Ok, ok…I admit it: that headline is sarcasm.
Sarcasm is a grade of humor about two levels above the tawdry pun but still a notch below limericks about Nantucket.
But sarcasm apparently has a new meaning in Trumpville. “Sarcasm” is what Donald Trump retroactively labels those of his utterances so disconnected from reality that you expect Rod Serling to appear over his left shoulder and announce that you have entered The Twilight Zone.
Late last week, the gossamer of Donald Trump’s wispy grip on reality seemed to dissipate entirely when the Meanderer-in-Chief announced that Barack Obama was the founder of ISIS. Invited – nay, begged -- by conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt to allow that his usage was merely metaphoric, Trump demurred, all but insisting that on the ISIS equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, you’d see the name Barack Hussein Obama featured in the “John Hancock” position.
By Friday this was “walked back” in much that manner that a schnauzer is “walked back” from a giant number two in Central Park, as Trump declared that this was all so much sarcasm.
The week’s downward Arc du Trumphe spiraled further when The Donald introduced a new immigration proposal which largely seemed to entail the robust pronunciation of a macho-sounding name. “Extreme VETTING!” Trump barked at his press conference, though he appeared to immediately reconsider whether the name sounded sufficiently laden with testosterone, and he therefore instantly rechristened the policy “Extreme EXTREME vetting.” Smugly, he stood back and admired his work, as if the policy itself had instantly become even more draconian by virtue of redundancy and decibels. In a candidacy that already has too many ironies in the fire, Trump tossed on this fresh log: “Those who support bigotry and hatred will not be admitted for immigration into our country.” Perhaps Trump is actually right: this may be one category in which the United States has already filled its quota.
Indeed, the heart monitor inside Trump Tower was flat-lining as Trump appeared to be prepping his faithful with the prospect of defeat by claiming that the election would be rigged, and that a Trump loss in Pennsylvania could only be explained by voter fraud. If the latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll in the Keystone State is correct, then the margin of such voter fraud would have to be 769,070 voters. This is roughly 769,039 more cases of voter fraud than were recorded in all fifty states in the 2012 presidential election (uh, that would be 31). But mark our words: what could possibly be more predictable behavior from Donald Trump than a lawsuit claiming that the presidency had been stolen from him by Crooked Hillary?
Taken in full, Trump was probably lucky that most of America spent the week replaying the You Tube video of that oiled-up Olympian from Tonga. Who knows? Maybe the impact of Trump’s Schlock and Awe is finally petering out under the weight of expectation that each new salvo must be a geometric step change from the last. I can imagine an independent voter in a swing state rolling over for a nap, smooching his wife, and saying “Honey, don’t wake me up unless he says something that tops ‘maybe you Second Amendment people should assassinate Hillary Clinton.’”
With polling numbers plummeting faster than overfed Carnival Cruise tourists down a Costa Rican zip line, The Donald intuited that it was time for a change.
Ah, the Hamlet’s dilemma of Presidential politics: to pivot or not to pivot. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to soften the incendiary rage of partisan rhetoric that hath secured nomination in order to curry favor with those whom art undecided; or to remain true to the brazen extremity that doth bring the core to climax nightly in the Coliseum? Pray Lord Manafort’s destiny was to ordain that I do pivot; lo, now I in swooning polling fall? How, then, to get out of this damned spot?
Well, if you are Donald Trump, you start by turning to Manafort, and saying those two utterly sublime words from a bygone era when you actually felt on top of the world. “You’re fired.”
However, if you happen to actually be a professional in this business of marketing and communications, there is more to do than end the episode with a trademark termination.
And, if you are a professional, there actually is a really interesting way to figure out what to do. You do research. You talk to voters.
Specifically, we’ve all seen the polls that show that literally millions of people have changed their minds in the past three weeks alone, switching from “Pro-Trump” or “Undecided” to “Pro-Clinton.” You’d think the people running Trump’s campaign might want to do some research to get inside the heads of all the people who only three weeks ago were on the fence. The first order of business is getting them back. To do so, you need to know why they left.
