The ‘Oc­to­ber Sur­prise’ of Don­ald Trump

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - David Shrib­man Colum­nist David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.

No one ex­pected the “Oc­to­ber Sur­prise” of the 2016 cam­paign to be a video with a mem­ber of the Bush fam­ily recorded on his way to a cameo in a soap opera. Nor did any­one ex­pect the sec­ond pres­i­den­tial de­bate to take on the air of pro wrestling.

But Don­ald J. Trump’s decade­old lewd re­marks, and his sex­ual brag­gado­cio, on the set of “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” with host Billy Bush have thrown the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion into up­heaval. The video prompted Repub­li­can Party lead­ers to as­sess their op­tions, cre­ated fresh un­ease among GOP con­gres­sional and gubernatorial can­di­dates who have ex­tended a ten­ta­tive em­brace to Trump, and added new drama to Sun­day night’s de­bate at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis.

That de­bate swiftly de­te­ri­o­rated into a he-said/she-said bat­tle, with for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton ques­tion­ing Trump’s fit­ness for of­fice and Trump as­sert­ing that his ri­val de­served to be in jail. The two bick­ered over who was the big­ger en­emy of women. And they called each other liars.

The 2016 cam­paign has been un­prece­dented in the un­pre­dictable forces it has un­leashed, in the new fron­tiers of cam­paign com­port­ment it has cre­ated, in the chaos it has sown in es­tab­lished party align­ments, and the un­ease it has cre­ated among party lead­ers and vot­ers.

One of the early ca­su­al­ties was in re­defin­ing the bound­aries of ac­cept­able cam­paign lan­guage.

That was be­fore crude anatom­i­cal de­scrip­tions and coarse ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion be­came a po­ten­tial turn­ing point in the cam­paign. Even in a coun­try that en­dured the pres­i­den­tial im­peach­ment of Bill Clin­ton, pre­ceded by a re­port from in­de­pen­dent coun­sel Ken­neth Starr that shared many el­e­ments with pornog­ra­phy, the re­marks of Trump shook the coun­try.

Like the course of the cam­paign, the im­pli­ca­tions of this episode are im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. But at the very least, Trump, whose de­bate prepa­ra­tions were dis­rupted by the furor over his re­marks, faces pos­si­ble ero­sion of sup­port from mem­bers of sev­eral vi­tal voter groups, not least of them women, whose sup­port he strug­gled to win long be­fore the re­lease of this video.

Also at risk: Sup­port from Repub­li­can can­di­dates who were re­luc­tant to back him in the first place; the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, which has re­garded him with fear and con­tempt and has in large mea­sure with­held its sup­port; re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives who were trou­bled by his three mar­riages and now have rea­son to re­assess their sup­port; some late ad­her­ents to the Trump cause who, un­like the Trump True Be­liev­ers, sup­ported the mes­sage while re­tain­ing their skep­ti­cism of the mes­sen­ger.

The only prece­dents for the Trump im­broglio oc­curred ear­lier in the elec­tion cy­cle than this one, a month be­fore Elec­tion Day and as some Amer­i­cans are tak­ing ad­van­tage of early-vot­ing pro­ce­dures in their states or are cast­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

The most fa­mous in­volves charges that Sen. Richard M. Nixon had a “slush fund,” a claim that roiled the 1952 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in late Septem­ber, un­set­tled GOP nom­i­nee Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower and prompted Nixon to go on the air with what is now known as the “Check­ers Speech.”

Trump has tri­umphed by show­ing, and oc­ca­sion­ally am­pli­fy­ing, his con­tempt for the party whose nom­i­na­tion he won. He has also made a virtue of his mis­cues, an ap­proach he reached for Fri­day evening when he ac­knowl­edged his faults but swiftly ex­plained that his na­tional cam­paign had ren­dered him a changed man, ar­gu­ing that the re­marks “don’t re­flect who I am.”

That once again is at the cen­ter of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign that a year ago seemed to be a ref­er­en­dum on his op­po­nent. Since the be­gin­ning of the year, the cam­paign has in­stead largely been a ref­er­en­dum on Trump, and now more than ever the choice in Novem­ber is over, as the can­di­date him­self put it in the mid­dle of his cur­rent cri­sis, “who I am.”

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