For much of his life on the political stage, Trump’s “seriousness” as a candidate has been under nonstop skepticism from self-proclaimed Smart Republicans and their allies in the pro-establishment press. Every step of the way they’ve cried “he can’t” and “he won’t,” and The Donald responds by doing it anyway.
So the question is clear: can the GOP geniuses take “yes” for an answer?
The notion that Trump would even run for president in the first place was endlessly poo-poohed as little more than an empty tease. Prior to June 16, 2015, when Trump officially declared, any Smart Republican asked for an opinion on a possible Trump candidacy just chuckled softly at the silliness of the idea. Analysis of his presidential ambitions was the sort of thing chat-show producers slotted for a quick laugh in the last 10 seconds before the final commercial break — assuming there were no decent cat videos that week.
In February, the Washington Post’s all-star political blogger Chris Cillizza summarized the conventional wisdom succinctly: “While I tend to believe Trump is in the midst of (yet another) publicity stunt and won’t ultimately run for anything, even if he does there’s absolutely no evidence that there’s a constituency out there waiting for him.”
Two months later, Chris’ smug Post colleague George Will took an even cockier stance. In a gimmicky Fox News segment based around betting on the chances of on various GOP hopefuls, the establishment’s favorite pundit ostentatiously gave Trump his lowest bet, quipping, “one dollar on Donald Trump in the hope that he will be tempted to run, be predictably shellacked, and we will be spared evermore this quadrennial charade of his.” (This is why George’s wife won’t let him near the track.)
Because it didn’t fit their preferred narrative of Trump the circus clown, few paid much attention when The Donald established a presidential exploratory committee in March of 2015, and promptly began appointing on-the-ground staff in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. Little interest was stirred in the weeks after that, when Trump declined to renew his contract with NBC for another three years of Celebrity Apprentice — a massively consequential financial decision for a businessman who had made the reality show the centerpiece of his brand. He spoke openly and frankly about his political ambitions to any media that would listen, telling the Washington Examiner in May, for instance, that he was probably going to announce in June in order to guarantee himself a spot in the first primary debate, whose entry rules he had been studying.
And yet until the moment the words “I am officially running for president of the United States” escaped his lips in the basement of the Trump Tower on the afternoon of June 16, the idea that this was all some big joke could not be shaken from the hard skulls of those who had made careers out of closed minds and naive opinions.
Of course, once Donald did make his announcement, the goal posts were promptly shuffled a few yards down. The refrain of “he’ll never do it” became “he’ll never succeed.” The proof for this conclusion seemed to be entirely based on the lazy logic that American voters and Beltway pundits think exactly the same way.
So when Trump made his entirely factual comments at the campaign kick-off that the government of Mexico had an obvious vested interest in pushing its violent criminals out of their country and into America, the ensuing establishment shrieks could shatter glass. Doesn’t he realize we’re tying to win Hispanic votes over here?! And everyone knows the way you win Hispanics over is by denying any possible linkage between illegal immigration and crime. Amnesty only! My $600-an-hour consultant tells me so!
Liberals, predictably, called Trump’s comments racist — but that’s fine, they do that with everything. But what was the conservative excuse?
Sean Spicer, the RNC communications director referred to Trump “painting Mexican Americans” with a negative brush, while fellow-candidate Jeb Bush said he “absolutely” took Trump’s “extraordinarily ugly” remarks “personally,” given his Latino wife. Mitt Romney wandered out of whatever status pod they’ve been keeping him to decry this unprovoked attack on “Mexican Americans,” too.
But wait a second — who said anything about Americans? Reading Donald’s comments in an honest and fair manner (I may already be asking too much here) clearly indicate his words about Mexicans “bringing drugs” and their “crime and their rapists” were directed towards non-citizen immigrants of the illegal sort, as evidenced by the fact that he characterized the problem as something Mexico, a foreign nation, is doing to hurt the United States. It was a truly mask-slipping moment for the GOP elite, and exposed the degree to which they truly cannot conceptualize that Latino people come in all shapes and sizes — including non-citizen criminals.
Unforgivable sin number two came a month later, when Trump made a snarky remark about Senator John McCain — “I like people who weren’t captured.” Again, if viewed in proper context the line is less scandalous than the carefully extracted, hermetically-sealed quote seen in all the papers the next morning.
At a Iowa candidate summit, Trump had been asked to respond to an insult McCain had leveled against him, in which the Arizonan described his rallies as being full of “crazies,” and in typical Trump fashion he responded by free-styling on McCain the politician in general — of whom he has a somewhat low opinion, to put it mildly. When Frank Luntz, the establishment pollster and host of the event, offered the non-sequitur rebuttal “he’s a war hero,” Trump made his quip, but then quickly added “perhaps he’s a war hero, but right now, he said some very bad things about a lot of people.”
Once again, the rivals were outraged! He should “immediately withdraw from the race for President,” cried Rick Perry. Completely “disqualifying” remarks, nodded McCain BFF Lindsey Graham.
Now Trump is not flawless. It’s not hard to argue his McCain comments were clumsy, and perhaps poorly thought-out — hence why he almost immediately attempted damage control. But at worst, one can say Donald was merely offering a political criticism that turned personal — a sin John McCain himself is no a stranger to. As Mark Steyn reminded in a column the next day, the senator once insulted 18-year-old Chelsea Clinton by implying the reason she was “so ugly” was because she was the unholy spawn of a transexual affair between Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno.
“Is it more disreputable for a grown man to insult in public a rich, powerful senator’s war record than a teenage girl’s looks?” wondered Steyn. “Whatever the answer, a chap who’s done the latter has no business complaining about the former.”
But McCain didn’t have to complain — the pro-establishment press was there to do it for him.
Let’s be clear: had Trump mocked any Vietnam vet it would be a complete non-issue. McCain, however, is basically the prince, saint, and pope of the Establishment GOP rolled into one, a man who deserves endless deference and praise despite having accomplished little more than repeatedly losing presidential elections and tacking his name on a lot of bad legislation. So two days after Trump’s McCain comments the Washington Post felt need to run a sprawling, sarcastic, bitter essay comparing and contrasting the respective lives of Trump v. McCain. No prizes for guessing who came out smelling sweeter.
The New York Post, meanwhile, was so eager to protect one of its own they ran a front page caricature of The Donald as a shipwrecked Tom Hanks-Castaway-type circled by Sharks. “Don Voyage!” the cover screamed, “Trump is toast after insult: ‘McCain not a war hero.” If that wasn’t subtle enough, there were more puns where that came from: the inside spread declared Trump “Done-ald!”
But of course Trump was not Done-ald. As the British Telegraph noted with a blunt honesty American papers can rarely muster, “Donald Trump surges in polls after attack on John McCain.” Why, it was almost as voters didn’t share the Establishment Right’s opinion that being nice to Senator McCain was a prerequisite for qualification for the White House. (You’d think Barack Obama would have made that clear.)
Humiliated once more, Trump’s critics were forced to shift the goalposts yet again. Fine, so he was doing pretty good in the polls, but surely his meteoritic rise was going to fizzle out any moment now.
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