In case any of you were wondering whether Donald Trump’s latest proclamation that Senator John McCain—who was captured by the Viet Cong and tortured—is not a war hero will hurt his numbers, try thinking about the situation in a few less obvious ways.
The New York Times seems to think that yes, this could be the statement that deals a death blow to the Trump campaign, and it’s pretty obvious why. The right love war, and more than that they love servicemen, especially those who have seen combat, and attacking their merit is off limits (unless, of course, they’re gay, in which case you can ignore their existence). So it’s no wonder that the Republican presidential hopefuls did the most predictable thing and condemn Trump for his remarks and defend McCain for his valor.
But here’s the thing—none of them really criticized Trump, per se; what they criticized was a loud statement from a guy with a million of them. No one attacked any of his platforms so as not to alienate the whackos who take him seriously. Or, at least, they think that defending McCain is what won’t alienate that peculiar section of the American right, but I’ll wager all they’ve done is reaffirm to their committed base the same platitudes while failing to speak the language of said peculiar section of the American right. To these people, McCain is widely seen as too moderate a Republican, too willing to compromise with evil, Stalinist, Muslim Obama, and too soft on matters like militarism and especially torture. He is perceived as having lost a very winnable presidential election in 2008, where his VP candidate, vapid schlepp she is, was arguably more popular than him. As for his service record, McCain actually crashed several jets as a pilot in Vietnam, one of them leading to his imprisonment by the Viet Cong, and he was nearly thrown out of the air force for being a drunk. The POWs with him hated him. After being released and coming back stateside, his only job before becoming a career politician was in a law firm owned by his daddy. Since then he’s been a Washington insider, part of the establishment Trump’s base and the Tea Party find so abhorrent.
And Republicans really have no business being shocked that attacking the service of a decorated soldier would be enthusiastically accepted by conservative hardliners. Does no one remember the ribbing John Kerry received in 2004, despite his impressive service record? Further, none of them can call out Trump for his draft dodging, because, you know, Bush and Cheney were kinda famous for that. And who out of the current pool has ever served? Not Marco Rubio. Not Ted Cruz. Not Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Chris Christie or Mike Huckabee. Not Rand Paul or Rick Santorum or Bobby Jindal or Ben Carson.
Even putting aside all that, I don’t know why anyone would suspect this would be so detrimental to his campaign when the first words out his mouth in his announcement speech were that Mexicans are rapists.
Trump gets another win with the media covering him all weekend about this supposed gaff, and they’re kind of in a bind: if they don’t cover him, there will be howls of a media blackout similar to those concerning Ron Paul in 2008, and if they do cover him, he gets to spread his venom even further.
The thing about Trump is that he’s an anomaly decades in the making that was bound to show up. With an increasingly rightward-leaning Republican Party, it was only a matter of time that a self-financed billionaire would buy his way into the race. People point to Ross Perot and his 19% voter share in 1992 as a similar instance, but the difference here is that Perot, had he not temporarily dropped out, might have actually had a shot. (Especially when you consider that a myth about Perot is that he syphoned voters purely out of the Bush machine, when in reality he also appealed to conservative Democrats.) Not only that, but Perot, while not the sanest of the bunch, certainly had things to say that wasn’t just empty rhetoric with nothing to back it up. Take the not wholly-inaccurate prediction of the “giant sucking sound” that NAFTA would create and ask yourself if Trump could ever deliver something as prescient. Trump has struck at a different time. In this day and age, we have unprecedented income inequality, and Republicans have co-opted the radical elements of the Tea Party (namely xenophobes, racists, and sexists) in order to maintain a voter base while trying to implement economic legislature that would increase that inequality. But Republicans, despite having control of the House and Senate, have suffered a series of defeats, the biggest of them the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act. Thus you have a loud and reasonably-sized radical fringe decrying that networks like Fox News aren’t conservative enough, that Benghazi conspiracy theorists like John McCain are too moderate, and Trump is there to deliver. He says in plain language what any sane Republican candidate would only say in code, and people like it.
What does this mean for the Republican Party? Unlike many of my fellow leftists, I find nothing amusing about Trump, and the cynical part of me says he might introduce some changes to the political vetting process that I don’t think anyone would like. He’s pretty much a dry run for a corporation openly running for president. This would be especially true if he went third party (unlikely, since it seems, for now, that he’s sincere that the most important thing for him is that Republicans take back the White House, which would be impossible if he did just that). Are there enough people who, in the future, might be fooled into voting for a candidate affiliated with neither party and instead entirely funded by the likes of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson? I’m not sure. But right now, within the Republican field, the only two serious contenders are Bush and Trump, with all the minnows following acting as slightly variated clones of Jeb (with the exception of Cruz). I’ll bet Bush hopes Trump gets into the upcoming debate—and by the look of recent poll numbers, he will—because it’ll deter at least one possible serious contender from entering, and next to Trump, Bush will look like a genius.
What worries me about that strategy, though, is that Trump being taken seriously by his voter base means the Republicans have to take them seriously, which could result in the party leaning even more rightward to accommodate the loons, and that’s the last thing America needs.