“I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”
An old political friend once remarked, not altogether in jest, that the most “enjoyable” part of politics is watching a rival candidate meltdown. I confess to enjoying the secret and obviously perverse pleasure of seeing a candidate, typically one who has little if any business in the business of politics, crashing and burning.
The wounds that typically begin the meltdown are almost always of the worst type, self-inflicted, and often born of that frequently fatal political disease – hubris. The meltdowns almost always happen to candidates who are momentarily riding high and the next minute are struggling, like a drowning swimmer, to keep their head above political water.
My favorite line in politics is the one that holds “you can go from hero to zero just like that.” On the biggest stage – running for president – politics is a high wire act without a net. If the fall doesn’t get you the bounce certainly will. Zero is the score you get when you meltdown.
We can enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching and enjoying the inevitable meltdown even when we know it is coming. The anticipation makes it all the more special. The big ego and big mouth getting gassed by the candidate’s own hot air. The fatal line is often a throw away, initially unrecognized by the person beginning to melt. But as you watch the early stage of the meltdown you instinctively know this is it. We’ve seen this all before – the words that a candidate would wish to haul back, but of course can’t.
Next comes the confrontation with the press and the almost certain denial that our meltdown candidate meant what they really said. But the videotape doesn’t lie. Next comes the chorus of denunciation and the demands for apology, often accompanied by the first suggestions that the meltdown is going to be so damaging as to end the candidacy and therefore why not just call it quits. The meltdown enters the slow, steady burn phase.
Phase three of the meltdown begins when what the candidate said to ignite the meltdown in the first place starts to become compared to the candidate’s own record. Criticize a U.S. Navy veteran held captive and tortured for five and a half years who is then awarded the Silver Star versus, say, a candidate with a bunch of draft deferments. The pile of excelsior is now in full flame.
At this point there are two possible strategies: back off and say sorry or double down. Since hubris dare not apologize, double down is the default position.
Donald Trump, our current meltee, is a fully formed disgusting person. He’s made a lucrative career out of saying outrageous and almost always ridiculous things. The vast majority of Americans know that already. Those Republican primary voters who have momentarily vaulted Trump to the top of the polls on the strength of his “truth-telling” now have a look at what recent Italian politics have been like under the sway of Trump’s Latin alter ego.
“Those Italians whose art we bow down before and whose food we fetishize have a Trump of their very own, a saucy, salty dish of Donald alla parmigiana,” wrote – rather brilliantly, I think – the New York Times Frank Bruni. “They repeatedly elected him, so that he could actually do what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground.
Trump is Berlusconi in waiting, with less cosmetic surgery. Berlusconi is Trump in senescence, with even higher alimony payments.”
Trump’s attacks on John McCain’s military record – “he’s not a hero” – may not be the fatal blow that finally melts down his silly, unserious and ultimately hateful and harmful campaign, but if not this, something else – and soon. Americans enjoy a sideshow, but, so far at least, we’ve not elected a Berlusconi president. The “Real Trump of CNN” won’t play in the White House Situation Room.
Guys like Trump burn hot from the oxygen of publicity, including the kind of attention that holds that you can say anything as long as the name is spelled correctly. But soon enough, one can hope, a fire that consumes all the available oxygen burns itself out. The biggest current clown in American politics will melt into a puddle of his own making. The wicked witch in Oz comes to mind. Just like in the movie it will be a great scene to watch.