“She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be.”
That’s the takeaway quote from a disturbing article in the Times out tonight, describing an agitated, febrile Donald Trump, off the high of his overnight Twitter rampage but settled into a steady rage over a week of humiliations and electoral reverses. Trump’s biggest liability and weakness through his eighteen months as a politician has been his inability to focus or rule his emotions. He goes off on jags in which he seems to forget what he’s at least notionally trying to do: win an election. In the quotation above, his rage against Clinton and Alicia Machado appears to have deluded him into believing that the election is a contest to see who can be the bigger monster. There is little basis to believe that this is how most voters judge the race.
I mentioned a few days ago that the problem with Trump’s swaggering claim that he had had pity on Chelsea Clinton or let Clinton off easy in debate #1 was that he was setting up a dynamic in which he’d look like a fool if he didn’t go full bore crazy on Clinton in the second debate. Partly that’s a problem because ‘townhall’ debates are notoriously unforgiving to whichever candidate chooses to go negative. More to the point, Trump’s biggest electoral weakness is the widespread belief that he lacks the temperament and emotional stability to be president. Public tirades may provide psychic satisfaction but they only drive home why people think he’s not fit for the job.
Trump and his advisors are now convinced that Bill Clinton’s numerous infidelities are the Sword of Damocles they have hanging over Hillary Clinton, the ultimate boom to lower on all her electoral aspirations. But this premise is dubious and far-fetched. According to the Times, Trump said “he was bringing up Mr. Clinton’s infidelities because he thought they would repulse female voters and turn them away from the Clintons, and because he was eager to unsettle Mrs. Clinton in their next two debates and on the campaign trail.”
As I noted over the weekend, what seems blindingly obvious is that for a boorish aggressor like Trump to raise Bill Clinton’s infidelities against Hillary Clinton seems wildly more likely to repulse female voters against Trump than against Clinton. Yes, there are these baroque arguments which purport to show why Hillary Clinton is the true villain of her husband’s infidelities and which leverage faux feminist arguments to brand her a hypocrite. But these are no more than a patch work mask pasted over something more stark and primal: they are meant to shame Clinton sexually, humiliate her publicly and brand her as weak and contemptible. In any case, what attacks are ‘about’ is seldom up to the attacker. The audience decides that. It will be surpassingly difficult for Trump – a man known for attacking women as floozies, pigs and worse – to convince anyone that these attacks are anything other than sadism and cruelty. He can’t even start a conversation, let alone convince anyone, that he cares in any way about how anyone treats women.
He makes that more clear each day with his increasingly sexualized assaults on Machado. Trump told the Times he was “absolutely disgusted” that Clinton has allied herself with Machado. And his ‘disgust’ is driven by his claim that, far from being pure, she is, to put it baldy, a slut. He made this clear in his overnight tweets and he reiterated it in his comments to the Times. Clinton, said Trump, “made this young lady into a girl scout when she was the exact opposite,” before claiming, with no evidence, that she had sex on camera in a sex tape. All of the drama and expectation clustering around the ‘will he or won’t he bring up Bill’s affairs’ question fails to grapple with the simple fact that Trump is highly unlikely to credibly pose as a critic of the mistreatment of women while simultaneously calling women whores and pigs.
The other dimension of the story is Trump’s belief or boast that he will ‘unsettle’ or unnerve Clinton. Everything we’ve seen of these two individuals suggests that there is little that can shake Clinton. She has her shortcomings and insufficiencies. But this is not one of them. She is steely and unflappable. On the contrary, it’s Trump who is easily rattled, easy to make a plaything of his chaotic and unbounded emotions.
All of the talk about raising Bill Clinton’s sexual history are just a replay of Trump’s instinctive penchant for dominance politics. It’s not as though voters can’t think about Bill Clinton’s history unless Trump raising it. It’s not as though there’s any new information Trump can bring to the table. At its essence all of this talk is no more than warnings and threats that he will abuse Clinton in public, shame her and try to humiliate her. Like any abuser he is threatening to hit her and make her cower. “Don’t make me hurt you!” There’s no issue or debate.
For now and for the next several weeks at least Trump is pulling the country into the drama of his own dominance and abuse rituals, ones that plainly aren’t working because his opponent is steadier on her feet than he is. That fact itself is leading him to lash out in wilder and wilder ways, just as electoral reverses are pressuring him into more intense outbursts. The next debate is only a week away. It’s difficult to imagine he can right his ship before then.