Ever since populist crusader William Jennings Bryan invented the modern presidential campaign in 1896, the avowed purpose of barnstorming the country and delivering marathon speeches was to win votes.
Donald Trump seems to believe that the only point of campaigning is to see his face on all cable TV networks as soon as his plane takes off for the next rally. In the annals of politics going back to Millard Fillmore, it is impossible to recall another presidential candidate who denounced a gold-star mother (Ghazala Khan), a prior nominee of his own party (John McCain) and the speaker of the House (Paul Ryan).
In the same week.
The sane approach at this point for Trump would be to retreat to Mar-a-Lago, deactivate his Twitter account and take a vow of silence until November 8. That, at least, might make the election more of a referendum on Hillary Clinton rather than a yes-no test of whether the bilious billionaire can be trusted with nuclear weapons.
But such a strategy of inclusion-through-seclusion would deprive Trump of the greatest joy in his life — voicing with a snarl any passing resentments to rapturous crowds.
Fifty years ago, John Lennon said about the Beatles, “We’re more popular than Jesus.” Lennon was then in his mid-twenties, but Trump at 70 displays the same naked hunger for acclaim. The GOP nominee might be tempted to brag that his TV ratings top Moses or even Jesus, except such a boast would cost Trump the evangelical vote.
At a moment of moral testing, the choice that a person makes matters more than the timing. Which is why this week’s Trump tantrums grant prominent Republicans another opportunity to redeem their integrity from the lock box where they placed it when they initially endorsed the GOP nominee.
There is no way that the Ryans and Mitch McConnells of this world can successfully parse words in their efforts to simultaneously endorse and yet repudiate Trump without being regarded as anti-semantic.
For decades to come, Republicans will be asked, “What did you do in the war against an authoritarian ignoramus with contempt for democratic values?” This is not a struggle that timorous Republicans can wait out in neutral Switzerland.
It’s a binary choice — which side are you on? Anti-Trump Republicans are not required to vote for Clinton. Backing the Libertarian ticket or writing in the name of Ryan’s supply-side mentor, the late Jack Kemp, are morally defensible decisions.
From the beginning, the strength of America has rested on the collective faith in our democratic institutions. Yes, those bonds have been tested by the heart-stopping 2000 electoral tie and a decade of fractious partisanship in Washington. But our politics are predicated on the bipartisan belief that votes in November will be counted fairly.
So it is in character that Trump — protecting his ego from the risk of ignominious defeat — has begun warning that “the election is going to be rigged.” It is frightening what conspiracy theories Trump is going to peddle if he is down by a double-digit margin in October. And, as Bernie Sanders’ die-hards illustrate, wild charges about a “rigged election” can find a receptive audience among voters who cannot believe that a majority opposes their chosen candidate.
Equally predictable is Trump’s sudden aversion to debates with Clinton. Unconcerned with such “loser” notions as facts, Trump announced that he found it highly suspicious that two presidential debates will be on the same nights as NFL games. Of course, the debates had been planned long before the football league announced its 2016 schedule, but the odds are that won’t stop Trump from threatening to boycott the “rigged” face-offs with Hillary.
Even in the best of times, the negotiations leading up to debates can be contentious with each campaign jostling for advantage. The possibility that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson may poll high enough to be included in the debates complicates everything. In 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a three-way debate with Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson. As a result, the only Carter-Reagan debate took place less than a week before the election — with fatal results for the incumbent Democratic president.
That is why it is a mistake to glibly assume that Trump and Clinton will hold three debates or even a single encounter. Remember that during the primaries, Trump boycotted a Fox News debate and tried to hold CNN to a $5-million ransom to participate in one of their political street brawls. Only the naive should believe that a respect for political tradition would compel Trump to debate — especially if the ill-informed former reality show host isn’t in the mood to read briefing books.
In a year when Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee doesn’t even make the top ten of bizarro events, it is impossible to predict the next installment of the Trump Follies.
Everything defies imagination. That’s why the New Yorker’s Robert Leighton captured the mood in a recent cartoon that shows a cartoonist at his easel as his wife bursts in to say, “Stop — that Trump cartoon you came up with this morning just happened.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro