Days after the Democratic convention ended in Philadelphia with a triumphant evening of celebration, the unification of the party, and the endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s campaign appears to have entered a period of chaos and apparent self-sabotage that is pretty spectacular, even for him. Apparently thrown by the Democrats’ audacious and determined embrace of militarism and American exceptionalism, Trump has insulted veterans, displayed elementary foreign policy knowledge, exposed his shadowy draft-dodging past, endorsed key Republican office-holders’ primary opponents, and thrown a woman with a crying baby out of one of his rallies.
And it’s only Tuesday, with three months to go.
Trump has been on these rampages before, of course, and defied predictions that they would do him down. But that was in the primary season, dealing with Republicans and right-leaning independents. Now he is performing on the general stage, to an audience including right-leaning Democrats who are no fans of Clinton and genuine independents. How is he going? Not well. Post-convention polls suggest that Clinton has gained a five- to eight-point bounce in the post-convention polls. Trump got a small post-convention bump too, but it was dissipated by the Dems’ convention.
Trump’s troubles began when he went on the attack against Khazir and Gazala Khan, the couple whose son was killed on duty in Iraq, and who challenged Trump to “read the constitution” and asked him “whether he had sacrificed anything”. Trump responded by launching a side-attack, asking whether Khazir had done all the talking because his wife was forbidden to speak publicly by her religion. This was weird enough coming from a Republican direction — half of Trump’s evangelical supporters believe in the notion that the husband should be the “public face” of the family — and was duly gazumped when Gazala wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, saying that she was too grief-stricken to do more than stand up when confronted with her dead son’s metres-high image, let alone speak.
Trump’s response drew protest and renunciation from numerous figures, John McCain most senior among them, and did just about everything the Democrats wanted him to do — picked a fight with “Gold Star” families (those who have lost a child or parent in combat), divided veterans who have high levels of support for him, and showed his inability to perform the various ceremonial dignities associated with the presidency. Could it get worse? Why yes, this was only the weekend.
By Monday, Trump had told ABC television that if he was president “no way Russia is in the Ukraine”. When interviewer George Stephanopoulos pointed out that it had already taken Crimea, Trump started on the first of several clarifications: “Apart from that …” “That was under Obama …” “Crimea was Russian originally …”, the latter appearing to concede to the Putinist position on the Crimea. This was even better for the Democrats, since they had tarred Trump with a “Putinist” brush in the convention: Trump’s capital comes from Russia, he has spoken approvingly of “strongmen” like Putin before, and his chief of staff Paul Manafort has acted as a consultant for pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine. Allegedly — one has to be careful of disinfo here — the Trump forces intervened to soften the GOP’s anti-Russian position on the Ukraine.
By Tuesday, questions were being asked about Trump avoiding the Vietnam draft. Having graduated from Wharton Business School in the 1960s, Trump got five deferments in a row for having a “bone spur” in his foot — ah, flat feet, got me out of three years in the cadets! — and now says he regrets not serving. His reverse Midas touch was on display here when he recounted how a supporter handed over his Purple Heart medal as a gift to Trump. “I always wanted a Purple Heart,” Trump said later, of the medal given for being injured in the line of duty. “This was much easier.” No, you don’t need to read that again. That’s what he said.
Why would he say that? Why would he say that? Because the man has no content — getting and having the Purple Heart is what matters, not what went into it. It’s the art of the deal — hey, I got a Purple Heart for nix! #winning. The new theory — that Charlie Sheen’s psychotic “#Winning!” tour of the US prepared for Trump’s candidacy — is gaining ground. The fallout from this is happening as I write, with Democratic Congresswoman — and first post-FDR disabled presidential candidate in 2024 I would warrant — Tammy Duckworth tweeting a picture of herself wearing the Heart in a hospital bed, recovering from a double amputation. Trump’s reaction is not yet recorded.
But wait there’s more. There are whole separate plot lines in this. On Sunday Trump responded to the blizzard of accusations of serious sexual harassment against now-departed Fox News (and former Nixon, Reagan, etc, aide) Roger Ailes by saying that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in a workplace “she would just change workplaces”. Worth noting that Ivanka works in the family business, and Trump has said he would be dating her if he weren’t her father — and copped a sort of Mad Men-style hip grope when they passed each other on the stage at the RNC — but no matter, because by Tuesday his son Eric “American Psycho” Trump had told morning TV that “strong powerful women don’t get sexually harassed”.
But. Wait. There’s. More. There is so much, so much more. On the weekend, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post published a series of shots of Melania Trump taken from a French men’s magazine shoot she did in the ’90s, looking exactly like you’d expect a girl-on-girl French men’s magazine shoot to look like, i.e. like a copy of Oui from 1978, tattered and passed around. Since this was the NY Post, the publication aroused feverish speculation — was Murdoch now distancing himself? Or had the Trump camp released these to distract from the Khan story? Had they thrown Melania under the shortbus?
There was no time to debate this. By Tuesday afternoon, Trump had reversed the traditional practice of kissing babies and complimenting doting mothers and thrown a mother and crying baby out of a rally in Loudon, Virginia. Even the manner he did it was weird and taunting, starting by telling the crowd how much he loved babies: “It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want.” Having referenced a bit of early 20th-century eugenic nativism, Trump later turned: “Actually I was only kidding — you can get that baby out of here … (to crowd) I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking.”
Can you erp? Can — I mean … I can’t even. Who can? The response to all of this is that, well Trump has been written off before for his “outrageous” comments. But a lot of that was his resistance to the ossified niceties of American politics and political language. Throwing mothers and babies out of rallies, dissing veterans — that is straying into dangerous territory. The hardcore Trumpistas will never desert him, because they have nothing else — Trump is their last hope for sustaining a fantasy/nostalgia idea of America. But Trump now has to cast his net wider and grab a crucial wider group.
Now he also has Obama and others trolling him. Obama started putting the pressure on Republicans to disown Trump today, and several key House members and senators are close to cracking. Retiring upstate New York congressman Richard Hanna has become the first serving Republican to announce that he will be voting for Hillary Clinton over Trump. More are likely to follow. This is coming apart real fast, and it is not clear what could put it back together again for the Republicans — or where this will all be at in a month’s time, let alone at the election.
And it’s only Tuesday.