With the second – and perhaps crucial – presidential debate about to take place, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the astonishingly charged campaign landscape that has come about following the release of some highly inflammatory comments by Donald Trump about the way he sees women.
Developments within the Republican Party over a possibly terminal case of buyer’s remorse are rolling onward with much noise and growing consternation, but not – yet – an effort to overturn the party’s primary voters’ heedless, thoughtless embrace of Donald Trump as their candidate. Well, not yet, anyway. But, just possibly, the final bell may ring by the time the second presidential debate wraps up late Sunday, US time. Maybe.
The latest disaster to befall the Trump presidential candidacy came as a decade-old audio recording, made while he was waiting to do a cameo appearance on a television soap opera programme, came to light. In this recording, Donald Trump freewheeled his way through an ugly mental gutter, describing his supposed magical hold over women, his efforts to seduce or assault them, where he’d like to put his hands on their anatomy, and how his wealth, power and unbounded sexual prowess (and hormonal urges) were irresistible to anyone with two X chromosomes in their body’s cells.
Oh, and by the way, the language in the audio recording was so explicit, so crass and using a smutty teenager’s locker-room vocabulary, that these five minutes while he was on a bus with another reality show host may have done what every other excess that had come from his mouth up until now had notably failed to do. (Just by the way, it is almost a certainty that the actual words from Trump’s lips would never have been played on television without being muted nor published in quality newspapers – until this revelation came out. In that sense, besides irredeemably cheapening the nation’s political discourse, Trump has also managed to erase the last vestiges of restraint in the media over the use of words. The news now needs to carry age restrictions, it seems.)
As a consequence of this latest turn of events in the extraordinary tale of this year’s presidential election, the content of the recording and the raw way they were uttered have provoked a growing wave of denunciations of the candidate and defections from his candidacy by former and current Republican office holders. There is a growing sense that here, with this latest obscenity smirking its way out of the mouth of The Donald, finally, the Trump campaign has reached an inflection point, putting it on a firm, downward trajectory as it augers earthwards.
Since the revelations of this audio recording became public, the drip-drip-drip of defections from the Republican Party’s presidential candidate from earlier miscues and the temperament issue has become a veritable flood. Republican stalwarts such as Senators John McCain have disavowed any earlier support of Trump, and a growing list of congressmen (including the influential Utah Republican, Jason Chaffetz), have joined this roster expressing their repugnance over Trump’s misogyny or worse, as well. Chaffetz told the media, “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.” Denying Trump’s claim it was just some innocent locker room banter. Chaffetz added, “I have to tell you, I played college football, and place kicker, I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms. This is not just locker room talk. This was offensive, and it was absolutely totally wrong, and I’m not going to endorse them. I’m not going to vote for Hillary Clinton [either].”
And then, on Friday night, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also announced that she could not support him either, telling him to drop out as a candidate for the presidency. In a Facebook post, she wrote, “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw. As a Republican, I hope to support someone who has the dignity and stature to run for the highest office in the greatest democracy on earth.” This downward trend has come on the heels of four earlier, separate open letters from GOP or GOP-supporting national security/international affairs and economic policy veterans – the kinds of people that would invariably staff a future Republican administration. In these letters, the Republican vets had already repudiated Trump before this latest problem.
The list of serious, senior politicians disavowing their own party’s candidate for president has now reached a jaw-dropping 120 names – and it is still growing, as more and more Republicans realise two things: this Trumpean truth has stripped away the last veil from a particularly repugnant flim flam, con man; and that – even more important – they must now do everything they can to save themselves in their own electoral chances by creating some daylight between their party’s standard-bearer and themselves. The time is finally now to do as the French say, Sauve qui peut. (Or, roughly put: Run for your lives!”)
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All of this mayhem has come fresh on the heels of a previous train smash when it had slipped out – partially in a Trump response to one of Hillary Clinton’s baited hooks in the first debate, and then from several pages of a Trump tax return – that showed Trump had claimed nearly $1-billion in business loses in 1995. As a result, it seems highly unlikely this New York flim flam man had paid any federal income taxes for nearly two decades. Well, okay, it was legal – barely – but this claim for gargantuan loses apparently represents around 2% of all such claims by every American business person in the entire nation – and it was orders of magnitude higher than anyone else’s individual claim. Ever.
