“To the best of my knowledge, not too many Evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that.”
– Donald Trump questioning Ted Cruz’s Christian beliefs.
If you are one who remembers important dates in history you might etch February 18, 2016 into your memory – as good a day as any to mourn the demise of the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan.
On February 18 two things happened – seemingly unrelated, but really not – that could well define an otherwise indefinable political season: Donald Trump got into it with the Pope and was shown (again) to be lying. Each event should have been enough to halt the arc of the demagogue, but it didn’t happen and it won’t unless serious Republicans start taking this guy seriously.
Did any of us ever in our wildest, craziest political dreams expect the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States to shout down the Pope? Or put another way could we have imagined a political candidate behaving so outrageously that the Pope, who presumably has better things to do, felt compelled to condemn them?
Never. Not going to happen. But it did on February 18.
Pope Francis made a demonstratively accurate observation when asked about Trump. People who only advocate building walls and demonizing immigrants (or refugees) are not behaving in a Christian manner. Trump, a man utterly devoid of Christian principles and even more lacking in self-reflection or awareness, made the Pope’s critique not about the substance of what constitutes appropriate behavior, but about Trump being disrespected by the leader of the world’s Catholics. Amazing. Utterly amazing.
Trump, of course, then proceeded to win the evangelically dominated South Carolina Republican primary last Saturday, at least in part I suspect, because he got into a fight with the decent, inclusive, compassionate, highly educated Jesuit who just happens to be the Bishop of Rome. You can almost hear Trump channeling another famous authoritarian with an ego problem and asking, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Pope is a low energy loser, as we all know, compared to a guy who arrived at his own announcement riding an escalator.
Hours later during a made-for-cable TV event – I forget whether it was a town hall or a merely an excuse to sell commercials – Trump was confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he has been lying about having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. The real estate developer cum reality television star has been saying for months that his brilliance about all things allowed him to see clearly and oppose the U.S. invasion. Trump doubled down on his Iraq critique in a recent debate – or was it an excuse to sell commercials – suggesting that George W. Bush “lied” about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the interest of launching an invasion. The debate audience booed. His poll numbers solidified.
Turns out that Trump gave a radio interview in 2002 where he said, contrary to all the bluster about his prescience, that the war wasn’t really such a bad idea. In fact, he said he wished the United States had done things right and overthrown Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war. Asked to explain the lie, Trump didn’t. “I really don’t even know what I mean, because that was a long time ago, and who knows what was in my head,” Trump told NBC.
Indeed, what is in that head now or a long time ago?
February 18, the day the grand old party died…
Trump owns the only part of the Republican Party that anyone (other than John Kasich) is appealing to – the angry, grievance wing. The real estate developer has used the political equivalent of eminent domain to appropriate the older, whiter, less educated, “working-class” voters who, near as I can tell, hate everything except the billionaire who stars in their own reality show. And, of course, Trump is a master at stoking and exploiting this group’s fears and hatred. In the 19th Century these voters were called the “no nothings” – anti-immigrant, anti-establishment and anti-Catholic, which may help explain Trump and Pope Francis come to think of it. But, above all they were angry. Their great, great grandchildren still are.
There are two broad approaches to politics: hope and fear. Trump has nailed down the fear factor.
The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein described Trump’s approach leading up to last week’s primary: “All week in South Carolina, Trump courted those working-class white voters by sharply raising the volume on his criticism of free trade and his warnings about the threat from Islamic terrorism. Both of those issues somewhat overshadowed his usual promises to both build a massive wall at the Mexican border and to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.”
There is so much to loath about the current state of American political discourse and the process seems increasingly absurd: Trump, Ted Cruz’s sleazy campaign tactics, Marco Rubio’s robotic performance, Hillary’s entitlement and problems with the truth. Even the most authentic guy in the race, Bernie Sanders, has so far displayed little ability to grow as a candidate. Sanders is good at repeating the same economic talking points, but hardly makes a pass at explaining how he might actually accomplish his vision, let alone pay for it. Neither party can find the will to really undertake the kind of serious, rational campaign America needs and most Americans want.
