I don’t know if you heard Donald Trump’s anti-Hillary speech this morning. It was filled with a slew of demonstrable falsehoods about Hillary and this very overheated argument about Hillary being responsible for the deaths of thousands and using the State Department as her own “private hedge fund.” A reader wrote in this afternoon to ask for help understanding what Trump was even trying to say with that remark. I didn’t get a chance to respond to her yet. But the gist I think is that there’s no there there to understand. The point is that Hillary’s a crook, uses any position in government as a way to enrich herself and is just generally awful. Tossing in “hedge fund” is nothing more than Trump’s permanent need to act out dominance politics via hyperbole, even when it’s devoid of any actual meaning. And yet, once you got past the febrile Hillary bashing, the most notable thing about the speech was how relatively normal it was.
He hit on some basic themes of economic nationalism, a less interventionist foreign policy. He even had a good turn of phrase skewering Hillary’s “I’m with her” slogans and shifting it to ‘I’m with you.’ All good politicians find ways to turn the natural personality cult of high level politics back to a focus on the individual voter. Trump’s not a natural electoral politician. He’s a natural rabble rouser. But this was an effective turn of phrase. He also followed up with the claim at least that last night’s email fundraising appeal brought in an impressive two million dollars.
(Another topic entirely, but I want to return to this issue: I see no reason Trump shouldn’t able to raise quite a bit of small donor money. Richard Viguerie built a fundraising empire – indeed a good part of the modern conservative movement – on direct mail versions of just this kind of hyperbolic, racist nonsense.)
Now is this an incredibly low bar? Yes, of course it is. I’m setting aside numerous lies, totally unsubstantiated claims, many of which might well amount to slander, even by the almost impossible standards which apply to public officials. Trump’s ability to lie without even the slightest pretense of covering his tracks or caring is unprecedented in modern presidential politics. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.
So what is it about this speech? The answer is pretty obvious: Trump was using a TelePrompTer, which is to say it wasn’t him talking. In fact, pretty much all of Trumps TelePrompTer speeches have been this way. They’re kind of plodding. They’re clearly not him. But they’re also not crazy, which given who we’re talking about is not nothing. As I’ve argued, this is Trump’s singular liability in this campaign. People think he’s too erratic, crazy, belligerent, unhinged – pick your adjective – to be president. Relatedly, there are whole classes of citizens who think they’re at best second class citizens in his eyes – women, Hispanics, blacks, basically anybody who’s not a white man.
Personally, I think Trump has likely done himself too much damage to be able to overcome these impressions, which lets be clear, are entirely accurate impressions. Trump is a mercurial and emotional unstable racist and misogynist who is also a pathological liar.
Which brings us back to what seemed like the smartest thing I saw on the cable shows after the speech. Nicole Wallace, a former Bush White House Communications official said that the speech seemed pretty normal. Maybe even good. But that wasn’t the point. Because you have to wait 24 hours to have any idea how a Trump speech went. Why? Because once Trump is cut loose from the TelePrompTer ball and chain, he’ll inevitably go on Hannity or O’Reilly and say something totally insane.
For me there are basic rules of thumb: Trump has very little money and Trump will always be Trump. I have no doubt he’ll be back to being Trump very soon. But there’s a family around him who may not care terribly about the presidency but cares a lot about their inheritance. There’s a massive GOP party infrastructure that at least wants to make this a competitive race. What I’ll be watching is how successful both those groups are in keeping Trump from being Trump in public as much as possible for the next several months. I doubt they’ll be able to do it. Remember, Trump will always be Trump. I also think too much damage has been done for it to be enough if they were able to. But that’s what I’m going to be watching.