[Note to readers: Based on recent developments, I have updated the title and lightly edited this post, in particular adding several sentences at the end. Edits to the text are shown in bold-face and strike-through. -- NHB, 9/14]
One of the ongoing questions about Donald Trump's presidential candidacy is whether he is a total deviation from everything that the Republican Party holds dear or is simply an unvarnished version of what that party has become.
Republicans who have rejected Trump claim that he is not a true conservative, and they can certainly point to examples of things that Trump has said that sound un-Republican. (He is anti-trade, pro-Social Security, anti-interventionist on foreign policy, and so on.) On the other hand, his views on taxes, education, business regulation, the environment, military spending, and many other issues are either directly lifted from Republican policy briefs or are amped-up versions of party orthodoxy.
The one thing that has seemed most unusual about Trump's candidacy is that he has been in the business of being outrageous, not of pretending that it is his opponents who are beyond the pale. Trump grabbed the Republican nomination by blustering his way past every outrageous thing that he said, while insulting and laughing at anyone who tried to call him out for being a bully.
This left very little time to pretend that his opponents were doing outrageous things. Sure, Trump could call people liars and accuse them of being crooked, even as he was setting records for lying and has been dogged by his extensive history of corruption. Even so, Trump's approach generally did not involve screaming that his primary opponents or Hillary Clinton were being politically inappropriate. Saying that other people were violating the rules of politesse was not part of his brand.
No longer. The preening, theatrical outrage that Trump has displayed regarding Clinton's "deplorables" comment has moved the Trump camp into territory that is unfamiliar to Trump but is old hat for Republicans. I will say a few things regarding the Trump team's pearl-clutching about that particular comment in a few moments, but first it is necessary to describe just how familiar all of this is coming from a Republican.
Trump and his people are now rolling out the oldest of Republican campaign themes: Find a statement by a Democrat that can be taken out of context, repeat it endlessly, and claim to be horrified that Democrats could be so unfeeling, callous, or unpatriotic. Trump is, finally, a true Republican candidate.
There is no reason to go into a long list of examples, but two or three will help to make the point. Consider the 2004 presidential campaign, during which Democratic nominee John Kerry said during a major foreign policy speech that "I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side."
Republicans immediately and operatically freaked out, going to the fifth item on Kerry's list and mocking the notion of being sensitive about making war. Vice President Dick Cheney offered the sarcastic comment that "[a] sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans," and the whole Republican campaign machine went into full outrage mode.
Who cares that sensitivity in that context does not mean being soft, or that George W. Bush had used that very word in 2001 to describe how the U.S. must proceed in foreign affairs? There was immediate political advantage to be gained by saying that a single word that Kerry used was simply horrible. As one Republican operative put it, that one word took all of the differences between Republicans and Democrats and "wraps it all up in a bow."
The Republican outrage machine does not limit itself to electoral politics. For example, during the confirmation hearings for now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Republicans returned again and again to her self-deprecating comments about how being a "wise Latina" might affect her judicial thought process in ways that differ from the thought processes that are typical of white men. The Republican strategy immediately fell into place: "She mentioned ethnicity and gender. Outrage!"
Republicans tried to do the same thing to Hillary Clinton earlier this year, when she said that it was important to figure out how to help the economies of coal states to transition out of the era of fossil fuels. There, the attempt to stoke outrage was based on her saying that "we" will be putting a lot of coal miners out of work, where she was in fact saying that the inexorable forces of the modern economy would result in our economy losing a lot of coal jobs, and we need to have a strategy to help those who will be harmed by those forces.
For Republicans who were hankering for a good freakout, however, it was enough that Clinton had said "we," because they could make it sound as though Clinton actually wanted to destroy jobs. This false claim could then be folded into Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell's specious claim that Democrats were engaged in a "war on coal."
Even so, the Trump campaign has not until this month decided to dive into a classic Republican faux-outrage strategy. And they really should not have tried, because a candidate who has spent the last year denigrating entire groups of Americans -- by gender, race, religion, and so on -- is not well situated to say that his opponent is being a bigot. Even Republicans in Congress are being surprisingly cool to Trump's new strategy, as I note below.
