Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Trumpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall
Steve is back with his take on Donald Trump’s war on women, waged last week in Wisconsin...
The kryptonite that sapped Superman’s powers could only be found on his own planet. A tidy metaphor for saying that one’s greatest vulnerabilities often come from within; inextricably bound in one’s greatest strengths.
In the past two weeks, the elusive kryptonite desperately sought by the Republican establishment to slay Donald Trump may have finally been unearthed in a rapid-fire series of events running up to the Wisconsin Primary. Ted Cruz was the putative benefactor with a surprisingly large win that earned him the lion’s share of the state’s delegates. But he was not the dragon-slayer.
Yes, the only person capable of terminating Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations is Donald Trump himself. In Wisconsin, Trump finally, if unintentionally, revealed the blueprint for his own destruction.
The “fall” Donald Trump experienced in Wisconsin is not inherently catastrophic, but his self-inflicted wounds will give the “#stoptrump” movement the oxygen it needs to carry on, and has given his competitors an added dose of personal loathing that will motivate them to move in for the kill. John Kasich went public with his assessment that Trump is unfit for the office: “Donald Trump is clearly not prepared to be President of the United States, commander in chief, leader of the free world.” And the dark energy of loathing that Ted Cruz has channeled toward Trump in the wake of “Wife-Gate” is a black hole from which no light can escape. The level of personal animosity and disrespect cannot be walked back.
Winston Churchill might call it the end of the beginning: the Cruz victory in Wisconsin will ignite two months of open hunting season on Trump from his own party. Trumpty Dumpty indeed sought to build a great wall, but in Wisconsin, he had a great fall. And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men are unlikely to pull this party together again.
In Trump’s War on Women Wisconsin Week, three of Trump’s supposed signature “strengths” did him in: (1) “counterpunching,” (2) “going with his gut,” and (3) “sticking to his guns.”
1. Friendly-fire counterpunching
Trump’s zeal to counterpunch (“when someone hits me, I always hit back harder”) led him into an unseemly series of attacks on Ted Cruz’ wife from which he emerged looking like one of those sea gulls coated in slimy crude in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.
What is undisputed fact is that these Heidi Cruz Chronicles began with the appearance of a piece of campaign literotica in Conservative bastion Utah, in which Trump’s wife Melania was sprawled on a rug, semi-nude, with a headline “Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady.” Accusing Cruz of being the perpetrator, Trump was galvanized to defend the sacred honor of his wife with the traditional weapon of the patrician class -- the street gutter tweet: “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife.” This enigmatic, general purpose tweet-uendo implied that Heidi Cruz had committed some heinous act that Trump would somehow be honor bound to disclose if prodded further. It was character assassination in 144 characters.
This was followed by still more projectile Twit for tat: a side-by-side photo of Melania Trump and an extremely unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz, with the headline “No need to spill the beans. The images are worth a thousand words.” The retweet echoed Trump’s earlier and much-reviled insult about his view of Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance (“Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”).
Attempting to turn Ted Cruz into a wronged and even sympathetic character is not for the faint of heart, but Trump came very close to succeeding. Sadly his efforts were undone by Cruz himself, when the Texas Senator gazed into a bank of cameras and said, “If Donald wants to get in a character fight, he’s better off sticking with me, because Heidi is way out of his league.” It would have been a soaring bit of oratory – a bad-ass microphone-dropping head-butt -- had it not been a literal direct steal from Michael Douglas in Rom-Com The American President, who said, “You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.”
Wisconsin opted for the plagiarist over the misogynist.
2. Going with his gut, all the way out of his alimentary canal.
Trump’s tendency to “go with his gut” on policy issues caused him to reveal a cavernous ignorance on a crucial abortion issue, when he espoused perhaps the only position that right-to-lifers and pro-choice camps agree is utterly despicable: Punishment for women who have abortions.
No one has picked up on the tasty irony that the first journalist to truly gore Trump with a “gotcha” question was not a Fox anchor on a Roger Ailes search-and-destroy mission, but Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball. Matthews was anchoring one of those “town halls” in which a single candidate does Q&A with ordinary citizens, but the news network formula allows the moderators to weigh in.
Matthews’ schtick is Meet the Press meets Last Week Tonight; hard-edge interrogation executed at John Oliver’s galloping pace. When Matthews found the exceptionally soft underbelly of Trump’s ignorance exposed like a beached humpback, he was relentless:
Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?
Trump: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
Matthews: For the woman?
Trump: Yes, there has to be some form.
Matthews: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
Trump: Let me just tell you – I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.
Matthews: Why not?
Trump: I don’t know.
Matthews: You take positions on everything else.
Trump: Because I don’t want to – I frankly, I do take positions on everything else. It’s a very complicated position.
Matthews: By saying you're pro-life, you mean you want to ban abortion. How do you ban abortion without some kind of sanction? Then you get in that very tricky question of a sanction, a fine on human life which you call murder?
Trump: It will have to be determined.
Matthews: A fine, imprisonment for a young woman who finds herself pregnant?
Trump: It will have to be determined.
Matthews: What about the guy that gets her pregnant? Is he responsible under the law for these abortions? Or is he not responsible for an abortion?
Trump: Well, it hasn’t – it hasn’t – different feelings, different people. I would say no.
