Mr. Trump could come away a winner if he makes cogent points without sounding too hostile, presenting himself as more of a serious-minded, anti-establishment voice in a primary crowded with career Republican politicians. But there are risks for him if he turns the debate stage in Cleveland into another episode of the reality show his campaign has sometimes resembled.That couldn't possibly be more wrong.
In reality, how is Trump going to "come away a winner"? Precisely by "sounding too hostile," and by not seeming "serious-minded" as political insiders define that term. Trump's fans like him because he's not Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, because he doesn't come off as a grind with his nose in a briefing book on Saturday night. If Trump "turns the debate stage in Cleveland into another episode of the reality show his campaign has sometimes resembled," what are the "risks for him"? That he'll go to 35% in the polls?
Oh, I guess these are the risks:
“He’s gotten away with just blustery criticisms and sweeping generalizations until now,” Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney in 2012, said in an email. “It will be interesting to see if the Fox moderators, who are trusted validators among Republican primary voters, force him to provide more specifics on important policy issues.”He can't? Sure he can. Yes, the right-wing base loves Fox, but the base is more than willing to denounce Fox in the rare moments when Fox deviates from wingnut orthodoxy. Spotted at Free Republic when Fox's Martha McCallum asked Ted Cruz a few months ago if he was too conservative to win independent voters:
“He can’t just complain about the media to a Republican audience when it’s Bret Baier asking the question,” he said, referring to a Fox News anchor.
See also "Is Fox News Also a Leftist Propaganda Outlet?" (posted after Carl Cameron said Obama's birth certificate was legitimate) and "FOX NEWS Officially RINO Liberal Central" (posted after Glenn Beck left Fox). Trust me: If it's a battle between a Fox moderator and Trump, unless Trump seems on the defensive, the crazies are going to side with Trump.
But here's where I think we see what's really going on in the Times article:
It is possible, of course, that Mr. Trump could choose to disarm his opponents not by finding new ways to humiliate them but by being statesmanlike and courteous.Well, actually, no, it isn't possible. But go on.
“If we live in a world where he is a serious candidate and intends to prove that he’s a serious candidate, then it is a real opportunity,” said Stuart Stevens, another former Romney adviser. “I think for Donald Trump, a boring debate would probably help.”Ahh, there we go. What these people are rooting for is a Trump who makes nice. Why? Because that would quell their anxieties about Trump's rise and what it says regarding American politics. If Trump becomes just another politician, then we no longer have to worry that a significant percentage of the public wants a racist know-nothing demagogue as president. If Trump were to do what Stevens prays for, the Beltway insiders could say, "See? The kids are all right. They just like this harmless eccentric. We no longer have to worry that years of escalating extremist rhetoric from the GOP and the right-wing media have primed a third of the electorate to want the country run by an ignorant tyrant on a balcony. Phew!"
A different version of the "Trump's all right, really" worldview comes today from Peggy Noonan, who turns his rise into a sort of Song of America:
He was born to wealth and went to Wharton, yet gives off a working-class vibe his supporters admire. He’s like Broderick Crawford in “Born Yesterday”: He comes across as self-made. In spite of his wealth he never made himself smooth, polite. He’s like someone you know. This is part of his power....Of course, we wouldn't be able to just "fire him." I'm not even sure we could impeach and convict him if it came to that -- he'd probably sue. (And by the way, Peggy, Trump's followers have plenty of "animus for John McCain.")
He never served in the military yet connects with grunts. He has lived a life of the most rarefied material splendor -- gold gilt, penthouse suites -- and made the high life part of his brand. Yet he doesn’t come across as snooty or fancy -- he’s a regular guy. A glitzy Manhattan billionaire is doing well with Evangelicals. That’s a first.
His rise is not due to his supporters’ anger at government. It is a gesture of contempt for government, for the men and women in Congress, the White House, the agencies. It is precisely because people have lost their awe for the presidency that they imagine Mr. Trump as a viable president....
Mr. Trump’s supporters like that he doesn’t in the least fear the press, doesn’t get the dart-eyed, anxious look candidates get. He treats reporters with courtesy until he feels they’re out of line, at which point he calls them stupid. They think he’ll do that with Putin. His insult of John McCain didn’t hurt him, and not because his supporters have any animus for Mr. McCain. They just saw it as more proof Mr. Trump will take the bark off anyone.
They’re not nihilists, they’re patriots, and don’t experience themselves as off on a toot but pragmatic in a way the establishment is not. The country is in crisis, we can’t keep doing more of the same. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” We have to do something different. He’s different. If it doesn’t work we’ll fire him.
One way or another, we can remain in denial that Trump's rise says something bad about the country. Either Trump will get himself under control because he's really not a bad guy or America is egging him out of the best possible motivations. But relax, folks: America is just fine. Nothing to see here. Move along.
UPDATE: I should note that Matt Bai of Yahoo Politics is an exception to this -- he thinks Trump's rise shows that we have a dangerous tendency to "amuse ourselves to death." Bai doesn't worry that Trump will win, but he does worry that someone more dangerous will learn the formula from Trump:
Somewhere out there right now is some business magnate or TV celebrity, someone whose resources and audacity may vastly exceed his intellect or compassion, whose ambition may be more of the Napoleonic variety than the P.T. Barnum kind, who’s better skilled than Trump at making demagoguery look like a half-palatable governing vision.And then we're sunk.
And that person is probably sitting by a pool ringed with limestone goddesses, watching all this unfold and asking the question any of us might reasonably ask in that situation.
“Hey, why not me?”
What Bai ignores, however, is the specific content of Trump's demagoguery. I say in the headline to this post that America has a Trump problem. I should be more specific: Right-wing america has a Trump problem, in that vast numbers of right-wingers are primed to fall for an ignoramus like him. The rest of America has a problem with those right-wingers. Bai misses that.