Sunday, December 27, 2015

I was wrong about Trump.

So admits Matt Bai of Yahoo as well, but we'll get to his take in a moment.  Here's what I wrote way back on November 13, six weeks ago.

Despite what I have said repeatedly about polls, I'm anxious to see what they reveal about a week or two from (the time Trump asked 'how stupid were the people of Iowa').  This feels like a turning point for a couple of candidates.   The conservative Borg has been completely unpredictable to this point, but a settling-out of the real lunacy of Trump and Carson to the regular loons of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio is somewhat overdue.

Ben Carson has indeed faded, but Trump's position in the polling has strengthened in the days since.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, in time spent with family and friends, I asked the considerable number of conservatives and Republicans among our brood what they thought about the Donald.  All but one cringed and shook their head.  The one supporter -- who received his most recent book as a Christmas present and was delighted -- posed for a photograph at our Turkey Day meal at a Beaumont hotel ballroom, and just before the snapshot, I yelled, "Smile and say BERNIE SANDERS!"  A few minutes later she leaned over and told me quietly, "I get his e-mail; I like him".  I replied, "there's hope for you yet!"

So from an anecdotal perspective, I truly don't know what to make of the Trump phenomenon.  Matt Bai agrees with my status today, however ...

For many months now, like the anxious producers of some hot reality show, the American media has been waiting for Donald Trump to get up onstage and say the one thing that will lead to his swift and inevitable unraveling. (Waiting is not quite the same as hoping, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Sometimes it seems that Trump himself is trying frantically to find that edge of acceptable rhetoric and hurl himself over it, maybe because this business of running for president is a lot more tedious and exhausting than, say, crowning Miss Universe.

This week, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Trump told an audience in Michigan that Hillary Clinton had been “schlonged” in 2008 (a variation on the Yiddish word for penis that he seems to have invented on the spot, but that is now assured to outlive the Yiddish language itself), and he made fun of Clinton’s bizarre habit — “too disgusting to talk about” — of having to occasionally relieve herself in a bathroom.

He also clarified his difference with Vladimir Putin when it comes to these “lying, disgusting” reporters who cover him. “I hate some of these people, but I would never kill them,” Trump volunteered. “I would never kill them. But I do hate them.”

Well, that does it. If granting journalists a right to live doesn’t puncture Trump’s standing among conservative voters these days, then trust me, pretty much nothing will.

(By the way, note that Trump didn’t actually go so far as to condemn such violence, or even discourage it. He just declined to kill anyone himself. The man is busy.)

It’s time for me to admit I was wrong about Trump’s staying power. And it’s time for the rest of my industry to take a long look in the mirror and consider what we’ve wrought.

And so goes a fairly lengthy condemnation of the media coverage of Trump, which a week ago stood at approximately a 23-1 ratio to its coverage of Bernie Sanders.  I don't wish to enumerate once more all of the faults with corporate media news and politics coverage, especially since Bai does such a good job of it himself in the next excerpts.  He is most assuredly on point with the self-examination.

Because it’s clear now that Trump’s enduring popularity — his relentless assault on the weathered pillars of our public civility — is in no small part a reflection of an acid disdain for us.

Trump has always understood this. Look at the graphic terms in which he once attacked Fox’s Megyn Kelly. Or the way he viciously mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who excels despite a physical disability. Or how he publicly berated Katy Tur, an NBC reporter, for sport.

Playing off the media isn’t novel, of course. When George H.W. Bush ran for reelection back in 1992, somebody — maybe it was his campaign, since in those days there weren’t any super-PACS — made a bumper sticker that read “Annoy the media. Re-elect Bush.”

For many years after Bush lost, you could still see those bumper stickers on any highway in America. It had little to do with the candidate.

They lasted on bumpers of pickup trucks in Midland, Texas (where I was) well into the mid-90's, as Bill Clinton's election began the Republican descent into fury and rage.  Nineteen-ninety four also marked the last year a Democrat was elected to a statewide office in Texas.

But that was a statement on liberalism and elitism, a kind of cultural homogeneity inside the nation’s largest media institutions. It was almost respectful. Bush would never have used the word “hate,” and neither would the people with the bumper stickers.

This is something more visceral, an emotion that’s been building in all segments of the electorate, to some extent, for decades.

This is a simmering reaction to smugness and shallowness in the media, a parade of glib punditry unmoored to any sense of history or personal experience. It’s about our love of gaffes and scandals, real or imagined, and our rigid enforcement of the politically correct.

It’s about the reflexive partisan fury we’ve been inciting in this country ever since the earliest days of cable TV, and more recently on the blogs and op-ed pages of newspapers that once set the standard for thoughtful deliberation but now need the clicks to survive.

This is dead on, and a little nauseating personally. 

And yet somehow, when the perfect and professional reality-show star comes along, utterly lost on policy but brilliant at harnessing resentment in long, incredibly watchable tirades, observers like me think his success must be short-lived. Why?