In watching the clip – and seeing the pauses, the moments of reflection, the hesitation – it is clear that none of these questions had ever been placed in front of Donald Trump before, so he had to trust that golden gut of his to come up with an answer. No big deal. He’s clearly been in this position before, and the worst that happens is a big quote, big headlines, domination of the news cycle.
But this time he guessed wrong. Hideously wrong.
Even the most passionate, unalloyed right-to-life candidate – the Marco Rubios and Rick Santorums who do not allow for exceptions even in the case of rape or incest – would never hold the woman criminally liable. No one at any point on the political spectrum agrees with the position that Trump took.
This was a moment of shocking revelation to the Republican right… it’s one thing for the core to navigate mounting evidence that Trump is a Mitt Romney caliber flip-flopper; a johnny-come-lately with core dogma. It’s quite another thing to face irrefutable proof that he does not even know what the core dogma is.
Then there is the manner in which the exchange with Matthews underscored a growing chink in the Trump armor: He is not doing the hard homework to learn the substantive policy information he will need in the general election campaign. In a debate with multiple candidates, Trump has consistently gotten away with brushing aside tough questions with broad pabulum about “we never win anymore” and “our leaders are stupid people.” The Matthews interview demonstrates Trump’s vulnerability in an environment in which he does not control the microphone and cannot bluster and fake his way through tough questions.
3. “Sticking to his guns” meant blowing off his toes.
What about that famous unwillingness to “back down”? Once his staff caught wind of his abortion gaffe, they didn’t just “walk it back,” they slammed it into the DeLorean and jolted the flex capacitor with a full sixty jigowatts praying to just make it back to noon central time. Their press release included the enchantingly disingenuous contention that “My position has not changed.” Perhaps what they meant was that the change they were announcing relative to the position he had taken three hours earlier was merely a re-instatement of the position he had taken when he first announced that his “official” positon on abortion as the outset of the campaign, which had itself represented a change in his position from those he held in his years as a non-candidate.
But that was far from all that this astonishing week had to offer.
Donald still found time to launch a new reality show, apparently entitled “Here She Comes, Miss Ogyny,” which starred his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was arrested and charged with battery for allegedly accosting Breitbart staffer Michelle Fields. This triggered Trump’s full NORAD, a fusillade of distortion, evasion, and victim-blaming. The most exquisite denial was reported in The New York Times with the dryness of a martini utterly devoid of vermouth:
“A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, Hope Hicks, said Tuesday that Mr. Lewandowski was ‘absolutely innocent of this charge,' that he would plead not guilty and that he had not been arrested but had merely been issued a ‘notice to appear.’ But Officer Joseph Beinlich, a spokesman for the department, said otherwise. ‘A notice to appear is an actual arrest,’ he said.”
And when, exactly, will people over 40 finally learn that there really are cameras everywhere?
The video of the altercation went viral faster than the Zika virus on a nude beach in Rio, leaving the Trumpeteers to parce the clip as if they had found the grassy knoll shooter in the Zapruder film. Trump oozed self-righteously that it would be wrong to fire Lewandowski on mere accusation and opinion (a bone for three seasons’ of Apprentices to choke on), and there’s no evidence that he even considered the reasonable step of suspending his campaign involvement until the matter was resolved.
What is to be learned from the Donald’s Wisconsin Cheddar Meltdown?
The story from the week in Wisconsin is simple. Underlying the backfiring of core tactics -- unwillingness to back down, the counterpunching, and the going with his gut – was an absolutely relentless theme of outright misogyny. Women in each of these incidents were insulted, belittled, criminalized, objectified, victim-blamed, and doubted in the face of video evidence.
As if castigating the Hispanic, immigrant, African-American, and LGBT population segments were somehow not enough in Donald Trump’s paean to the white American male who no longer sits at the center of the solar system, Trump is now unable to conceal his disdain for the minority that is actually a majority: Women.
Trump’s ugly week in Wisconsin was spent waging war against women. The Republican Party has picked one heckuva guy to take on what will likely be the first woman to be nominated by a major party as their candidate for President of the United States.
Don’t misinterpret this column. Donald Trump is moving to friendly country: he will do well in the Northeast, where Ted Cruz’s uncompromising extremism and social agenda are frightening. There will be the aura of renewed momentum. As we’ve been saying for months, it is probably too late to stop Trump from winning the nomination.
But this was Milwaukee, not the casinos in Vegas; what happens in Wisconsin does not stay in Wisconsin. The Lewandowski arrest, the abortion comments, and the cruelty to Heidi Cruz have created a new and profound narrative in Trump’s candidacy. The uneducated white male base will hold firm, but what was once the center no longer holds.
Here, in Wisconsin, is where the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s lack of knowledge, lack of judgment, and lack of compassion hit the iceberg; here is where the obscene boasts (“the women love me”) were proven to be brazenly delusional.
After Wisconsin, journalists from every point on the spectrum will now jockey to replicate the Matthews formula: one-on-one interviews with intense focus on policy, and absolute refusal to allow Trump to retreat and hide behind generalization and bombast.
Here, in Wisconsin, Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall. The bad news for the Republican Party is actually that it probably was not enough to derail his nomination. Rather, it revealed his candidacy to be grievously flawed in ways that will become a leaden weight on the Republican Party as the race shifts to the general election.
Of this much we can be certain of: all the King’s men cannot pull this party together behind Donald Trump.