But set aside loathsome and deal with something more fundamental – basic common sense and honesty. Trump has no idea about how to govern and really makes no effort to display that he does. His appeal is entirely emotional. His policy is all bans, bluster and bravado. He would violate decades of international law by embracing torture – waterboarding and “much worse.” Even Dick Cheney was nuanced enough to claim what he sanctioned was “enhanced interrogation,” not torture. No nuance with Trump. The waterboarding riff is now the biggest applause line at his rallies.
Yet, remarkably, the most dangerous man to run for president in the modern era stands poised to skate to the nomination with the support of essentially the 35 percent of the Republican electorate who find his outsized ego and complete disregard for seriousness a tonic for their anger and their aversion to “political correctness.”
The three-way race is now Trump’s to blow and who will stop him? One absolutely bizarre feature of this absolutely bizarre campaign has been the unwillingness of virtually anyone, well save for the hapless Jeb Bush, to take on the bloviating billionaire.
As GOP strategist Stuart Stevens said recently, “It’s crazy that’s nobody else is trying to win except Trump. Rubio is not going after the person who is winning. I’ve never seen a campaign that seems as satisfied to not go after the leader.”
And there is this: a new analysis of campaign spending by super PAC’s shows only a tiny amount has been spent attacking Trump. As the New York Times reports, “In a presidential campaign during which ‘super PACs’ spent $215 million, just $9.2 million, or around 4 percent, was dedicated to attacking Mr. Trump, even as he dominated the polls for months.”
If Jeb’s candidacy illustrates nothing more, and his candidacy was extraordinarily vacuous, it shows that letting a bully push you around without responding doesn’t work any better on the playground than on the Republican debate stage. Only after Trump had, in the words of GOP wise man Steve Schmidt, “emasculated” Bush did the former Florida governor begin, sort of, to hit back. But there has been none of the frankly legitimate and necessary attack on Trump that goes after his often disgraceful business practices, his sexual boasts, his four bankruptcies, or a hundred other excesses. Everyone knows a bully is basically insecure, scared. Who has guts enough to scare our national bully?
Were is the call from any responsible Republican that Trump show us where the money went from his alleged fundraiser for veterans prior to the Iowa caucus? Remember he skipped a debate, said he raised millions and poof – nothing. And what about his tax returns? Mitt Romney was savaged for not releasing his four years ago, yet Trump’s vaunted success as a businessman, the details of which might be illuminated by a look at how he arranges his financial affairs, has received virtually no scrutiny.
The failure to truly confront this dangerous man is nothing short of political malpractice.
Rubio and Cruz, the last men standing able to confront the great dissembler, are deeply flawed candidates who have reduced their campaigns to a hard right-wing spat over who has been the purest in refusing to deal with the obvious need to reform immigration policy. Meanwhile, untroubled by cable television interviewers or even the more serious Sunday shows who routinely let him “phone in” his clap trap, Trump insults, lies and Tweets his way to the Republican nomination.
Mitch McConnell vows to stop any nominee Barack Obama appoints to the Supreme Court, not knowing who the president might appoint, but does he say anything about Trump not being a suitable nominee for his party? Of course not.
“Establishment” Republicans whistle by the graveyard of good taste and common sense when it comes to Trump. Stopping him has quietly morphed into quiet acknowledgment that Trump may just be the guy and, if so, why tick off “the base.”
The country has real problems – wage stagnation, vast income inequality, our incredible lingering legacy of racism, high costs of higher education, a disjointed foreign policy that promises more continuing war – but we’re obsessed with a guy who can’t remember what he said about the Iraq war and wants to punch a protester “in the face.”
If I weren’t so depressed, I’d be distressed, or something. Like Trump, I guess I don’t really know what I mean. Maybe I just really worry for the country.
But, remember February 18, 2016. The day the party died.