As readers will be aware, Hillary Clinton recently experienced a very difficult few days. At the same time, the Trump campaign was working strenuously to normalize their candidate with a view to getting voters to ignore his more outlandish pronouncements and to focus on the failings of Secretary Clinton. There has in fact been a shift in the [national?] polls leaving Clinton only slightly ahead of Trump, or in a virtual tie with him. It is a matter of speculation as to whether, or to what extent, the polling reflects the candidates’ recent maneuvers and missteps or is more of a coincidence. Either way, however, it is a cause for anxiety for those of us who regard the possible election of Trump as a catastrophe in the making.
Clinton’s difficulties began with an unfortunate reference to Trump supporters:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?
The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
The following day, Clinton attempted to walk back her statement at least part way by allowing that she should not have said “half.” (We pause to regret that the late William Safire, a shrewd political commentator and an incomparable etymologist of popular phrases, is not here to explore the origin and history of politicians attempting to “walk back” things they wish they had not said without actually retracting them.)
Even in its original form, Clinton’s statement had its defenders. In the Washington Post, for example, Dana Milbank wrote a column titled “Yes, half of Trump supporters are racist,” citing polling data associating support for Trump with views described as racist. Such views were broadly defined to include failing to believe “that racial and ethnic diversity improves the United States” or harboring a “fear that white people are losing ground.” For our part, we believe that it is a mistake to label someone who holds a view that is wrong, or even deplorable, a deplorable person. Such a view may be entertained or tolerated in varying degrees and for most people will not be the full measure of their contributions to family, the community or the country. Moreover, if Hillary Clinton should be elected, she will have to attempt to be the President of all the people, including those deplorables.
Daniel Henninger, writing in the Wall Street Journal, brought a quite different perspective to the matter. In “Les Deplorables,” Henninger wrote that Clinton’s comment “puts back in play what will be seen as one of the 2016 campaign’s defining forces: the revolt of the politically incorrect.” We are often sympathetic to push-backs against political incorrectness, particular on college campuses where they are most needed. (Our current favorite is the example of several colleges that have abandoned the term “freshman,” with its gender-specific suffix, in favor of “first year student.”) Nevertheless, just as some paranoiacs have real enemies, some statements or positions that are politically incorrect are also genuinely hateful and deplorable. Hence, we reject Henninger’s apparent assumption that any expressions of intolerance, however odious, are candidates for defense as victims of political incorrectness.
In sum, we think that Clinton’s comment was a mistake, and the more regrettable since it seemed to be a matter of some forethought (“what I call the basket of deplorables”) rather than a spontaneous thought. Still, in comparison with the frequently rancid rhetoric of Donald Trump, we are inclined to regard it as a venial sin that perhaps received more attention from the media than it deserved. In any case, more trouble was on the way for Clinton.
When Clinton fell ill and had to depart a 9/11 ceremony, and had the bad luck to be video taped as she required assistance to get into her van, it seemed to support a narrative that had been circulating on the right for sometime questioning her health and ‘stamina.” The “optics” (to employ another phrase of current political argot) were unhelpful to say the least. And when it was announced somewhat belatedly a few hours later that Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia two days before, it renewed questions about her “openness.” Still, it seemed to us to have been much ado about not a great deal. Clinton appears to be recovering nicely and her stamina on the campaign trail would strike many of us as impressive, even when it leads to declining rest when rest is called for.
We agree in general with the notion that candidates for President should be more forthcoming about their health records, but we doubt that, in the absence of anything fairly dire, most voters will be greatly influenced one way or the other. In this case, we would be far more interested in Trump’s tax returns than his medical records. The former, by the way, seem as inaccessible as ever and, given that fact, we wonder why has no journalist simply asked Trump, “Sir, did you pay any federal income taxes last year? How much? Will your accountant confirm that?” That would be far less than the public should know, but it would provide some information (as would Trump’s refusal to answer).
