When facts, logic and history don’t matter
And now, less than six weeks from the election, what is the main event of the day? A fight between the GOP 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 AfricanAmerican 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 as Clinton 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.
Charles Krauthammer is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is letters@ charleskrauthammer.com.
It is hopelessly retro, but perhaps unsurprising, that womanhood has become a prominent issue in the presidential race. This has to be bad for Donald Trump, a hall-of-shame sexist — and good for Hillary Clinton, an actual woman.
It was political idiocy for Trump to fall into Clinton’s artfully laid trap at the debate Monday night when she mentioned how he treated the woman who won his Miss Universe pageant in 1996: “He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”
Clinton was referring to Alicia Machado, whom Trump threatened with taking away her title after she gained a few pounds. Trump seemed flustered and could only respond with a complete non sequitur — a defense of the many ugly things he has said about comedian Rosie O’Donnell, maintaining that “I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
I, for one, do not think O’Donnell, or any other woman, deserves being called “a slob” who is “disgusting” and has “a fat, ugly face,” among other gross insults Trump has hurled over the years. But aside from congratulating himself for his restraint in not saying something “extremely rough to Hillary, to her family,” Trump had no response to the question of his treatment of Machado.
But the following morning on “Fox and Friends,” Trump could not resist elaborating. He said of Machado that “she was the winner and, you know, she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem ... not only that, her attitude.” He called her “the worst we ever had. The worst. The absolute worst. She was impossible.”
Machado did go on a diet during her Miss Universe reign after gaining, she said, about 15 pounds. Trump went on Fox News again Wednesday and told Bill O’Reilly that by fat-shaming Machado, “I saved her job . ... And look what I get out of it. I get nothing.” So who here is being piggy? The Clinton campaign had anticipated that raising the Machado incident would get a rise out of Trump. He helped focus a spotlight on one of the more unsavory facets of his personality: an ugly, unrepentant sexism that would have been inappropriate even in the “Mad Men” era — and is lightyears beyond the pale today.
Trump’s surrogates are not helping. Newt Gingrich offered the defense that “you’re not supposed to gain 60 pounds during the year that you’re Miss Universe.” For Trump and Gingrich, both of whom have ample spare tires where their waists should be, to criticize anyone about his or her weight is ridiculous. Better to point fingers at each other rather than at Machado.
The Clinton campaign is already running a powerful ad in which Trump’s voice utters a string of sexist comments while the viewer sees images of young women. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is a pollster; she knows that most voters are women, and that women already favor Clinton by a wide margin. This terrain is potentially lethal to Trump’s hopes, but no one has yet managed to zip his lip.
Trump’s threat to say something “extremely rough” was a reference to Bill Clinton’s infidelities. For a man who has had three wives, and who cheated on the first two, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
The husband of the kettle, actually: I have a hard time believing that in this day and age, a man would actually try to blame a woman for her husband’s indiscretions. But that appears to be the cliff’s edge that Trump is hurtling toward.
Clinton, on the other hand, has the chance to make history. Not enough is being made of the obvious fact that she would be the first female president. Countries such as India, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Liberia have all reached this milestone before the United States. It’s about time.
When you watched the debate Monday night, you saw a woman who was prepared, poised and perfectly unflappable. And you saw a man who was trying to wing it, with little grasp of the issues and less ability to control his impulses. He bluffed and blustered. He insisted on “facts” that were unfactual. He interrupted his opponent constantly, apparently not grasping the concept of waiting one’s turn. He substituted chest-thumping arrogance for actual substance.
I’m guessing that many women who will vote in November might know a man or two who act that way. Not good for Trump.
Eugene Robinson is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is eugenerobinson@ washpost.com.