This week began with the first general election debate, where Donald Trump quickly melted into an incoherent puddle of random words and phrases and Sean Hannity references. It ends now with the Republican candidate for president getting up at 3 a.m. to tweet a series of insults at a foreign beauty queen from the 90's, ensuring that another news cycle will be dominated by one of his stupid controversies.
Republicans of course complain that the media has turned the Alicia Machado story into a week-long affair, ignoring more important news, including the FBI Director's testimony on Capitol Hill about Clinton's email scandal, in order to harp on a few mean words Trump said about some lady 20 years ago. But the media isn't doing this on its own. And, thanks to Donald Trump, this isn't just about what happened 20 years ago anymore. Trump extended the story himself. Trump chose, once again, to amplify his own negatives instead of calling attention to Clinton's. Trump chose to log onto Twitter before dawn on Friday to call the Venezuelan Miss Universe "disgusting" and encourage everyone to "check out her sex tape." Donald Trump did that. He's a 70-year-old man making his own decisions. This is on him. It's always been on him.
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I don't even know if Machado has a sex tape or not. But I do know that the phrase "check out her sex tape" should never be spoken or typed by a presidential candidate under any circumstance, particularly one whose own wife has posed nude on multiple occasions. It's not "politically incorrect" for a presidential candidate to encourage his followers to look at some lady's sex tape -- it's stupid. And crass, of course. And dishonorable. And another embarrassment for the various Christian leaders who've become public surrogates for the man.
Now, if you're a devoted Trump fan I realize you're not concerned about the crass, dishonorable, and un-Christian elements of this. But you should be concerned about the fact that, if nothing else, it's a really, really, really bad political strategy. Nobody outside of Trump's hardcore alt-right fan club gets fired up by seeing the GOP nominee call a lady a fat, disgusting floozy. Trump fans have spent all week digging up dirt on Machado -- She was involved in a murder! She dated a drug lord! -- but that stuff only further demonstrates why Trump should have ignored this dumb, pointless drama and focused instead on the kinds of issues most voters actually care about.
It's true that this was all a setup. Hillary Clinton tried to goad Trump into spending a week bickering with Miss Venezuela so that the public would be distracted from her own scandals, focused instead on this irrelevant soap opera. And Trump fell right into the trap. Correction: he didn't fall into it. He saw it from 500 feet away, took a running head start and dove in with a smile on his face. Again.
And again, Trump's fans and apologists have aided in his self-destruction by pretending that it's all a brilliant chess maneuver by a subversive political mastermind. They obviously know better, but they think it's their patriotic duty to carry on as though they've been lobotomized. So as they preemptively blame the Never Trump folks for Trump's eventual loss, they continue to actively encourage all of Trump's worst instincts. They point their fingers at Trump's critics while goading him into doing and saying all of the things that will lead directly to him losing.
After the debate on Monday I offered an honest and straightforward analysis that was, naturally, unflattering to Trump. He put on an awful performance and if he continues to perform that way at the debates, he'll lose. If you hadn't been paying attention to this election season (and I envy you if that's the case), you'd think that Trump's fans would loudly echo these criticisms in a desperate attempt to convince their man to be better prepared the next time around. But you would be wrong. On the contrary, they rode valiantly to his defense, explaining how his indecipherable ramblings actually "resonate with the working class." Never mind how insulting that is to the working class, it's also a surefire way to lead your candidate right into a landslide defeat.
It's true that Trump is obviously not a great listener, and he rarely takes good counsel to heart. But that's not a reason to give him bad counsel. If you want him to win, you should be urging him to focus on Hillary Clinton and leave these petty, narcissistic squabbles to the side. One of the reasons why Trump continues to be such a bad candidate is that he is completely fortified in an echo chamber that extends beyond his immediate yes-men and surrogates and includes most of his supporters. He's like the kid whose drunk friends cheer when he announces that he wants to jump off the roof and into an inflatable kiddie pool. Perhaps he would jump no matter what his friends say, but the high fives and amens only make the neck injury and ER bill all the more inevitable.
And there's yet another reason why Trump fans should stop applauding every time Trump shoots himself in the face. The only legitimate argument in favor of voting for Trump is that he will be less horrible than Hillary Clinton. This is a fine argument -- even a compelling one -- but it hinges entirely on one thing: that the conservative base will keep Trump in line.
There is absolutely no reason to believe, and no evidence has ever been produced, to prove that Trump is substantially better than Clinton on his own merits. If left completely to his own devices, all indications are that Trump would govern almost exactly as Clinton would govern. They're both dishonest, self-obsessed, power hungry, etc. But the difference, I'm told, is that Trump will have to answer to conservative voters. Hillary has to answer to liberal voters, which means there will be literally nothing preventing her from systematically destroying what's left of the country, seeing as how the destruction of the country is what the Left desires.
I want to buy this line of reasoning -- and in any other election I would buy it and have bought it -- but the problem this time is that, for the most part, the conservative base and conservative media figures have shown absolutely no willingness to stand up to Trump at all, no matter what he says or does. Again: the only argument in favor of voting for Trump is that we, the conservatives, will force him to take certain positive steps, such as nominating conservative Supreme Court justices. But there has so far been no indication, no proof, no evidence that a majority of conservative voters and conservative pundits will watch Trump like a hawk and hold him accountable. He's hasn't been held accountable for anything yet, even as a candidate for president. If we won't rise up to Trump the Candidate and say, "Hey, your debate performance sucked -- do better," how can I believe that we'll stand confidently and firmly before Trump the President and say, "Hey, fulfill your promises or you're done after four years"?
It seems that holding a candidate accountable is much easier than holding a president accountable. If we won't do the former, why and how would we do the latter? If the Sean Hannitys of the world will so debase themselves as to passionately defend Trump's every fart and fumble, how can I believe that they'll suddenly retrieve their souls and their common sense when the man becomes the leader of the free world? If conservatives have already abandoned many of their principles at Trump's behest -- and in fact started the process during the primaries when there were still other options -- how can I possibly have any faith that they'll rediscover their spines and their value systems when Trump is president?
So, criticizing Trump now, today, as a candidate, accomplishes three things:
- It may keep him on track. Or at least it has a better chance of keeping him on track than applauding him when he goes off track.
- It sets the stage for how the conservative base-Donald Trump relationship is going to work when he's in the Oval Office.
- Crucially for Trump fans, it may convince some conservatives who are very hesitant about Trump to vote for him, if they see that voting for Trump doesn't mean joining a cult of submissive Trump-worshipers.
Trump isn't the only one who has to prove himself over these final few weeks of the campaign. If Trump's most ardent followers really want him to sit in the most powerful seat in the world, they need to show that they're willing to hold him accountable. And that needs to start now. There's no time left to waste.
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