Last October, a journalist, out for dinner with me and another college friend, recalled his interview for a magazine roughly 30 years ago with Donald Trump. At the time, the Manhattan real estate magnate was riding high, not just on his various holdings but on his recent bestseller, The Art of the Deal.
The journalist asked the billionaire what was much on the minds of his bosses: “Why do you think you have become so successful?”
“He said, ‘The Trump Brand,’” the journalist remembered. “Over and over, the same thing: ‘The Trump Brand,’ ‘The Trump Brand.’ By the end of the interview, I was sick and tired of hearing it!”
In a way, the mogul’s emphasis on “brand” foreshadowed his stress throughout this election on his “winning.” There was a remarkably empty, hollow core to his bragging then and now: he could not articulate the benefits of his real estate to others any more than he could outline a clear, feasible domestic or foreign policy to voters. Yet listeners were supposed to be caught up in the excitement of merely the association with him.
What do supporters think they’re getting with “The Trump Brand”? American craftiness and shrewdness, manifested in The Art of the Deal? A Samson who, however flawed, will bring down with him the philistines at the heart of the corrupt American political system? Someone who’ll bring back a country—their country—that hasn’t existed in 60 years, and never will again? Or an enlarged embodiment of their own shadowy zenophobia, racism and sexism, for once given unapologetic, full-throated expression (“I am your voice”) by a candidate of a major political party?
When it comes to politics, though, I’d say the Trump brand involves 4 “D’s”—deadbeat, deceiver, divider, and demagogue—all adding up to a fifth, positively toxic one: a danger to this republic. Maybe that’s why even many longtime conservatives believe the candidate displays “an infantile hunger for approval” (Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer) or is insane (the headline for a post-Democratic Convention column by former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, when he began to bellow about criticism from parents of a Muslim-American soldier: “The Week They Decided Trump Was Crazy”).
From Great Pretender to Great Divider
This has been an extraordinary year, and it won’t cease being so now, even if Trump gets beaten in a landslide, which appears a much distinct possibility in the wake of the bombshell 2005 recording in which he bragged to Billy Bush of "Access Hollywood" about groping women. The candidate may fade after Election Day, but the equivalent of mad-dog disease with which he infected into the body politic will be harder to get out of the system.
How many times as children were we taught the following by our parents? Don’t belittle somebody. Don’t be rude. Don’t be crude. Don’t brag. Don’t whine. Don’t cheat. Don’t lie. Which of these has Trump not done this election? How do we expect today’s children to react to the spectacle of thousands acclaiming this 70-year-old rich brat?
The businessman-reality-star-GOP-candidate has created nothing but division across the American landscape—within families, within political parties, and within an electorate that, no matter its other differences of opinion, previously practiced a kind of civil religion concerning national ideals.
About a year ago, a friend of mine now living in Florida told me, “Whatever you do, don’t vote for Jeb Bush.” With my experience of the governor of my own state, I responded, “Whatever you do, don’t vote for Chris Christie.” Neither of us could foresee that two politicians we heartily detested from personal experience would nevertheless be preferable to a billionaire blowhard with an unerring instinct for exploiting the worst instincts of the American people, let alone that said blowhard would rampage through the primaries to seize the GOP nomination and now put the party on the brink of a civil war.
It all comes courtesy of a candidate with fundamental problems in recognizing truth. He lies when he’s in bed, then again as soon as he steps out of it, round the clock.
The Press: How to Cover Trump's Big Lies
That mendacity has presented a historic challenge to journalists’ goal of objectivity. His lies have been so numerous, so nakedly HUGE, that there has been no way for the Fourth Estate to examine the factual nature of his statements without openly calling into question his honesty. To say that his statements are "inaccurate," even "false," doesn't begin to get at the brazenness with which he throws around half-truths and then, when they no longer suit him, rewrites history as if it didn't exist, Orwellian style, as when he claimed to have "ended" the birther lie about President Obama that he had done so much to spread.
A new generation of journalists, then, is rediscovering the dilemma that faced their 1950s forebears with Senator Joseph McCarthy: how to avoid giving oxygen to a bullying liar. Without enough GOP surrogates to call out Trump, they have been forced to take on the job themselves. (In what other election has The New York Times ever referred in a headline to the prior seven days of a candidate as his “Week of Whoppers”?)
Their contempt for Trump’s outrageous utterances has been harder and harder to conceal. After all, if you are forced, one 24-hour news cycle after another, to disprove a candidate’s claims—if that candidate doesn’t even try to substantiate his claims, or tweets ever so innocently that "many people are saying" that Ted Cruz's father was connected to the Kennedy assassination—how can you not run the risk that readers or listeners will believe you see the politico as either a liar or lunatic?
