This has been a remarkable week or so in a remarkable campaign. There appears to be another dimension that the Trump campaign and their supporters live in. It’s the twilight zone where belief trumps fact and reality is defined by the campaign and the candidate.
Exhibit 1 — Who won the debate?
This one is easy on several different levels.
The debate happened. Reputable organizations polled the public using scientific methods. They reported the results of those polls. They all indicated that Clinton won by a wide margin.
The second measurement is what happened to the polls after the debate. Again Clinton’s polling numbers have gone up and her prospects for winning the election have improved. That improvement was directly related to her debate performance and the actions of the Trump campaign following the debate.
To hear it from the Trump campaign’s perspective, he won the debate because a number of online unscientific polls on conservative sites said he was the winner.
Any problem with the debate was the result of a bad microphone that affected sound in the auditorium. Then there was the moderator who attempted to fact check Trump. And of course there is the crooked media who are now operating as an arm of the Clinton campaign in attempting to report the facts on the ground.
Perhaps this approach makes some sense in perpetuating the “us versus them” meme that is at the heart of the Trump campaign. The problem is that this meme makes it very difficult for the Trump campaign to recruit any new voters. When anyone who isn’t with you is your enemy, how are you going to convince some of those that you have been treating as enemies that they should change their minds?
Exhibit 2 — I did not have sex with that woman. Oops sorry, I meant to type I opposed the Iraq War.
This was one of the key moments in the debate.
Trump has made this particular position his Big Lie. He insists that he was against the war in Iraq FROM THE START.
The fact is that in answer to Howard Stern’s question “Are you for invading Iraq?”, he said, “Yeah, I guess so.” That isn’t a hearty endorsement of the invasion, but it is clearly not opposition either. He also provided an equivocal answer to Neil Cavuto, “it’s sort like either do it or don’t do it.” Trump clearly was not a supporter, but he also was not the opponent FROM THE START that he claims.
In the debate, he doubled down by attacking the media for reporting the facts (again) and then suggested that the moderator give Sean Hannity a call. While they may have had private conversations, there is no public record of it. Since Sean Hannity is now an official advisor to the campaign, he is hardly a reliable reference to past private history.
The result is that many Trump supporters now question whether fact-checkers can be trusted rather than admit that Trump was again making stuff up.
Exhibit 3 — Trump loves women
Hillary Clinton set several traps in the debate and Trump fell into most of them.
The Alicia Machado trap was a public confirmation of two of Clinton’s basic claims. Trump is unstable and Trump mistreats women. In front of a national audience he not only admitted to attacking Rosie O’Donnell, but said that she deserved it. He continued to attack Machado after the debate suggesting that she deserved the treatment that she received because she gained weight. This caused a whole avalanche of new information about Trump’s past statements and behavior with other women including many of those who were involved with The Apprentice show.
Trump and his campaign have reacted by attacking both Bill and Hillary Clinton for their treatment of women who have claimed past relationships with Bill.
Women represent a substantial swing vote in this country. Trump is doing himself no favors by perpetuating his attack on Machado and attempting to drag around old news about Hillary and Bill.
Those old white men who are the core of Trump’s support appear to have no problem with either Trump’s past history or his current aggressive response any time a woman criticizes him.
Exhibit 4 — Trump and taxes
We finally found out that Trump lost a lot of money in the 90’s and may have used those losses to shelter roughly $1B in income.
Trump and his campaign have not disputed those figures. Instead they have tried to spin Trump as a savvy business man who is an expert in tax law and will fix the tax system that he took advantage of.
This fails to answer the basic question that many people have regarding Trump’s loss. How does a savvy business man manage to lose $1B. His weak defense is that it was a tough time and many people were losing money. So does that mean his business skills are going to be effective only in good times? In bad times he is going to lose money just like everyone else?
