Moderator: “Do you have any comment, Secretary Clinton?”
Clinton: “Yes, can we have the election right now?”
— Saturday Night Live, Clinton-Trump debate sketch
Republican candidate Donald Trump has had what many are calling the worst week of his year-long presidential campaign this week, and he was kind enough to do so right on the day your correspondent arrived back in the US, ready for the final stretch. In the past five days, Trump has risen like a tickled trout to the Democrats’ lure, starting with his prosecution of a petty exchange from last Monday’s debate, in which Hillary Clinton accused him of describing a Latina Miss Universe contestant as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeper”. The charge came at the very end of the debate, and was clearly intended for triple duty: to further damage him with women, to further damage him with Hispanics, and to make it impossible for him to restrain himself from replying.
Trump litigated the charge in the media all week, with full details of the contest and its atmosphere, which sounded pretty much like a bunch of product models being yelled at by sales reps at a car show. Trump veered between claiming he never said it, to saying he never thought he would be running for president when he said all those things.
Meanwhile, his cable news surrogates, such as Newt Gingrich, even less wisely blundered into the mechanics of running a beauty contest:
“Well, it is mostly based on the swimsuit competition.”
After the woman in question, Alicia Machado, erm, weighed in, Trump set off a string of tweets:
Par for the course with Trump. What was remarkable was the time they were sent — between three and five in the morning. This was greeted with amazement and wonder by West Coast night owls watching it unfold, and those waking up to it the next morning. This was too much, even for Gingrich, who chastised Trump for being unpresidential for tweeting at 3am (not for the content, apparently), while his more committed advocates doubled down, saying that Clinton would be too tired to tweet at 3am.
The night of the long tweeting came at the same time as an avalanche of other material, all around Trump’s relationship with women: a clip from an old Howard Stern radio show, in which the development-arrested shock jock had confided in his audience Trump’s useful advice to him that “vagina is expensive” (advice proffered in a lull during Trump’s wedding), and news of a lawsuit against one of his club restaurants from waitresses who said they had been fired on Trump’s instructions for “not being pretty enough”.
These revelations came pretty much hourly on Friday. Indeed there was so much dirt on Trump that the scandal blocked an entire other scandal: revelations in The New York Times that Trump companies had had business dealings with Cuba at a time when the total business embargo was in place, and Trump was dealing directly with the Cuban government in the same year he was denouncing the Obama administration. The 3am tweetstorm blew that out of the news cycle, and that may well have been the intent of it. Big news of pro-Castro dealings would be highly damaging for Trump in Florida, far more so than saying the senorita could maybe lay off the pork and beans.
Trump’s cable TV flacks struggled bravely to keep up. But there was too much. On Saturday, at a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump said Clinton should be in hospital — “she can’t even walk 15 steps to her car”, something he then imitated to roars of approval — before deciding that she should be in prison, and musing that “I don’t even know whether she’s been faithful to Bill — and why should she?”.
The best Trump spinners such as Kellyanne Conway and Katrina Pierson could do with this was to say that it was Trump’s way of highlighting Hillary’s alleged hypocrisy around Bill’s infidelities, alleged sexual shakedowns and possibly worse. That got them the sort of reaction rarely seen from US TV anchors: “Oh, come onnnnnnnnn!” By Sunday, the spinners were doing worse than Trump, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani asking a Sunday news show audience whether they wanted a brilliant successful businessman in power, or “a … a … a … woman!”
But once again, anyone who thought Trump was being a blundering hate blob wasn’t looking at the wider picture — for that morning, The New York Times had published Trump’s 1995 tax return, leaked to them by post, postmarked Manhattan, with Trump Tower as the return address.
