Trump's stubborn defiance of normal political gravity
Trump's Haley/Pelosi gaffe would've ended most campaigns. For him it was just another Friday.
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One week ago tonight in New Hampshire, Donald Trump confused Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and it wasn’t a mere slip of the tongue.
Trump went on a full-length tear accusing his primary opponent of failing to secure the Capitol on January 6, despite the fact Haley wasn’t even in government at the time. (What Trump was trying to say still would’ve been a grotesque lie even if he’d gotten the names right.)
“You know, by the way, they never report the crowd on January 6,” he began. “You know, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley. Do you know that they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything. Deleted and destroyed all of it. All of it. Because of lots of things, like Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her security, 10,000 people, soldiers, National Guard, whatever they want, they turned it down. They don’t want to talk about that.”
That sad spectacle would’ve devastated any normal candidate’s campaign. Several political commentators from Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer to David Corn at Mother Jones noted on social media with almost rueful resignation that had Biden done this, it would’ve dominated the news cycle. Alas, Trump is different. His staff didn’t even really try to clean the gaffe up, and he beat Haley in New Hampshire by double digits a few days later. How is that possible?
Back in 1988, Michael Dukakis confirmed fears that he’d be a weak commander in chief when he took an ill-fated ride in a tank while wearing an oversized helmet. Howard Dean killed his 2004 campaign with a self-inflicted scream after losing the Iowa caucus. Mitt Romney’s campaign was mortally wounded when he was recorded describing “47 percent” of voters as deadbeats who didn’t pay income tax. (Bloomberg columnist Josh Barro bluntly stated, “Today, Mitt Romney Lost The Election.”) Marco Rubio short-circuited during the 2016 New Hampshire primary debate and never recovered.
These all feel like minor “oopsies” compared to the likely Republican presidential nominee’s ongoing legal battles and escalating authoritarian appeals — not to mention embarrassing slips like his Haley/Pelosi confusion. Yet as Trump once boasted, he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and … wouldn’t lose voters.”
The media grades Trump on an infinity curve
Trump’s resilience from normal political gravity is aided by the mainstream press. Here’s how NBC News reported the Republican frontrunner’s mental collapse: “Donald Trump appeared to mistakenly refer to GOP rival Nikki Haley instead of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, when discussing the Jan. 6 riot at a campaign rally in New Hampshire.” But he didn’t appear to confuse Haley and Pelosi. That’s a cowardly presentation of events we saw with our own eyes. PBS did the same: “Trump appears to confuse Haley and Pelosi while making false Jan. 6 claims in New Hampshire.”
Although most media outlets did state categorically that Trump mixed up Haley with Pelosi, they failed to connect it to a larger narrative. Instead, they just … moved on. Compare this to the “Rubio bot” aftermath when the New York Times declared, ”How a Debate Misstep Sent Marco Rubio Tumbling in New Hampshire.” Journalist Molly Jong-Fast wondered, “Donald Trump confused Nancy Pelosi with Nikki Haley and Joe Biden with Barack Obama. Where are the ‘is Donald Trump too old’ think pieces?” But that might also miss a larger point: A narrative that Trump is “too old” or has “lost a step” since 2016 minimizes his threat. He’s not even trying to hide that he aspires to become a dictator.
While Trump floods the zone with gaffes and dictatorial rhetoric, the media has settled on a “Biden’s in trouble” narrative. For example, the headline for a December 20 New York Times article reads, “Amid Dismal Polling and Some Voter Anger, Don’t Expect Biden to Shift His Strategy.” The implicit message is that Biden is oblivious rather than resolute. The Times often seems to verbally shake the president and shout, “Why don’t you listen to us when we tell you how unpopular you are?”
Meanwhile, Trump is facing 91 felony counts across four criminal cases, but his criminality is just taken as a given. The media sanitizes him with reporting about how he “dominated” a historically low-turnout Iowa caucus or remains popular among Republicans despite his indictments. It’s like it doesn’t even matter that the Republican nominee for president is on a lifetime spree.
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Trump also has dumb luck on his side: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended his campaign Sunday and immediately endorsed Trump. This took some oxygen from Trump’s Haley/Pelosi blunder, but honestly, it doesn’t seem like it would’ve caught fire anyway.