Don’t think that conservatives haven’t noticed and resented this erosion of a once-bright journalistic line, or that they won’t recall it with the dawn of a new administration this January.
The former reality-show star’s path to the GOP nomination sped along because he sized up primary voters as shrewdly as he did the audience for The Apprentice. In this sense, his statements have been less splenetic than strategic: Any time a reporter is obliged to point out a rank falsehood by Trump, he or she is called biased—and all by the same man who considers it a dark, dark day when some reporter, somewhere, isn’t covering him.
The Preposterous Longevity of a Gaffe Machine
Even after a week in which he body-shamed a past Miss Universe and responded to the news that he may have avoided as much as 18 years of taxes by claiming more than $900 million in losses, Trump stayed close enough in the polls to Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton to be well within the margin of error. Even after his audiotape with Billy Bush forced him to make what may be the only attempt at a public apology that he’s ever given in his adult life, social media posts continued to ring with unshaken faith in him.
Virtually nobody would have believed a year ago that he would have gotten even this far. After all, his disadvantages were legion:
*a landlord in a nation that excoriates his kind;
*a front-page philanderer campaigning in a heartland where the name “Bill Clinton” is still mud;
*a born-on-third-base businessman with a spotty record of losses and broken promises to go with his billions;
*a classic RINO (Republican in Name Only), who has contributed mightily to Democratic coffers and doesn’t hide his lack of interest in issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage;
*an eager user of draft deferments in the Vietnam period who criticized a war hero unlucky enough to be captured; and
* an Easterner—a New Yorker, no less—who swept states where another candidate from godless Gotham, Rudy Giuliani, was swamped in 2008.
The success of this persona may be astonishing, but the list of his offensive comments can only be called “preposterously lengthy.” Other candidates saw the wind blown out of their campaigns by a single gaffe (e.g., John Kerry’s, even before the 2008 Democratic primaries kicked off, with his dumb joke that students who neglected their education could get “stuck in Iraq”).
Trump has managed to tick off a whole litany of people: POWs, women, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, blacks, Jews, and advocates for the disabled. I never thought someone in the political arena would combine the huckster instincts of P.T. Barnum with the all-encompassing offensiveness of Spiro Agnew.
One after another, each succeeding Trump pronouncement led the media to blink its eyes in astonishment, then opine—solemnly, repeatedly, and with the next day’s pronouncement, wrongly—that he’d stooped to a “new low.” The reality TV star who discussed with Billy Bush the fun of “p----y” was perfectly in line with the vulgarian who said Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her whatever” and who claimed that Hillary Clinton had been “schlonged” by Barack Obama back in 2008.
Each time, many of us expected the offensive remark to become an acid test for the party’s rank and file. But many still haven’t unequivocally rejected Trump. If not by now, a month before the election, when?
Peggy Noonan, Hugh Hewitt, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks were just a few of the Establishment conservatives who admitted that their own incorrect guesses about Trump in the primaries disqualify them from making further predictions about his future. Let’s say this: Trump's improbable run is no longer an enigma, though it is heartbreakingly sad to see this happen to the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
The latest count taken by The New York Times shows that 160 Republican officials have announced they will not support Trump. The paper published on one side a column showing an outrageous statement by the candidate, with the other side listing when the officials walked—or, put another way, when they decided he had crossed a line.
For me, Trump "crossed a line" the day he entered the race, with his remark about Mexico sending "people that have lots of problems," including drug carriers and "rapists." Virtually everything he has said since then has only confirmed it. He has run on rancid resentment, not on a cause or a philosophy of government (as, at least, Ronald Reagan did, however much one may disagree with it). How appropriate that this week's firestorm has now led many Republicans to revolt at last. For my part, I, as a New York-area resident, found Trump’s tabloid-ready bloviations revolting decades ago.
Nor will he leave the race with a single grace note, as John McCain did in '08 when he corrected a questioner who said Barack Obama was a Muslim that his opponent wasn't, that he was a Christian and father and that their disagreement was simply about issues. He has coarsened our politics and lowered our standing in the eyes of the world, an impression that may take decades to counter.
Some weeks ago, a friend told me that she liked this blog because I did not write about politics all the time. It was an accurate assessment, because I don’t like writing about politics again and again and again.
The current election, however, requires a more intensive discussion than I have given it to date, because it raises concerns that either have not surfaced in decades or that never appeared before. Over the next few weeks—even if, by a miracle, Trump withdraws from the race—I will devote much of this space to the unique challenge he poses to American democracy. In keeping with the word my friend used a year ago, I’ll examine his “brand” and the several aspects of it that bear directly on his fitness for the nation’s highest office: deadbeat, deceiver, divider, and demagogue.