(And before you tell me Trump is more qualified to be president than a first-term senator from Illinois was, consider his final answer, after much evasion, when asked about the country’s “nuclear triad” in the last debate: “I just think nuclear — the power and the devastation are very important to me.”)

Trump is entirely different from a Barry Goldwater or a Pat Buchanan. He isn’t a conservative populist penned in by the outer boundaries of what’s politically constructive, bred ultimately to admire the same institutions he assails. I don’t think Trump has any fierce political conviction that couldn’t be abandoned overnight, just as fiercely.

Trump is an emotional extremist. He’s a pure performer, trained to manipulate the audience and mindful of no consequence beyond the ratings it produces.

Just don't believe the Facebook meme.

(I)t’s clear there’s a powerful symbiosis between Trump and the media. We need him for the narrative power, for the clicks and debate ratings and sheer fascination factor. He needs us for the free publicity and the easy, evocative foil.

Trump’s most useful opponent, the one who causes his most fervent following to stick, isn’t Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or even Hillary Clinton. It’s us.

So when I say there’s a difference between waiting and hoping, this is what I mean. This is the essential paradox that the American media has created for itself, and you can feel it becoming less and less tenable right now.

On one hand, we’re bewildered by the reality that a man can so debase our politics and continue to rise in polls, as if all the rules we’ve inherited and enforced are no longer remotely relevant. But at the same time, we need our standout contestant to hang around for sweeps week. He’s the star of the show.

We want to see Trump get “schlonged” for the same reasons we can’t bear to lose him, and he understands that dynamic better than anyone alive.

Do I think Trump is going to be the Republican nominee? No, I don’t. At the end of the day, I still tend to think he won’t win a single state. But I’ve been wrong about him so far, and I’ve very little confidence that I won’t keep being wrong for a while.

I think Bai is wrong: Trump shows no sign of losing momentum that I can discern.  The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson, via Prairie Weather, thinks the same as Bai, mostly because Trump's support includes a number of people without a clue as to how retail politics actually works.  If those two get it right, I'll refer back to this post in some future one with a plate of crow in front of me.

What I get from the WaPo article is that they're mad, but they're still not mad enough to get even.

(Randy and Bonnie Reynolds,) the West Des Moines couple who have two grown children, had never been to a political event before. Bonnie works in a mailroom; Randy is a press operator. They don’t live paycheck to paycheck, but it would take just one small catastrophe to push them there.

“In the end, everything that he’s saying might not happen if he is elected — but I’m willing to give it a shot,” said Randy Reynolds, 49, who used to vote for Democrats but switched to Republicans a decade ago. “I will give him 100 percent. . . . It would be amazing if the majority of things that he said would actually happen. That would be amazing.”

So, obviously, the couple plan to caucus for Trump on Feb. 1?

“We’re going to see,” Reynolds said. “With kids and grandkids and all this, it’s kind of hectic. . . . We’ll look into it. If our time is available, then yeah, maybe we’ll do it. Maybe. We’ll have to see.”

And ...

Linda Stuver, 61, said Trump is her top pick, although she also likes Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. During the last election cycle, she went to a rally for Mitt Romney, her first political event. The Trump rally was her second.

“This is only my second time I’ve ever been to one of these — that’s how annoyed I am with what’s happening to our country,” said Stuver, who lives in Des Moines and says she raised four children by cleaning houses and working other low-level jobs. “I can’t even have Obama be on TV anymore — I have to shut it off, that’s how irritated I am. Us old folks have seen a lot, and what’s happening in our country is not right.”

Is she annoyed and irritated enough to caucus?

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “I never have.”

Caucuses have always rewarded the most committed activists, which is why Hillary Clinton and the Texas Democratic Party lackeys minimized the influence of precinct conventions in the Lone Star State after Obama won them, and a very slim majority of Texas delegates, in 2008.  Can't blame that one on Debbie Wasserman Schultz (her fingerprints aren't all over it, that is).

It could be that Trump's support is a mile wide and an inch deep, and if so, and Ted Cruz pulls the upset in Iowa because his crew outworked the Trumpers, then the establishment's last gasp might wind up being Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or even John Kasich in New Hampshire.

After that is South Carolina, and Cruz -- or Trump -- might be on too hard a roll to slow.

Refer back to here and consider how convoluted the circumstances might get if Trump or Cruz is the nominee, and the establishment withholds support and tries to broker a compromise candidate next summer.  And then Laugh Out Loud.

Update: Here's an interesting take from Eclectablog, who sees Cruz winning the nomination even as Trump maintains his lead in the polls.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

I linked to this, plus Prairie Weather's piece on the roundup, in a blog post I've just got up. I'm still unsure how much Trump can get out in Iowa voters. He seems to have a very top-down campaign that's not friendly to Iowa needs, but yet, he's hired GOTV/C staffers.

New Hampshire, with crossover voting and traditions of independence, could be even more interesting for both sides. Do some Dems vote Trump as spoiler? Do some Rethugs do the same with Bernie? (Reportedly, a fair chunk of Clean Gene's 1968 votes were GOP crossovers.)