His debate comment that he was “smart” not to pay taxes is also losing him blue collar votes. His campaign has gone further by suggesting that he does pay a lot of other taxes. But that’s not the issue. Everyone else also pays all of those other taxes too. The issue is how does he support his populist stand when he pays no federal income tax? It isn’t a question of whether or not he has done anything illegal. It is the fact that he IS part of that .1% who have benefited at the expense of working people. So it is curious that some of those very same working people still trust him.
Trump and his campaign have been trying to cast the NYT as the culprit by releasing the documents. The reality is that he could have avoided this by releasing his tax returns as every other candidate has done for the past 50 years. The NYT has a responsibility to its readers to provide them all of the information that they need in order to make an informed choice. They are doing their job. Trump isn’t.
Trump supporters believe that the tax returns aren’t important. Clearly that’s not the case with the rest of the country.
Exhibit 5 — Trump and OPM (other people’s money)
The Trump Foundation may turn out to be the smoking gun, at least from a financial point of view, that Trump opponents have been looking for.
Trump already had to pay a fine because of a “contribution” that was made “in error” from the foundation to the Florida AG Bondi’s political campaign shortly before she declined to participate in the Trump University lawsuit.
Now it turns out that Trump hasn’t contributed to his own foundation for a decade. Instead he has used other people’s money. Why did those people contribute that money? Turns out that most of those contributions were directly connected to business dealings that Trump had. The contributions were NOT because of the charitable mission of the foundation.
We also learned that Trump used the foundation like a piggy bank to pay personal expenses to the tune of $250K.
Now we also have learned that Trump not only used the foundation to pay his personal bills, he also used his foundation to purchase speaking engagements at various conservative gatherings over the past six years. These speaking engagements were the start of his presidential campaign.
Finally, the NY AG confirmed that the foundation was operating illegally in taking contributions from third parties when they were licensed to only distribute family money. Until the foundation resolves those issues and provides more detailed reports on past activities, they are effectively out of business.
Trump and his campaign have not denied any of these claims. Instead they have said that Trump contributes millions of dollars of his own money to charity in addition to the money that comes from his foundation. They also say that the foundation is a volunteer organization that can’t be expected to get everything right. Finally, they are suggesting that the NY AG actions are just partisan politics.
But there is big difference between making a mistake and the pattern of behavior that the NYT and Real Clear Politics have discovered. If Trump is in fact the tax genius that he claims to be, he should have known about foundation tax rules too. If he did, then he knew what he was doing was illegal “self-dealing”. If he didn’t know, then perhaps he isn’t really the genius that he claims to be, and won’t be able to single-handedly rewrite the tax code.
Trump supporters don’t want to talk about the Trump foundation. They only want to talk about the Clinton foundation and how she brazenly “sold” influence during her time in the State department to big Clinton foundation donors. The problem is that they have failed to connect the dots between this supposed influence peddling and some evidence of personal enrichment. Even if she did provide special access to big donors, all that money went to charitable purposes that have all been documented and are easy to track. There is no evidence that any of the Clinton’s benefited from those donations in any personal way. Unfortunately the bias is so strong, that in the absence of evidence, suspicion is sufficient to convict Clinton in the minds of these voters.
The one thing that Trump is VERY good at is stoking the fears and supporting the biases of his voters. His success in branding his opponents from Low Energy Jeb to Crooked Hillary is at the core of his campaign’s remarkable showing.
His populist message combined with his caustic “take no prisoners admit no weaknesses” style appeals to disenfranchised and marginalized groups of voters. Ben White from Politico best summarized it.
The GOP nominee could probably set himself on fire and still count on around 40 percent of the electorate to support him.
Those 40% are content to live in the twilight zone that Trump and the right wing media have built for them. It works. They are less fearful. They are more optimistic. They feel justified that the evil doers are finally being held accountable. They feel part of a winning team.
The problem is that it is a fantasy. It is not real.
Hopefully the rest of the voting public will decline the invitation to join them.