Anything-goes campaign is an alarming precedent

New York Times News Service
  • News analysis

WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump descended on the capital Friday, he was expected to finally concede that the racially tinged falsehood he had gleefully propagated, that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States, had in fact been a lie.

But before Trump got around to what was a grudging and terse admission, which itself included a falsehood about the provenance of birtherism, he had some business to tend to.

“Nice hotel,” said Trump, the Republican nominee for president, delighting in his newest property and the opportunity to plug it for free on live television. He was holding his news conference at his new hotel in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, which, he promised, is “going to be something very special.”

He seemed untroubled in using an ostensible campaign event just a few blocks from the White House to openly promote his personal commercial interests 52 days before the election.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Trump International Hotel, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

In fact, this past week offered a vivid illustration of how little regard Trump has for the long-held expectations of America’s leaders. He is not only breaking the country’s political traditions, he and his campaign aides are now all but mocking them.

Besides using his campaign as a platform to make money on a new hotel, Trump leveled an untrue assertion that Hillary Clinton had been the first to claim Obama was born abroad. He also boasted about his health on the show of a daytime television celebrity while releasing just his testosterone levels and a few other details about his well-being.

Trump also continued to flout 40 years of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, a decision that his eldest son admitted last week was not based on an audit, as Trump has repeatedly claimed, but on a desire not to “distract” from the campaign’s “main message.”

Beyond his handling of personal information, he also casually accused the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve of corruption, claimed that the bipartisan national debate commission was rigged against him and stated that Clinton had not proposed a child care plan. (She has, and did so a year before he did.)

He also mocked an African-American pastor who had just welcomed him to her church and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who once said she had Native American roots, as “Pocahontas.”

And that was all before Friday night, when Trump hinted at violence against Clinton by inviting her Secret Service detail to disarm “and see what happens to her.”

Routine falsehoods, unfounded claims and inflammatory language have long been staples of Trump’s anything-goes campaign. But as the polls tighten and November nears, his behavior, and the implications for the country should he become president, are alarming veteran political observers — and leaving them deeply worried about the precedent being set, regardless of who wins the White House.

“It’s frightening,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “Our politics, because of him, is descending to the level of a Third World country. There’s just nothing beneath him. And I don’t know why we would think he would change if he became president. That’s what’s really scary.”

Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, could not contemplate the prospect of Trump as commander in chief.

“It’s incredibly depressing,” Hess said of Trump. “He’s the most profoundly ignorant man I’ve ever seen at this level in terms of understanding the American presidency, and, even more troubling, he makes no effort to learn anything.”

Trump’s advocates insist that the critics are missing the larger impact of his candidacy and how his campaign and presidency could be a force for good. As a New York Times-CBS poll released recently indicated, voters see him as more likely to aggressively confront what they see as a rotten political system, even if they recognize Trump as a risky choice.

“On the things that are really big, he will in some clumsy way force real change,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who is an adviser to Trump. “Washington won’t be the same when he’s done.”

But that is what is so worrisome to many observers of Trump’s rise. His critics fear that his norm-breaking campaign portends a political future in which candidates pay no penalty for unabashedly telling untruths, disregarding the public’s right to know and lobbing racially charged accusations.

“I worry that if those of us in politics and the media don’t do a lot of soul-searching after this election, a slightly smarter Trump will succeed in the future,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s former chief speechwriter. “For some politicians and consultants, the takeaway from this election will be that they can get away with almost anything.”

As Martin Nolan, a former editor and reporter at The Boston Globe who has chronicled politics for more than 50 years, put it: “Truth has a low priority in the misnomer known as reality TV.”

“Rules,” Nolan added, “are for losers.”

The only salvation this year, argue Trump’s detractors, is that he is a singular figure in U.S. life, and his would-be successors will not be able to skirt accountability in the fashion of the celebrity provocateur.

“He has inflicted Stockholm syndrome on America,” said Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and the minority leader of the Georgia House. “It’s not even that we’re numb to it, it’s just that we’ve always enjoyed the show. It’s entertaining to hate him, to like him and to imagine being him.”

But while there might not be another Trump, he does seem to have thrust the country into a new era. With U.S. culture increasingly coarse and ever more obsessed with celebrity, the country’s politics were bound to eventually catch up.

Less than 25 years after Bill Clinton shocked some by unabashedly answering a question about his underwear preference on television, Trump purposefully brought up the size of his penis at a televised debate.

It is not difficult to find Republicans who recoil at how their own nominee has, to borrow the phrase made famous by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator and sociologist, defined deviancy down.

“Trump is reflecting a culture that is more crass, more accepting of vulgarity and more attuned to pop culture,” said Matt Lewis, a conservative writer. “The bar has been lowered where going on Dr. Oz is perfectly acceptable and maybe even cutting edge.”

Where Republicans differ is over whether the acceptance of Clinton’s transgressions is just as ominous for the country.

“You can’t have a republic without virtue, and I don’t think there’s great virtue in either of them,” Tom Coburn, the former Oklahoma senator, said of Trump and Clinton.

Still, Weber, who arrived in Washington as a congressional staff member shortly after the post-Watergate election of 1974, said Trump’s approach would inflict the most damage on his own party.

“You don’t want to say this is the equivalent of Watergate,” Weber said. “But at least that was a discrete crime. In a way, Trump is harder to deal with. And Republicans didn’t feel compelled to defend Watergate: They drove Richard Nixon out of office.”