I’M WRITING THIS two days after Donald J. Trump, the Republican candidate for president, insulted the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in combat. There is a bit of backlash now, as there tends to be when Trump wanders a bit too far off the reservation, but he will emerge unscathed, and probably with improved poll numbers.
This should come as no surprise. It was very early in his campaign, seemingly decades ago, when he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he remarked at the time, which should have been enough to disqualify him from higher office.
It was not. Nothing Trump said has disqualified him, and I don’t think anything will. He could employ the c-word and the n-word to describe Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, and he’d probably pick up a few like-minded independent voters in Florida.
Many thinking people, Republicans as well as Democrats, look at Trump and see a sham, a fake, a con man, an idiot telling tales with sound and fury, signifying nothing. Spend twenty minutes reading the various essays and articles and exposes about him, and the picture emerges of a rank narcissist, a recidivist failure at business, a misogynist who harbors sexual feelings for his daughter, a cruel person devoid of compassion, an illiterate and incurious bully who would sooner deport you than lend you a hand. Why, then, is this not manifestly obvious to the many millions of Americans who support him?
The answer, I think, is straightforward: he has presented himself throughout the campaign with remarkable consistency, as both a strong man and a strongman. The Donald—his very name carries a definitive article, like a superhero!—is a successful businessman and an extremely wealthy individual. He makes quick command decisions (“You’re fired!”). He says whatever he wants to say, even if it’s controversial or politically incorrect. He’s not a slave to moneyed interests, or to the Washington establishment. He is his own man; no one owns him. He answers to absolutely no one. He is fearless.
He appears fearless, and a lot of Americans are afraid. He appears strong, and a lot of Americans feel weak. Like a Big Daddy, Trump promises to make them feel safe and secure. He will protect them from ISIS, from China, from Mexican rapists, from other bogeymen yet unnamed.
Think about it. When has he not come across this way? He’s always the same, no matter what happens. We haven’t seen him cry. We haven’t seen him break down. We haven’t seen him vulnerable. His snits have been confined to late-night Twitter, where there are no visuals. We’ve only seen him appear fearless and powerful.
From the day Trump announced his candidacy—indeed, from the moment he emerged as a public figure all those decades ago—every single move he’s made has served to reinforce this strongman image. The bile that spews from his mouth, hateful as it is, squares with this persona. When he calls John McCain a loser for getting captured, his supporters may not agree with the sentiment, but they love that he had the cajones to express it. His willingness to say whatever he likes trumps (ahem) whatever disgusting filth emanates from his lips. It makes him appear stronger, above all else. It also makes him seem honest, even as he lies; because, again, he will verbalize any stray thought that floats through his head, which makes him that most admired sort of man, the straight-shooter.
Trump, man, strong, fearless, straight-shooter. Contrast that with Hillary, woman, weak, secretive/scared, liar and his uncanny popularity becomes more understandable.
Thing is, Trump is neither strong nor fearless. A strong and fearless person would not, for example, refuse to disclose his tax returns. A strong and fearless person would not, for another example, insult Gold Star mothers, POWs, or the disabled. A strong and fearless person would not seek to build a wall between the United States and the country that provides such an important part of our labor force. A strong and fearless person would not sue everyone who expressed a negative opinion of him, and hide behind his lawyers. A strong and fearless person would not divorce his wife at the first sign of adversity…and then do it again.
But reputations die hard, and Trump’s as a strong, fearless leader has been difficult to shake, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Heck, his very last name means “unbeatable!” Thus, beating him will not be as simple as the media, and most sentient Americans, originally thought.
Trump will not be defeated by making a cogent, rational case for Hillary Clinton. He will not be defeated by pointing out that he is not, in fact, a conservative. Or by impassioned essays about what a jerk he is. Or by any number of investigative journalism pieces revealing his slipshod business ethics or shady ties with Russian oligarchs. Or by any other conventional means. He can defend himself against all of these things, as he’s been doing all along, by simply launching personal insult after personal insult. The reason it works is because these lines of attack against him simply reinforce the idea that Trump is strong and fearless.
The way to beat Trump, perhaps the only way to beat Trump, is to dispel the false image of him as strong and fearless, once and for all. He must be shown as the weak, scaredy-cat bully he really is. Nothing else will take him down.
This has worked before. In 2012, Mitt Romney was filmed remarking that 47% of the country would never vote for him, thus revealing himself as the tool of the wealthy elite the Democrats insisted he was. That moment doomed his campaign.
Doom will visit Donald Trump’s campaign as well. But it won’t be some hidden camera trick. Because everything with Trump is larger than life, his downfall must be appropriately yuuuge. It must be watched by millions of people, live. It must be an act so egregious that it cannot be walked back on Twitter the next day. And because everything with Donald Trump is self-generated, it must be something he does to himself. Trump, in other words, will author his own demise. Stars, after all, implode of themselves.
This will take place. Further, it will go down on September 26, on the campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
On that date, in that setting, Trump will debate Hillary Clinton for the first time.
For many months now, as noted, Donald Trump has consistently presented himself as strong and fearless, with only a handful of slip-ups. When the Secret Service rushed in to protect him at a Dayton rally in March. When the bald eagle attacked him. This weekend, when firemen he later insulted rescued him from a broken elevator (alas, there is no footage!). Otherwise, he has been the strongman extraordinaire, a version of the Big Boss he plays on The Apprentice, but with Chris Christie instead of Meat Loaf.
On the other hand, the campaign thus far has offered few places for him to break character. The GOP field was so large, and so honeycombed with wing-nuts, that Trump could coast through the debates, hurling a few insults and mots justes, and letting the others kill each other off. He was always at center stage because he was the front-runner, and this also reinforced the image of him as strongman. The Republican National Convention was his show, scripted by him, designed to portray him as he wished to be portrayed, which was as an American Mussolini. He was less cocksure during interviews, as with the 60 Minutes appearance with Mike Pence, but even then, he never looked inept enough to convince a staunch supporter that he was putting on an act.
The debates are another story. It’s just him and Hillary up there, Hillary who knows so much more about policy and governance and foreign affairs than he does that it’s almost funny. There’s no safety net, no wiggle room to make put-downs about Rosie O’Donnell. All he will be able to do is hurl insults, but Hillary has absorbed more insults than anyone who ever lived. She will not be, as she put it in her speech, baited by a tweet.
In the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s LeBron James goaded the Warriors’ Draymond Green into throwing a punch at his genitals, resulting in Green’s suspension for a pivotal Game Five; Cleveland won that game, and the next two, and the championship. The suspension was the turning point. LeBron knew that, if baited in just the right way, the famously volatile Draymond would snap. Trump is just as volatile as Green, if not more so. All Hillary has to do is get him angry, so angry that he loses his mind. Then the real Donald Trump will emerge: the petulant, petty, nine-year-old boy trapped in a grown man’s short-fingered body. The Worst Person in America.
He will say something stupid the night of September 26th; that’s a given. But he will also do something stupid. Turn red, curse, pound his shoe on the podium like his Russian friend’s predecessor Khrushchev. He will do this because his superpower of insult-hurling will be useless against Hillary Clinton, impervious to invective as Superman to gunfire, and The Donald will crack under the pressure. The orange man will turn beet red.
If Hillary can take a page out of the LeBron playbook and make him so mad that he actually goes after her—and who doesn’t believe him capable of snapping just like Draymond Green did?—that would end the election right then and there.
On September 26, the curtain will fall away, and the world will see the real Donald Trump: a sniveling, thin-skinned, mean-spirited, candy-ass crybaby. Not strong, not fearless, but a word he himself uses often in his tweets: pathetic.
Mark your calendar.