame to­ward obese com­puter geeks. When Clin­ton ac­cused Trump of be­tray­ing Amer­i­can al­lies, Trump an­swered: “We de­fend Ja­pan, we de­fend Ger­many, we de­fend South Korea, we de­fend Saudi Ara­bia, we de­fend coun-

WASHINGTON

tries. They do not pay us. But they should be pay­ing us. ... We can­not pro­tect coun­tries all over the world, where they’re not pay­ing us what we need.” Rather than af­firm­ing the im­por­tance of NATO, or re­as­sur­ing our Pa­cific part­ners — the easy and ex­pected an­swer — Trump re­duced Amer­ica’s global role to a pro­tec­tion racket, run by a seedy ex­ec­u­tive who ad­mits to cheating con­trac­tors when he is “un­sat­is­fied with [their] work.”

Dur­ing the de­bate, the points scored against Trump were dam­ag­ing. But the points he ceded would dis­qual­ify any nor­mal politi­cian, in any nor­mal pres­i­den­tial year.

Trump has made some po­lit­i­cal gains over the last few weeks through greater dis­ci­pline — speeches from teleprompters, care­fully se­lected me­dia in­ter­views, no news con­fer­ences, a Twit­ter ac­count in the hands of oth­ers. But the can­di­date has in­ter­nal­ized none of this. He might as well have sung “I Gotta Be Me” as his open­ing state­ment in the de­bate. It was Trump un­plugged, and of­ten un­hinged.

Past de­bate crit­i­cism has looked for hints and signs to de­ter­mine losers — a can­di­date, say, looked im­pa­tiently at his watch or sighed in an off-putting way. Rhetor­i­cally, Trump drove a high-speed train filled with fire­works into a nu­clear power plant. He was self-ab­sorbed, prickly, de­fen­sive, in­ter­rupt­ing, baited by every charge yet un­pre­pared to re­fute them. Dur­ing his share of a 90-minute de­bate, he was hor­ri­bly out of his depth, in­ca­pable of string­ing to­gether a co­her­ent three-sen­tence case. The post­mod­ern qual­ity of Trump’s ap­peal cul­mi­nated in an un­bal­anced rant claim­ing, “I also have a much bet­ter tem­per­a­ment than she has.” An as­ser­tion greeted by au­di­ence laugh­ter. And Trump con­cluded his per­for­mance by prais­ing him­self for his own grace and re­straint, dur­ing an evening that showed him to be nasty, wit­less and de­cep­tive. It should now be clear to Repub­li­cans: Van­ity is his strat­egy.

Trump’s de­fend­ers will charge his crit­ics with elitism. The great pub­lic, it is ar­gued, gets Trump in a way that the com­ment­ing class does not. But this claim is now fully ex­posed. The ex­pec­ta­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity is not elitism. Co­her­ence is not elitism. Knowl­edge is not elitism. Hon­or­ing char­ac­ter is not elitism. And those who claim this are de­bas­ing them­selves, their party and their coun­try.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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