Here’s what professionals do. First, find a quantitatively projectable sample of voters who had changed their mind and switched from either “Undecided” or “voting for Trump” to “voting for Clinton” within the last three weeks. Then ask them exactly what happened within the last three weeks that caused them to change their mind and switch from “voting for Trump” or “Undecided” to “voting for Clinton.”
Perhaps they could achieve this by providing a reasonable comprehensive list of the events of the past three weeks that could have triggered a negative response, and ask them to check those statements that contributed to why their opinions shifted from “Undecided” or “Pro-Trump” to “Pro-Clinton.”
- I watched the two conventions and felt more confident in the policies, leadership, and vision for the future put forth by the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.
- I was offended by the way Donald Trump criticized the Gold Star family of Muslim Khizr Khan.
- I felt that Donald Trump exercised poor judgment by implying that “Second Amendment people” should assassinate Hillary Clinton.
- I was troubled that Donald Trump would invite Russia to hack private servers in the United States.
- I was alarmed that Donald Trump was unaware that Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula from the Ukraine.
- I was disappointed in Donald Trump’s economic policy speech, in that it was based on traditional Republican trickle-down economics with big tax breaks for the wealthy.
- It was upsetting to me that Donald Trump contended that Barack Obama is the “founder of ISIS.”
- I think it is wrong for a presidential candidate to attempt to delegitimize an election by asserting with no evidence that it will be “rigged.”
- I believe that Presidential candidates must accept the role and independence of the press and not threaten the campaign press credentials of news organizations that challenge their views.
- It bothered me that Donald Trump publicly aired reservations about endorsing vitally important Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and John McCain.
- I had expected that as Trump learned more as a candidate, he would have become less divisive and less likely to make issues out of racial and religious differences, but I have now realized that he is not going to change.
- I continue to hear Trump make gender-based insults – that Hillary Clinton does not have the “stamina” to fight ISIS, and his comments on what women should do if subject to sexist behavior in the workplace – and I am concerned that he is misogynist at his core.
- I do not think that someone of Donald Trump’s temperament should be given control over our nuclear arsenal.
- It was unsettling that fifty leading Republicans who have served in our national defense organizations united to renounce Donald Trump.
- I am a loyal Republican, and I have now seen a large number of Republican leaders, including former Presidents, presidential candidates, and now significant senators and congressmen repudiate Trump as the party’s candidate.
- I am concerned that with less than three months left until election (and just six weeks until early voting begins), so few of Donald Trump’s proposed policies have been clearly fleshed out.
- I find it of great concern that Donald Trump refuses to release his taxes when every other candidate since 1980 has done so.
- I find it unnerving that Trump gets so easily rattled when attacked and loses focus on his own campaign themes.
- I believe that if a man cannot competently manage his own campaign, it is an indication that he cannot be trusted to manage the government.
- I think the core problem is that Donald Trump needs to stop being so mild and timid, and that he has to get a lot tougher, meaner, more aggressive. He needs to destroy Hillary Clinton, even if it means lying, exaggerating, and making up charges in order to bring her down. This is a desperate situation, and the ends justify any and all means.
Let’s say, for sake of argument, that Donald Trump actually fielded the research I have just outlined.
Based on Donald Trump’s decision to bring in Steve Bannon from Breitbart.com to run his campaign, you must assume that his research found that most people were abandoning him for that final reason and that final reason only: that he was not being mean, nasty, partisan, and racially divisive enough.
For Trump to hire Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to lead the final ten weeks of his campaign is kind of like saying that the ten Scotches didn’t do the trick; let’s down some pure grain alcohol neat before we take the Beamer out on the Interstate. There is doubling down, tripling down, and then there is Bannoning the hatches.
Make no mistake: Breitbart is to the Republican party what Andrew Dice Clay is to your local high school improv team: yeah, at one level it is all in the broad genre of comedy, but you’d fire the principal if he let Andrew Dice Clay onstage with your daughter in the Junior Class Variety Show. There is a point at which a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. Breitbart lives in a spectral region invisible to the naked eye that is beyond Fox; it is a place where journalism and imaginary play are co-mingled as freely as The Kinsey Report and handcuff fantasy in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Trump has hired one of the few guys on earth who feels that the problem is that Trump hasn’t been savage enough.