This, the only one of Trump’s returns to see light of day — he has said he will release them when the IRS has finished auditing him; the IRS has said he can release them any time — was a doozy, from a year when Trump wrote down three failing Atlantic City casinos, the ill-fated Trump Airlines, and the purchase of the iconic Plaza Hotel, on which he had taken a huge loss. (Sorry, yuuuuuge.) Nine hundred and twelve million dollars to be exact, all listed as personal loss — thus allowing it to be carried forward and used against any future federal income tax liabilities. The implication? Trump may have paid no federal income taxes at all since then — a bit of a handicap for a candidate running on a campaign against insiders and dealmakers.
Trump’s only defence against these charges had been the old country-club Republican one: I am obliged by the state to pay tax and by my own interests to minimise how much. When Clinton noted in the debate that his businesses paid no taxes, he interjected, “That makes me smart”. He would not be the first populist to get away with that line. In Italy, many pundits thought that Silvio Berlusconi ruined his chances when his tax avoidance was revealed; instead he gained admiration from many who had wished they could deprive the state of their money. But Berlusconi was still paying some taxes, and the figures were not as giddying as Trump’s, who has bragged about being worth $10 billion. Pressure of this later revelation sent his lieutenants unhinged: Rudy Giuliani said that Trump was not merely a good businessman but “a genius” for arranging his affairs thus.
That will certainly work for Trump’s hardcore followers, who will simply count it all as proof that this is the guy who can outsmart the establishment, Putin, Martians, etc. But it might not play as well with another group — those voters, oft-mentioned, who support Trump in order to send a message, disrupt the establishment, but who are not themselves Hillary-haters, and might even be Democrats.
The idea that getting out of tens, perhaps hundreds of millions in tax is canny, genius, etc, is something from the free-market playbook, exactly the sort of politics turning many away from the Republicans. Trump got them back with his protectionism and statism, commitment to infrastructure. Many of his rust-belt supporters are a long way from being small-government types. When the town that surrounds you is falling into decay, a billionaire gloating about his zero tax bill might not play so well.
There’s also a question of Lincoln’s law: fool some/all people, all/some of the time, but not all/all. By now, some Trumpistas must be wavering in their support — and something like a tax scandal, more than upfront sexist language or vulgarity, gives them permission to jump ship. Too early to see if any of this has changed the polls yet.
If there is no movement in the numbers, we can surmise that this is now 95% nailed down, and the battle is on for a few tens of thousands of votes in Florida, Ohio and elsewhere.
This was a disaster week for Trump and pretty much his fourth or fifth of those. Yet as several pundits noted over the weekend, he remains only a few points behind Clinton. Where would have been, had he stayed on message? Saturday Night Live‘s fairly lame debate sketch and the faint studio laughter it gained were a sign of the problem; the gains from Trump’s further gaffes and disasters are now minimal. He remains viable in the face of things that would have killed other campaigns — such as gaining a half-dozen anti-endorsements from conservative papers.
Most ballyhooed was USA Today, the breezy hi-colour Reagan-era upstart, now slimmed down to a dozen pages and only just hanging as the easy-read national paper. “Unfit to be President,” the paper screamed and, lo and behold, there it was on the newsstand when I came out of the doors at LAX. It was a real newsstand too, with the papers displayed, one of the last in town. I grabbed a copy and read, as they do in the movies, said “my God” to no one in particular. We have never endorsed anyone in our 34-year history, said the paper’s editorial.
“Thirty-four year history”, a nice LA touch. But the editorial board of all political stripes were in total agreement. Next time around, 2020, there won’t be a USA Today or much of a newsstand, and the GOP candidates will be Charles Manson, the Dallas shoot-to-kill police robot, and Cartoon Baby Hitler, as the Democrats slug it out between This Is Fine Dog and, well, Hillary Clinton. Enjoy everything while it lasts.
In the hotel shuttle out of the airport, I thought about how this would have to be the last of these for me, as the radio classic hits station played Heaven is a Place on Earth and sunlit sky-blue LA unscrolled before me. The news cut in. All Trump, all the way through … pigs … in her contract … Rosie O’Donnell …
The Asian-American shuttle driver chuckled and so did I, and then the news said a new poll had Trump ahead in Ohio, Florida and Colorado, and our laughter faded.