Trump is everything awful everywhere all at once
University College London political scientist Brian Klaas’s apt term for this phenomenon is the “banality of crazy.” Klaas observed that the media “breathlessly report on every minor Biden gaffe, but barely cover Trump calling to execute generals or shoplifters. This numbing effect helps Trump — and warps American politics.”
The banality of crazy might seem different from the banality of Trump’s gaffes, but they actually reinforce each other. Trump has disrupted so much of standard political behavior with his all-caps ragefests on social media and disparaging WWE-style nicknames for his political opponents that it’s hard for his gaffes (or worse) to register. Even mild Trumpian rhetoric from a normal politician like Joe Biden would seem like a drastic, alarming personality shift, an indication that something has gone horribly wrong. Trump, however, is just consistently Trump, which is consistently terrible.
Right-wing media outlets have hammered Vice President Kamala Harris for supposed “word salad” statements, and while the criticism is almost always in bad faith, it sticks somewhat because more is expected from her when she speaks in public. Democrats have rightly criticized this double standard going back to the 2016 election, when the media focused obsessively on Hillary Clinton’s email server while normalizing Trump’s candidacy. Violence had erupted during his campaign rallies with his open approval, yet swing voters still considered him a “moderate” candidate.
“But her emails!” is an oft-repeated cry of frustration. Yet, it was a consistent, negative narrative that dogged Clinton: The Washington Post asked in May 2015, “Clinton’s strategy on e-mail use: ‘Trust me.’ But how will voters respond?” and in July 2016, “Can Hillary Clinton overcome her trust problem?”
It’s impossible to pin a singular narrative on Trump: He’s currently on trial or facing trial for defaming a woman a jury concluded he’d sexually assaulted; attempting to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election; stealing classified documents and obstructing justice; civil business fraud, and almost quaint violations of campaign finance law. That’s way too much to keep straight for even a regular viewer of the most over-the-top daytime soap opera.
Conversely, Romney’s 47 percent gaffe cemented the Obama campaign’s narrative that he was an out-of-touch corporate raider who didn’t care about most Americans. It was also objectively the most damaging thing he said at the time. The message might’ve gotten muddled had Romney drifted into, say, the Great Replacement conspiracy theory or confused Obama with Biden or absurdly claimed you needed photo ID to buy bread. Yet, last weekend, Trump followed up on his Pelosi/Haley gaffe by demanding complete presidential immunity and comparing himself with cops who murder people. The unvarnished authoritarianism is obviously more significant than senior moments, but it’s a lot to keep track of.
Trump scandals and assorted horrors — remember kids in cages? — have persisted non-stop for more than seven years, and through it all he remains defiantly outrageous. His “normal” is a constant state of abnormality. The deluge is overwhelming for regular people, many of whom cite Trump as the reason they’ve chosen to stop following politics for their mental health. It’s a brutal irony: Biden restored enough normalcy to government that people could take the time to notice that he’s an 81-year-old man who wears sneakers and uses shorter stairs on Air Force One.
Trump isn’t teflon, though. Klaas points out that his already low approval ratings do suffer whenever “unvarnished Trump filters into the mainstream,” such as when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 neo-Confederate rally in Charlottesville. That put Trump on the defensive, but his presidency was still in its early stages and the public wasn’t yet numb to his constant avalanche of scandal. His presidency took perhaps a fatal hit during the pandemic because covid was the major story of 2020, and all his worst traits — lack of empathy and basic competence — were on frightening display to a truly captive audience who could no longer just tune him out.
MORE FROM STEPHEN ROBINSON: How Republicans successfully "both sided" January 6
We’re still a long ways from November, and Biden has already had to condemn Trump’s bigotry, denounce his continued attacks on democracy, mock his mental lapses, and reminded voters that his economic record was a historical failure. It’s as if he’s running against several terrible candidates at once, but it’s also like a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole.
There’s an episode of the “Simpsons” in which Mr. Burns is declared “the sickest man in the United States.” The only reason he hadn’t died already was because all the diseases in his body somehow counteracted each other. When everything is bad, bad things are easily normalized.
That’s it for this week
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We’ll be back with more Monday. Have a great weekend.