Some will conclude that this move seals Trump’s fate: that this will irreversibly limit his appeal to an angry hardened core that will never turn out enough voters to carry the Electoral College.
Some will say that Trump’s final and absolute refusal to “pivot” and attempt to appear more presidential to win undecided voters is the electoral equivalent of voluntary euthanasia.
Some will see this as the final straw that permits severely threatened Republican candidates like Kelly Ayotte to formally retract any allegiance to Trump.
Some will say that the next ten weeks will be the ugliest ten weeks in the history of politics, but that this enormous decision was the one that secured the Senate for the Democrats, enabling Hillary Clinton to select three Supreme Court judges who will shape judicial history for the next thirty years.
And yet for all who see the hiring of Brietbart's Bannon as not so bright and not so smart, there remains, as always, the contrarian view.
Bannon worries me.
A former colleague of mine in the advertising business used to categorize the people in the industry as falling into one of four “quadrants,” which were defined by creating a vertical axis of “dumb to smart,” and a horizontal axis of “mean to nice.” In my colleague’s worldview, “nice” did not simply refer to pleasant demeanor; it encompassed a range of traits such as principled thinking, compassion, and behavior governed by a code of ethics. The top left quadrant (“smart and nice”) was where you found ideal colleagues and clients.
But, somewhat counterintuitively, my colleague contended that the worst scenario was not the polar opposite – the “dumb and mean” quadrant. No, he argued; the worst thing to face in a client or colleague was someone who was mean and smart.
Someone who is mean and smart can make your day much more miserable than a simple stupid jerk. Someone who is mean and smart will be clever enough to find your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and mean enough to take advantage of them to weaken you and hurt you. Someone who is mean and smart laughs at those naïve enough to constrain their options to actions which are bound by law, societal ethics, and personal moral standards.
Compared to dumb and mean Cory Lewandowski and dumb and benign Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon is smart and mean.
I fear that the final weeks of this campaign are going to be a transformation from an ugly reality to an unimaginably dark alternative reality; literally so, in the sense that Bannon and his team will simply manufacture attack materials in an utterly desperate effort to take down Clinton. Go visit Brietbart.com right this minute if you want to get a flavor for the worldview which will now govern Trump’s campaign. Enjoy the pleasant mélange in which thin slivers of fact are used to delicately season the main course of fantasy. Read the conspiracy-theorists reporting on Hillary Clinton’s alleged health woes, and learn where Donald Trump rests his case that Hillary lacks the “stamina” to take on ISIS. It’s all there; read all about it… all the news that real newsprint wouldn’t find fit to print.
There is already the indication that Bannon and his team are shrewd enough to make a genuine effort to salvage Trump’s stature and standing. Much significance has been attached to yesterday’s Trump flip-flopping emotional confession that he now “regrets” some of the comments he has made during the course of the campaign.
In my view, this is merely the latest example of a Trump teleprompter speech in which he duly read the lines that his new handlers demanded that he read. The fact that Trump did not spell out which specific comments he regrets is an indication that this was mere disingenuous posturing rather than Saul blinded on the road to Damascus. Trump will be off the teleprompter by morning with a fresh batch of insults. At some point, he will probably say that his statement of “regret” was actually, uh, sarcasm.
For whatever effort the Bannon team makes to do so, they probably do not believe they have enough time to rehabilitate Trump.
Rather, they think that in the time available, their only hope is to utterly destroy Hillary Clinton.
And that is what Trump’s new team is going to attempt to do.
The only solution for Trump as the clock ticks is an all-out propaganda assault on his opponent. Where facts exist – and they do – you can be sure that Bannon will exploit them. Where vagary exists, you can be certain Bannon will declare guilt. And where there are fields of unplowed soil, Bannon will go to work. If they cannot find an “October surprise,” it's a fair bet that these people will try to manufacture one. And by the time the dust clears and fact is sorted from fiction, Election Day will have passed.
Fasten your seat belts, folks. It is not over yet. Almost implausibly, it is going to get darker, grimmer, and uglier before this race is over.
The Donald Trump limbo dance contest is far from over; every time he has bent over backwards and sunk to a new low, he looks for yet a new way to lower the bar.
And Steve Bannon is just the guy to do it.
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