While Clinton was having her struggles, the effort on the Trump side was to make their candidate appear “normal,” an attempt that has continued in fits and starts. One element of that effort was a decision to appear again in a black church, but it did not go well. As Trump launched into an attack on Hillary Clinton he was interrupted by the pastor who (as duly video taped) reminded him that was not why he was invited. Although Trump’s initial reaction was appropriately (but uncharacteristically) docile, he reverted to form the following day, criticizing the pastor and calling her a “nervous mess.” The consensus is that Trump’s appearances before black audiences are not expected to win many black votes but are more designed to persuade white voters that he is not a bigot. Whether such attempts will succeed remains to be seen.
A more significant appearance for Trump was a speech at the New York Economic Club. We question how many voters will subject the speech to serious analysis and try to figure out whether his numbers have a solid basis. They don’t, but some voters will be relieved to find Trump at least appearing to speak about the sort of things with which Presidential candidates should presumably be concerned. The speech even got a partially favorable nod from the Wall Street Journal, which never met a tax cut it didn’t like (though it lamented Trump’s protectionist “tirade” on trade). The cost of Trump’s current tax plan has been greatly reduced from an earlier version, but we would join the assessment of the respected and bi-partisan Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget. “Unfortunately, to pay for his plan, Trump relies largely on unrealistic levels of economic growth, while ruling out changes to large portions of the budget to pay for his tax plan.”
If the Trump economic speech, whatever its flaws, seemed relatively “normal,” that aura would not last long. On the very day of the speech, Trump pointedly refused to answer a question from an NBC reporter as to whether he believed that President Obama was born in this country. Trump, of course, had spent five years of promoting “birtherism,” the vicious canard questioning President Obama’s place of birth. After the story of his refusal to answer was published, the Trump campaign frantically sought to quell the controversy by issuing a statement later that day with its own peculiar twist: “Having successfully obtained President Obama’s birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.” The reference to successfully obtaining Obama’s birth certificate was apparently meant suggest that Trump’s hectoring was responsible for Obama having released the certificate in 2011. But Trump had not only described the certificate as a possible “fraud” at the time but had repeatedly attempted to revive the issue over the next several years. On Friday, Trump elected to speak publicly, personally admitting that President Obama was indeed born in the United States. He offered no hint of an apology, however, and attempted to add his own touch of Trumpian mythology, making a false claim that the birther controversy had originated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and asserting that he had “finished it.”
If his remarks on the birther issue were not bizarre enough, Trump provided a capstone for the week on Friday by yet another over the top reference to the Second Amendment. Trump has often made the false assertion the Clinton wants to take away the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, but on Friday night he went himself one better, suggesting that Clinton’s Secret Service detail should disarm because she supports gun control. “What do you think, yes?” he asked a boisterous Miami crowd. “Take their guns away. She doesn’t want guns. Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, OK? It would be very dangerous.” Trump, of course, would attempt to defuse this offensive comment as he has others in the past by saying that he was only joking. Normal, it seems is not so easily achieved, but Trump, buffoonish or not, is no joke.
In a Saturday commentary, Julie Pace of Associated Press summed up the strategy of the Trump campaign and the current state of play:
With each scripted speech, shift in policy and attempt to whitewash his past behavior, Donald Trump is brazenly betting that voters now settling on their choice for president are willing to shove aside all that came before his late-in-the-campaign recalibration.
It’s a deeply uncertain proposition given Trump’s staggeringly negative standing with most Americans. Polls show more than half believe the Republican nominee is unqualified to be president, and is biased against women and minorities.
But his strategy doesn’t require moving huge segments of the electorate.
Seven weeks from the Nov. 8 election and with absentee ballots already available in a few states, Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are fighting for a small sliver of undecided voters who, in many cases, simply can’t stomach either.
“What these candidates are trying to convince the voters of is, ‘I’m not as bad as the other one,’” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster.
The polls are too close for comfort, with the Real Clear Politics average showing a Clinton lead of only 1.5 points. The Washington Post-ABC News poll also shows increasing strength for Trump among likely Republican voters, many of whom have struggled to find Trump “grudgingly acceptable,” as David Brooks put it on the PBS Newshour on Friday. In our view, Trump is not acceptable, grudgingly or otherwise. And, as it was Republicans who created him, it may be up to Republicans to put a stop to him. In our last blog we cited two organizations of Republicans who support Clinton over Trump, R4C16 and Together for America, but very little has been heard from either. It is essential for them to become more active and for their members speak out forcefully. Now.