He lies. He’s unstable. He’s a sociopath. He doesn’t have the right temperament. He can’t be trusted. And now, because nothing succeeds like excess, the hyperbole must be ratcheted up to what must be its logical conclusion – he’ll start a nuclear war and kill us all. Such are the criticisms of Donald Trump from the stable, trustworthy, commentators in the media and academic elite.
Really? This is where Trump Derangement Syndrome leads? To the conviction that Donald Trump will end life on earth? And yet these commentators, opinion writers, and academics wonder why most Americans don’t take them seriously. Despite turning up their own overheated rhetoric Donald Trump is still neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. The latest LA Times/USC poll of eligible voters shows Clinton at 44 and Trump at 43. Rasmussen’s daily tracking polls has Clinton at 43 and Trump at 40 with a surprisingly high 20% of the black vote.
But we’ve seen all this before. Democrats aired the infamous “Daisy Ad” in 1964 in a successful effort to convince Cold War era voters that Barry Goldwater, one of the fathers of the post-World War II conservative movement, was an unstable Arizona cowboy with a hankerin’ for nuclear war. The classic movie Dr. Stragelove featuring Slim Pickens as the nuke-happy B-52 pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong had been released earlier the same year and the imagery was fresh in voters’ minds.
Conservatives have argued that the ad was over the line – an unfounded and unfair slur against a good man – for the past 50 years. But it worked and Goldwater lost. The Democrats tried the same thing with Reagan – again calling him a “cowboy” who would start a nuclear war with the Russians. (Aside: Why does the Left associate cowboys with nuclear war?) It was tough to pin that on the sunny Reagan, but they tried. And so here we are. Back at it again. Don’t like the Republican nominee for President? Nothing else is working? Time to drop the big one.
The rhetoric didn’t start off nuclear. It never does. But when all else fails it’s go big or go home. Last summer and fall, Trump was described as a reality show clown and a carnival barker. The Rolling Stone, for example, ran a piece titled, Inside The Republican Clown Car. Stories like this were an attempt to undermine Trump’s candidacy and message as unserious and unworthy of the time to refute in their own terms. This was the time when the smart set confidently predicted Trump would be gone by Labor Day, or maybe after the debates, definitely by Thanksgiving, er Christmas.
When it became clear that Trump’s pro-American, anti-ruling class message was gaining purchase with voters the rhetoric became a bit warmer. No longer was Trump a clown, though jibes about his skin tone (It’s orange, don’t you know!) persisted. By January, it was obvious he had a real base of support among the Republican voters and the commentariat pivoted from clown to fascist.
Credit to the New Republic for getting out in front of this one. They published a post in December confirming that “Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist.” They might have thought they had a growth industry all to themselves but as with so many promising new markets competitors flooded in. Erick Erickson, who has never seen a dumpster fire that he didn’t think needed gasoline, wrote a piece for The Resurgent titled, “Donald Trump, Just Another Fascist With An Enemies List.” (Recently Erickson elevated the national discourse by writing a piece mocking mild mannered theologian Wayne Grudem, recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, calling him Wayne Grew Dim. What did Grudem do to incur the righteous wrath of Erickson? He wrote a thoughtful 10 page essay arguing that Christians could vote for Trump in conscience.)
In May, one-time conservative Robert Kagan, wrote a piece for the Washington Post called “This Is How Fascism Comes To America. ” (Hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with Hillary selling influence while she was Secretary of State, lying to Congress, or concealing and then destroying evidence on an illegal private email server.) National Review got in on the act (a few times) too. They published Jay Nordlinger’s piece “Donald Trump and Fascism: Is He or Isn’t He.” The answer, after about 2,000 words of parsing Trump’s tweets with the exegetical precision of a Talmudic scholar, is, yeah, probably. Or at least he has tendencies. At a minimum he’s a closeted fascist who isn’t quite ready to tell his family.
Despite all of these opinion pieces and editorials, all those well-turned phrases and snarky asides, those pesky voters, kept supporting him. Trump won more votes in the primaries than any other Republican candidate ever. And that in a field of 17 candidates. What’s an outraged opinion writer to do when the yokels won’t follow directions? They say that when you’re a hammer the whole world looks like a nail. So in that vein, the opinion writers and commentators did what they know how to do: They upped the rhetorical ante. Trump started the campaign season as the object of derision and insider jokes: clown, buffoon, reality TV star (translation: He’s no better than Snookie.) As Trump gained steam and became a real political threat he underwent an unholy transfiguration from buffoon to fascist. And while all of this was happening, he secured the Republican nomination with relative ease.
Now he’s the nominee and the eggheads have one last chance. Once more into the breach for the scribblers and talkers. This time he’s not a buffoon and not a fascist. Well, ok, he’s not just a buffoon and a fascist. This time it’s serious. With less than 3 months until the election it’s time to pull out all the stops. Try this rhetorical mic drop on for size: If he’s elected, Trump will start a nuclear war. He’ll end life on this planet! Ha! Does it get any worse than that? Seriously, where do you go from there?
Unfortunately, after 50 years of complaining about the Daisy Ad, many of the attacks are coming from disenfranchised Republican elites. We expect columns titled, “The Terrifying Prospect of Trump With Nuclear Weapons” from self-described bleeding-heart libertarian secularist Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. Even more expected are pieces like this one from the ultra-Leftie Vox, “If President Trump Decided To Use Nukes, He Could Easily Do It.” But its the out-of-government and out-of-power Republicans who are the most venomous. Just one example is Bush/Romney apparatchik John Noonan who wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that “Trump cannot be trusted with weapons than kill millions.” He’s qualified to make this assessment, he assures Times readers, because he was in the Air Force and worked in a Minuteman silo. It’s not obvious why that gives him a unique qualification to comment on this subject. I had a steak last night, but that doesn’t make me a butcher, much less a cattle rancher.
There are several ironies here. One is that the Republicans who have been crying about the Daisy Ad for half a century finally decide to go nuclear in politics and its on their own candidate. The other is that the only candidate who is opposed to the Iraq War, is against foreign military adventurism (interventions we jump into with no intention of winning a decisive victory – victory being bad and prima facie evidence of imperialist tendencies), and is skeptical of entangling alliances is being painted as the war candidate by the war faction of the Republican Party.
John Noonan ended his piece for the LA Times this way:
He (Trump) warned viewers of the dangerous possibility of “having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon,” and said “that’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”
I couldn’t agree more.
See what he did there? It’s Trump who is the maniac and madman who can’t be allowed to become President of the United States because he’ll start a nuclear war. Too dangerous! It’s supposed to be a clever rhetorical shot. It’s not. It’s a petty and transparent, but empty, attempt at bare knuckle politics. And it won’t work. Such overheated rhetoric says far more about the people who traffic in it than it does about Donald Trump.
Time and time again Trump’s opponents have been willing to indulge their passions. Righteous indignation feels so good it’s addictive – one of many reasons it should be avoided. There’s been much talk about temperament, but it hasn’t been Trump’s that has been shown wanting. One senses in the many and escalating criticisms of Donald Trump a supreme act of projection by his enemies, particularly those on the Right. In the rush to discredit and defeat him too many armchair Solons have been willing to traffic in the very vices of which they accuse Trump. It is possible that because Trump represents a threat to the established order that such people are reacting out of fear. Fearing loss of power, of position, of status they lash out and become the very thing they claim to despise.