As of this afternoon, it’s hard to tell which current storm has been bigger – Hurricane Matthew, or the tempest whipped up by the release of a video showing Donald Trump making genuinely disgusting comments about women, and specifically about hitting on them as a big shot.
It’s possible that this disclosure will finally doom the Republican presidential nominee’s already dimming chance of victory in November. But it’s not inevitable, Trump, after all, has been written off before, including following similar revelations, and as of yesterday’s pre-video tape polls, remained highly competitive (though behind) both nationally and in swing states. And even this late in the fall campaign, any number of outside shocks could tip the balance in his favor – including a foreign setback for the United States, a major act of terrorism abroad or even at home, and new information about Hillary Clinton’s own heavy personal and policy baggage.
At the same time, each new Trump outrage makes his chances of defeating his Democratic rival more and more reliant on events he can’t control. That’s a position no one, office-seeker or not, should ever want to be in.
It’s impossible to imagine influencing the main substantive debate that’s broken out over the Trump video – whether what has been learned (anew?) about him is worse morally than what is known about womanizing by former President Bill Clinton and some of his predecessors, along with Hillary Clinton’s own treatment of her husband’s victims. But I can’t resist one relevant observation: Nothing could be more revealing about the deeply divided state of American politics than noting how many Clinton backers who are up in arms about the Trump news dismissed Bill Clinton’s late-1990s critics as (among other descriptions) hopelessly backward prudes, and how many Trump backers were then all over the former president as a reprehensible pervert unfit to hold office.
Largely because they’re still so uncertain, to me the purely political ramifications and questions – especially longer term – are much more interesting and important.
First of course comes tomorrow night’s presidential debate, and how both candidates will handle the Trump revelations. Even before the new video was made public, the first such contest and the vice presidential debate made clear that the Democrats were still counting heavily on spotlighting Trump’s closely related character and qualifications issues. The newest Trump outrages would seem to make this strategy more appealing than ever.
But after a while (which could range from 15 minutes into the debate to the entire period preceding election day) will this look like piling on to significant numbers of voters? Or will repetition make many eyes simply glaze over?
And crucially, how will Trump respond? The smart approach would be to apologize again, at somewhat greater length, and then call for focusing the rest of the evening – and the campaign – on issues. If Clinton persisted, Trump could sadly accuse her of wallowing and resume discussing jobs and the economy, national security, or immigration etc. Trump might also consider shifting the discussion to the potentially damaging release of transcripts of Clinton’s Wall Street speeches and what they signal about her views of America’s top financiers, the desirability of open borders, and the like. Yet too quick a pivot could too easily be read as simple tactical desperation on his part, not as a valid effort to introduce a genuinely worthy subject.
The next time Trump displays such political intelligence, however, will be the first. Indeed, he had exactly this opportunity at the end of the first debate, and hit back with a reference to Bill Clinton’s misbehavior and then a sustained attack on a former Miss Universe.
Second, it looks to me like the mainstream, establishment Republicans who Trump routed in the primaries are looking at his latest crisis as gift from the gods that will boost their chances of recapturing the party in time to prepare for the 2020 elections. Their thinking could not be more obvious. A Trump presidency could consign the establishment to irrelevance for several electoral cycles – which would hurt not only politically, but financially, since as a class their incomes depend on their ability to peddle influence. And this observation applies both to establishmentarians who currently make a living lobbying or consulting for political candidates or media outlets, and to office-holders eagerly eyeing such jobs at some point.
Even a narrow Trump loss could threaten their positions and livelihoods. But a landslide defeat for Trump would enable them convincingly to tell a critical mass of conservatives and Republican-leaning independents, “I told you so,” and push populist impulses and figures to the political margins – at least until the next economic downturn or national security-related disaster.
So every time you read a report about such an establishment Republican denouncing Trump’s transgressions, or calling for his withdrawal from the ticket, keep thinking about all the reasons why their denunciations aren’t necessarily high minded.
The final (for now) political question also concerns the future. And one way to think about it in this respect to remember Mikhail Gorbachev. No need to Google him (right now, anyway). He was the 1980s era Soviet leader whose efforts at domestic and foreign policy reforms were followed by the USSR’s collapse and the end of the Cold War.
It’s still an open question as to whether Gorbachev had a theoretically viable plan but simply ran out of time because the Soviet Union was so brittle economically and socially as well as politically that any serious talk of change at the top was bound to shake its foundations. There’s a powerful argument that Gorbachev actually was not nearly bold enough domestically, and foolishly tried to graft some free market practices onto an economy that he intended to remain fundamentally state-directed. Still others insist that the moment Gorbachev decided to allow Soviet bloc members to open their borders to the West, communism’s dominion over Russia and the rest of the USSR proper was finished. (Here’s a handy summary of many of the major pro and con arguments.)
But what’s important here for the future of American politics was the question that dominated American foreign policy circles from the moment Gorbachev’s apparent ambitions became…apparent: Was Gorbachev “sincere”? Or more accurately, it was a question that flowed from this query: Could someone like Gorbachev, who rose up through the Soviet system, truly stand for ideas that could in theory of transform that system?
Trump’s obvious personal shortcomings raise the same kind of questions for me. Principally, is it reasonable to hope for politicians to come up through the current political system, and therefore learn how to avoid needlessly alienating or scaring much of the electorate, but who will champion thoroughgoing populist-type reforms a la Trump? Or does succeeding within the system require such heavy reliance on establishment funding (on both sides of the aisle) as to frustrate any truly populist inclinations – and leave that space open to outsider alpha types who have learned to place supreme, overweening trust in their own judgment and capabilities, with all the resulting eccentricities, or worse?
That is to say, can Trump-ism without Trump become a viable movement? Can it attract the necessary resources and talent from outside the establishment? Evidence for a “No” answer is the fact that neither Trump nor his immediate ideological forebear, Ross Perot, have so far been able to pass crucial confidence and reassurance tests with the U.S. electorate. It’s of course rarely a good idea to say “Never.” But this admittedly small historical sample suggests that for a new, improved version of populism to emerge, the aftermath of these 2016 elections will need to be as rule-breaking as the campaign itself.