So much for The Huffington Post’s grand experiment. On Friday, the site announced that it was consigning Donald Trump to the Entertainment section, that he would be covered just like any other celebrity clown. But when I checked HuffPo this morning, Donald Trump was splashed all over the home page, sharing news space with “U.S., Cuba Restore Full Diplomatic Relations” and “Deadly Blast in Turkey Kills Dozens.”
That’s because, whether we like it or not, the guy makes news. When a high-polling Republican candidate disses a recent Republican presidential nominee – a war hero who spent five years as a POW – let’s face it, that’s news. I suspect that Trump will crash and burn by the time the autumn trees are bare, and certainly by the time Republican voters cast their early primary ballots, but for the foreseeable future, he warrants serious attention. Four reasons why:
1. Trump’s popularity soared after he blanket-smeared Mexicans as criminals and rapists. That tells us something about the racist nativist ‘tude that’s endemic within the Republican base. Granted, not every grassroots Republican feels that way (Trump’s share of the GOP electorate is, at most, 17 percent, drawn heavily from self-identified tea party types), but he has shown us that hatred is a great way to woo the sizeable cohort of angry whites. No need for the code words and dog whistles that Republican candidates have used since the Nixon “southern strategy” era; raw slander works just as well.
2. Remember how long it took the other Republican candidates to condemn Trump’s smearing of Mexicans? Like, weeks? They stayed mute because they didn’t want to offend the racist nativists in the base – which tells us plenty about the party’s noxious intramural dynamic. Contrast that reticence with what happened this weekend. After Trump dissed John McCain (“He’s not a war hero….I like people that weren’t captured”), the Republican candidates went ballistic within milliseconds. Jeb Bush tweeted, “Enough with the slanderous attacks.” Scott Walker, who for weeks had said squat about Trump’s Mexican smears, got instantly upset about the McCain smear: “It’s just a disgrace.”
Rest assured that the burgeoning Hispanic electorate, which can swing at least four states in a presidential race, has already noticed the asymmetrical Republican response to Trump’s toxicity.
3. The swift outrage over Trump’s dissing of McCain is a window into Republican hypocrisy. Back in the summer of 2004, when the GOP-allied Swift Boaters were smearing Democratic candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam service, claiming that he wasn’t a hero, that he never deserved his medals yada yada, Republicans were totally fine with that. Even after media investigations exposed the Swift Boaters as liars (“On the core issue of whether Kerry was wounded under enemy fire, thereby qualifying for a third Purple Heart, the Navy records clearly favor Kerry”), Republicans said nothing. So kudos to Trump for inadvertently exposing this asymmetrical response as well.
4. Trump appeals to the sizeable share of voters who hate all politicians. He’s thriving precisely because he’s not politically correct, because he’s not focus-grouped, because he doesn’t hew to the traditional rules of discourse. Attacking Jeb’s Hispanic wife, calling McCain a “dummy” because he finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy – to some listeners, that kind of talk is refreshing. Yes, he’s threatening to make a mockery of the campaign process, but a lot of people already think the process is a joke. They’re dining out on his mockery.
In a traditional political climate, Trump would pay dearly for his remarks about McCain’s POW tenure; GOP primary voters would heed the candidates’ condemnations, and his poll ranking would plunge. We’ll see whether that happens. Unfortunately – and especially for the dozen or so Republican candidates who are starved for attention – we’re stuck for a while with a toxically non-traditional newsmaker.