The Democrats made some serious hay with this, asking if such a man, a man who paid no taxes, should be calling for others to shoulder more burdens to cover the costs of his proposed spending programmes or give the rich still more tax breaks, should he become president. But as outrageous as this tax revelation was, it still had carried less of an emotional punch in the national solar plexus than that sleazy sex talk on the bus a decade earlier. And following right upon that one was the ugly knowledge that Trump had given his explicit blessing to “shock jock” radio broadcaster Howard Stern to call his daughter a “great piece of ass”, live on radio. (What kind of dinner conversation takes place in the Trump apartment, one wonders.) There are rumours that there are more recordings of Trump’s language about his carnal desires and outrageous behaviour still buried in the archives of various television shows – just waiting to be located and broadcast. Ugh.
For Republicans, now, they are in a pickle. They can’t, many of them, any longer abide their nominee for president. Even their own vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence, has been trying to figure out how to hold Trump at arm’s length (including a condemnation of Trump’s recently revealed language) because of the awfulness of his words and thoughts. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan essentially uninvited Trump to participate in a rally in Wisconsin aimed at firing up the voters in the upcoming election. However, it is also now too late to replace him on the ballots of a growing number of states (ballots are organised state-by-state in America) with say, Pence, as their new candidate, or anybody else.
In any case, Trump has been saying, over and over, from his eyrie in the Trump Tower in Manhattan, that he is not a quitter, he’s not leaving the race, no way, no-how. Never. (Historical footnote time: Richard Nixon, shortly before he had to resign over Watergate, had famously told the nation that Richard Nixon is “not a quitter”. Right.)
The baleful realisation for Republicans now is that something must happen with this disastrous, ill-shaped, malodorous campaign before the most vulnerable Republican senators (and not a few congressmen and women, and other elected officials) may be swept away by a surging Hillary Clinton – if voters can no longer stomach Donald Trump and vote against him and his party. Still, for those who are looking really hard, some Republicans insist they can find a few glimmers of hope in the contemporary political landscape.
Beyond Trump’s own miscues, a number of Clinton speeches to various groups of banking officials have been leaked via Wikileaks (apparently courtesy of the Russians who are, it is charged, bent on disrupting the US election). These speeches paint a rather less than flattering portrait of the Democratic nominee as a person clearly too cozy with the bankers – even after the great financial crisis of 2008-9 and in seeming conflict with her own positions on the campaign trail this year in which she has demanded more bank regulation and fairness to ordinary folks. But these revelations have come when virtually all of the public oxygen has been consumed by the furore over licentious, misogynistic Trumpean narrative.
Of course, Republicans really have no one to blame besides themselves for the mess they are in right now. Virtually none of the Republican leadership rose to denounce Trump’s earlier trash talk about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims or about foreigners generally, about a physically handicapped reporter reporting on his campaign, or even about his competitors for the Republican nomination or their families. Eventually, he defeated his competition for the nomination despite this noxious use of language, but still his party’s leadership did not push him very hard to temper his language or opinions.
For some, the Republicans’ current circumstances might even evoke a kind of plaintive contemporary echo of the words Pastor Martin Niemoller had uttered in despair during Nazi rule in Germany:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
And in a way, Donald Trump’s political career has an eerie echo of yet another bent, warped political figure – this time one from the 15th century, or at least in the way Shakespeare chose to depict that figure in the eponymously named play, Richard III
As Harvard English lit professor Stephen Greenblatt wrote in Sunday’s New York Times:
“In the early 1590s, Shakespeare sat down to write a play that addressed a problem: How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?… Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.
“From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.
“Richard III, which proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard’s villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.
“His success in obtaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. The play locates these responses in particular characters — Lady Anne, Lord Hastings, the Earl of Buckingham and so forth — but it also manages to suggest that these characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Taken together, they itemise a nation of enablers.”
Whoa. Wouldn’t that seem just a bit too close for comfort right about now if one were a Republican?
And all of this bizarreness sets up the second presidential debate, scheduled for Sunday night in the US (Monday morning, South African time). As things would seem to stand now, unless Donald Trump can deliver an absolutely riveting performance, knocking the ball right out of the park and totally humiliating his rival, his circumstances will remain as a deeply wounded would-be president, his former allies deserting him by the score and running for cover. And by the end of this performance, there may be no one left to answer a Trumpean equivalent of Richard III’s famous final words,
“Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
Richard III, of course, did not survive the battle of Bosworth Field. Unless something amazing happens in St Louis, Donald Trump will limp forward as a grievously wounded candidate as his support bleeds away from him, further and further. There will be no horse for Donald Trump to ride to the White House. For Republicans more generally, this whole election has become a massive challenge in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 02 May 2016 shows US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a campaign rally at the Century Center in South Bend, Indiana, USA. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on 08 October 2016 apologized for off-camera remarks he made in a video clip dating from 2005. In the clip, Trump is heard making lewd comments about using his celebrity status to grope women. EPA/TANNEN MAURY
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