Since Clinton’s speech on Thursday I’ve been trying to gauge Trump’s response. But making sense of Trump is no easy thing. He’s like no politician who has reached the pinnacle of the electoral stage in perhaps a century, maybe ever. His public appearances are like a fugue of impulse and aggression, overlapped with charisma and humor and a searching for the spirit of the crowd, a sometimes frantic, sometimes slow mix of neediness, divination and dominance.
Trump is in so many ways the perfect anti-Clinton. By a mix of temperament and chastened experience on the public stage, Clinton is controlled, wary and planned. To her disfavor, she is hard pressed to be spontaneous or unrehearsed in the moment. With Trump, what little preparation or strategy there may be seldom survives first contact with the emotion, intuition, aggression or the perceived opportunities of the moment. The most salient thing we’ve learned about Donald J. Trump over the last year is that he is unable to control himself and his myriad mercurial, even manic impulses. He may want to ‘pivot’. But he can’t. The crazy follows him because it emanates from him. And because he can’t, he says he doesn’t want to. He probably believes it too.
But after two rallies and a flurry of interviews there’s no question Clinton has gotten to Trump in a big way. As she said, he is very thin skinned. (Emphatically denying that you’re thin-skinned is not a credible rebuttal.) Given who he is, being denigrated by a strong woman must cut deeply. Underneath the angry talk, he appears befuddled and uncertain about just how to respond. That is mainly because even before her assault he’d maxed out his invective. She was crooked, a liar, untalented, a lightweight, a sexual predator by proxy. How exactly do you escalate from there?
His furious effort to wring more aggression out of the English language has proved a rather unconvincing rebuttal to her central charge that he is temperamentally unfit, too emotionally unstable to serve as President. He now says flatly that she should be in jail, says he’ll find an Attorney General who will imprison her. He now also calls her a “thief” which somehow is the reason she set up her own email server. Overshadowed by the “my African-American” stumble in Friday’s speech in Redding was a bizarre interlude in which Trump gave a glowing evocation of the supporter who cold-cocked and beat a protester in Tucson on March 20th as an example of his little-heralded but purportedly expansive support among African-Americans. He’s trying to escalate but has little room to go. He’s maxed out. The transcripts of the two speeches read like compressed literary spittle.
His affect is also different. Both rallies struck me as significantly hotter than anything we’ve seen before from Trump, more sweat, more chopping hands, more yelling – simply more electric, frenzied and angry.
As Clinton and her team certainly anticipated, hitting him hard as mentally unstable and unfit for the presidency has placed Trump in a sort of Chinese finger puzzle of his own creation. The only mode of response he knows – an escalating and bellicose round of personal attacks with increasingly hyperbolic accusations – only confirms Clinton’s diagnosis. The harder he fights the tighter the charge sticks.
The final important backdrop are the most recent polls. Polls in the early summer can be erratic and are easy to over-interpret. But people do over-interpret them. Trump is uniquely dependent on impressive poll numbers because his entire campaign message is a disquisition on his own strength and dominance. When your whole message is about winning but you’re losing, you start to seem ridiculous. What now seems like an ephemeral surge in Trump’s numbers after clinching the Republican nomination greased the skids for numerous Republican elected officials to endorse Trump’s candidacy and pledge their support. They’re now locked in for a ride with an emotionally unstable man whose personal insecurities and instinctive racism now seem only to be accelerating.