Beyond the experience of burning brain cells at an alarming rate, I learned something important during my 18-month-long slog through the digestive tract of Hollywood celebrity and SoCal culture in covering the O.J. Simpson murder case: Everyone who touched its third rail ended up being diminished by it. So it is too with Donald Trump.
No one has taken more bullets in public life than Hillary Clinton although no one has deserved that less. The unpopularity of this decent and eminently qualified woman remains confounding to me. Much of it is bound up in gender, of course, but her execration is very real and Trump has cleverly exploited it. How then to challenge the Republican nominee as the strangest president election campaign ever turns into the homestretch when you're damaged goods in the eyes of many voters and your opponent seems to be made of Kevlar?
A traditional partisan-based My Ideas vs. Your Ideas campaign will not work for Clinton, but the wake churned up as Trump has tacked, yawed, insulted and scare mongered across America's boiling political seas with Russian intelligence agency computer hackers at his back provides a unique opportunity for Clinton and the Democratic Party: Portray Trump as not just another right-winger with out-of-the-mainstream ideas, but as a menace whose candidacy is a national emergency that transcends politics.
We're not talking about Trump's "sadistic cruelty," as one disaffected Republican Party operative puts it. We're not talking about his self-love and fundamental soullessness, as yet again seen in his beyond-the-pale condemnation of Khizr Kahn and his wife, Ghazala, whom he was quick condemn as Clinton stooges and not as Americans grieving over the death of their Army captain son in Iraq, but rather how his more dangerous pathologies would manifest themselves were he to be president.
As The New York Times describes the emerging Democratic game plan:
"In an onslaught of astonishing ferocity led by President Obama, [the Democrats] used their convention to portray Mr. Trump as a dangerously unstable figure and a friend of foreign despots like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Some Democrats suggested Mr. Trump might have authoritarian impulses of his own: Prominent in Mrs. Clinton's acceptance speech Thursday night was a pointed reminder that the American system was designed to prevent the rise of a dictator.
"In effect, Mrs. Clinton and Democratic Party leaders signaled that they would seek to fight the general election, to some extent, in nonpartisan terms -- as a clash between the broad mainstream of American voters and a candidate they argue would put the nation in jeopardy."
And woe befall the public figures who continue to support Trump because they, as with O.J.'s posse, will be diminished merely by their association.
As I wrote elsewhere, the notables who have kissed Trump's ring can look forward to the same sort of historic purgatory as the politicians who supported red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, so why not speed up the process?
Have Clinton's surrogates relentlessly call out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who in the here-and-now should not be allowed to duck commenting on Trump's libel of the Khan family. Then there are Scott Brown, Trent Lott and other testicle-free party bigs who have endorsed Trump in word or deed, as well as senators including John McCain, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, all of whom are fighting for their political lives in an election in which their standard bearer will have no coattails just as the emperor had no clothes.
This strategy within a strategy works in several ways: It will make the targets squirm if not perhaps force some of them to come right out and denounce Trump, the attacks will be grist for the media mill, notably their hometown media, and it will further drive a wedge between Republicans who will vote for Trump if only because he is their party's candidate and Republicans whose consciences are pricked and are not trapped in the right-wing echo chamber. Shame can be a powerful weapon as former Dick Cheney press secretary Rich Galen confirmed when he tweeted after watching Clinton accept the nomination:
"How can it be that I am standing at my kitchen counter sobbing because of the messages being driven at the DNC? Where has the GOP gone?"
Another strategy within a strategy is for Clinton to demand that Trump commit to debating her because she is likely to emasculate him in any serious policy discussion
There are signs that Trump is laying the groundwork to refuse to be on the same stage with Clinton, initially by asserting that Clinton "rigged" the debate schedule and complaining that two of the three scheduled debates will be held during National Football League games. He claimed over the weekend that he had gotten a letter of complaint from the NFL, which the league denied, while the Commission on Presidential Debates rejected the rigging claim and said the dates had been set long before the 2016 campaign began.
And for good measure, Trump repeated the lie that he had opposed the Iraq War, while one of his spokesmen obscenely suggested that the Khans' son would still be alive if Trump had been president.
Trump's candidacy brings to mind The Plot Against America, Philip Roth's most excellent alternative history about a president during World War II. That president is none other than hero aviator Charles Lindberg, who negotiates a cordial agreement with Adolph Hitler and embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism. While the book borders on the absurd, you don't have to be a conspiracy freak to draw parallels with Trump -- and Clinton needs to do so with laser-like focus.§
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.
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