Shamelessness is a feature of the outrage machine, however, and Trump is nothing if not shameless. Trump-supporting Republican operatives immediately claimed that when Clinton said that the racist, sexist, xenophobic subset of Trump's supporters could be characterized as a "basket of deplorables," this was her "47% moment." What?
As most readers well remember, Mitt Romney inflicted serious damage on his 2012 campaign when he privately told a group of wealthy donors that 47% of Americans will never vote for him, because "I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Those non-rich people, Romney said, just want giveaways from the government.
Republicans are still smarting from the very real damage that Romney did to his campaign with those comments. And just as they have tried repeatedly to use the worst mistakes of past Republican presidents against Democrats -- saying over and over again that one thing or another is "Obama's Katrina" (referring to George W. Bush's deadly obliviousness in 2005), or trying to say that Clinton is displaying Nixonian dishonesty -- they are now trying to say that Clinton denigrated good people in exactly the same way that Romney dismissed half the country as a bunch of useless loafers.
Leaving aside the bad arithmetic (even Clinton's now-retracted "half" estimate meaning that she was referring at most to 20% of the country's voters), Clinton said nothing of the kind. She was, in fact, trying to tell Democrats that they should not simply dismiss all of Trump's supporters as beyond redemption, because many of them have legitimate worries that Democrats ought to try to understand and address.
No matter. The Republican Instant Outrage Machine sprung to life, and this time Trump was leading the charge, calling her comments "so insulting" to millions of good Americans. But Clinton never insulted good Americans. She pointed out (again), on the record and in public, that there are assorted bigots supporting Trump. Calling a bigot a bigot is not bigotry. More importantly, she said that we should not lump non-bigots in with bigots.
Clinton, in fact, was trying to address a difficult question that a lot of people have been trying to answer. For example, I wrote a recent column titled "What Fuels Trump's Rise? Bigotry or Anxiety?" I argued, as Clinton did in her subsequent comments, that "if there is going to be any hope for political progress in the years ahead, people of good faith will have to learn how to peel off those [non-bigoted] voters from the ugly core of Trump’s support." Reaching the good Americans who nonetheless currently support a campaign based on bigotry is one of the keys to future political progress.
Again, however, none of this matters to Trump's version of
Pence tried to deflect the question by saying that he and Trump have denounced Duke, which is fine but simply misses the point. Duke and other bigots have endorsed Trump, and Pence was being asked if it was accurate to say that those supporters -- no matter how unwelcome their support might be -- are deplorable.
Pence: "No, I'm not in the name-calling business, Wolf. ... What Hillary Clinton did Friday night was shocking. I mean, the millions of people who support Donald Trump around this country are not a basket of anything. They are Americans. And they deserve the respect of the Democrat nominee for president of the United States. For her to rattle off this litany of pejoratives was just really shocking." (emphasis in transcript)
And that truly wraps it up in a bow. It is shocking, shocking Pence tells you, that Clinton said something disapproving about some Americans who hold what everyone should agree are un-American views. ("Build the wall. Kill them all!" and worse.) It is Pence and Trump who are trying to lump the non-bigots together with the bigots, using the non-bigots as human shields to distract everyone from the simple fact that some -- certainly not all -- Trump supporters are deplorable.
Again, Trump is the last person on earth with standing to sanctimoniously lecture someone else about being divisive. But we should not be surprised that he and Pence tried to create the familiar
Trump is finally trying to figure out how to use the Republican Instant Outrage Machine for his own purposes. He is not very good at it,
This does not mean that the Trump camp will stop trying. Although many Republicans are rejecting the strategy this time, they have demonstrated many times in the past that a strategy of ginning up unremitting outrage can have a political impact. Trump has nothing better going for him, so we can expect him to keep it up and for many in the press to play along. Again, shamelessness is his brand.