Thursday, October 20, 2016

Clinton-Trump III: Trump’s green light goes out

AS OF LAST night, Donald John Trump joined other inaction figures from our popular culture, people on a collision course with self-engineered catastrophe: Lonesome Rhodes howling from a Manhattan penthouse; Jett Rink drooling and babbling in an empty hall of his own creation; Daniel Plainview in his own private bowling alley amid a life increasingly one of spares and gutter balls.

And just like all of them ... he’s finished.

With a third disaster of a debate performance — this one recalling Mitt Romney’s epic meltdown in Obama-Romney III in 2012 — Trump has cemented himself into American political history, his name synonymous with bluster without substance, entitlement without enlightenment; a collapse of outsize and historic proportions; a campaign whose pursuit of statecraft is uninformed and half-hearted; a campaign whose empathy and solidarity for and with women is pornographic; a campaign whose appetite for self-destruction approaches the pathological.

And with her second consecutive debate win, each one stronger than the one that came before, Hillary Clinton lays claim to finally attaining a rhetorical comfort zone that’s comfortable. Politicians get puffed up saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training. Which, of course, makes no sense; unless you’ve been president before, there’s no other way to train for the presidency than to be president.

Last night, Clinton proved again that she’s doing the on-the-job training required before earning the right to do the on-the-job training of the presidency. With command of the topic and the forum that got better debate by debate, Clinton solidified her claim to credibility by reaching beyond the credible.

While Trump laid out a tapestry of grievance and complaint, Clinton laid out a vision of a possible America. While she professed her faith in the American system and the American people for whom that system stands, Trump has pre-emptively refused to accept the results of the election to come in 22 19 days.

In a single statement, and in front of 71.4 million Americans, Trump undid the previous sixteen months of his own campaign. As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported, that single defining statement of the Trump campaign was preceded by others, tremors before the major quake, rumblings before the magma hit the fan.

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DONALD TRUMP erupted at 6:30 p.m. local time. And 6:34. And 6:48. And 6:52. And 6:54. And then, at 7:06, the crater blew off, leaving a gaping caldera where Trump’s presidential campaign once stood.

“Fox News’s Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked Trump whether he would ‘absolutely accept the result of this election.’

“ ‘I will look at it at the time,’ Trump said. ‘I’m not looking at anything now. I will look at it at the time.’ ”

“But sir,” Wallace said, “one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner.”

“Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

“I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” It was a stunningly brain-dead, tone-deaf, self-absorbed reaction to a perfectly intelligent question, and it almost certainly, single-handedly cost Donald Trump the election he was working hard to lose anyway. Last night was Trump’s one last unalloyed, unassailed opportunity to be the leader he wants the nation to believe he can be. The Donald blew it, whiffed at the plate in spectacular fashion.

There were signs of things going south early on. Trump kept fiddling with the microphone in front of him; he was peeking at the camera again, like he did in Round 2. And the candidate suffered a relapse of Marco Rubio Dehydration Disease early, with Trump going for the water no fewer than five times.

He was a ... a blinking machine for much of the debate, often doing it twice as fast as Clinton did; he frowned and fidgeted constantly, like a schoolboy sent to the woodshed; and there was more of the sniffling he exhibited in the previous contests.

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It took the third debate, the third strike, for Clinton to truly hit her stride. And it took Trump three strikes to finally be out of a run for the White House he was never really in in the first place. Barring some horrible exigent circumstance, a complete collapse of polling and statistical integrity, or the most extravagant miracle in our national history, Donald Trump will not be president of the United States.

What makes all this even more monstrously ironic, what lifts this train wreck of ego and wealth to Shakespearean levels is the strong suspicion that Trump knew this was coming. Andrew Sullivan understands that: “It seems to me he also has internalized that he has lost this election,” Sullivan wrote in a liveblog of the debate.

Sullivan’s right. It’s there and obvious in his body language, the flailing oratory, the willingness to fling more and more rhetorical crap at the American wall just to see what sticks, day after day, week after week.

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IF YOU needed any more graphic proof of this, you only had to look at a two-image photo of Clinton and Trump just after last night’s debate — the shot at the top of this blogpost. It’s there in The Donald’s expression as he stood at the podium he never moved away from. The message on his face says everything.

Trump to the world: “Well ... fuck it, I didn’t really want to be president anyway.”

He’ll keep fighting, of course. By reflex, a drowning man thrashes about, flailing in a way that suggests he’s okay when in fact he’s not. And he’s not. This will persist until the very end, with signs of life, nods to respectability, tiny signals of what might have been if Trump wasn’t Trump.

But they’re illusions, mirages, like the green light Jay Gatsby sees from Daisy’s dock. Donald Trump, secure in the West Egg of his own mind and world, can sit and watch that green light of his presidential dreams vanish forever, in the distance, out of reach, beyond the valley of ashes that starts at his very feet.

Image credits: Clinton and Trump top: via Mashable. Clinton and Trump lower (portraits): Debate pool images. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

‘Psy-ops in the guest box’:
Dueling guests in Debate Round 3

IF YOU want to know who’s behind in a pre-election, three-debate, winner-take-all competition, look at the one who’s doing everything possible to distract the opponent and the public from focusing on what’s important: The issues at hand.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee much beleaguered by his own past as much as by the breathtakingly sorry present, has made diversionary tactics a stock in trade for the last sixteen months. Last time out, in the previous debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Trump brought along four women who had accused Hillary’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, of sexual indiscretion (or worse) back in the day of the 90s.

But for tonight’s Round 3 debate at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, both campaigns are set to deploy their own human campaign memes in a duel of sorts, what NPR’s Scott Horsley perfectly described as “psy-ops in the guest box .”

Clinton will take the more tactically navigable course of inviting two guests whose political identities couldn’t be more different yet, under Clinton’s call, more unified. And The Donald’s choices for debate guests strongly suggest he’ll pull out all the stops in a last-ditch move of imagistic desperation. If Team Trump attempts tonight to make heat synonymous with light, as it has in the past, it likely makes for must-see TV — the way a train wreck is a must-see roadside attraction.

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Because perplexing: The Trump campaign has invited two new people to sit in the Manipulated History Honorary Chairs: One is Pat Smith, the mother of San Smith, one of the four American officials who died Sept. 11-12, 2012, in the attack on the Benghazi embassy. Pat Smith, who’s been a vocal critic of Clinton, spoke with vigor and passion at the Republican National Convention this summer.

The addition of Smith as someone prepared to sit and stare in stony silence at Clinton for the whole debate makes a kind of poisoned, passive-aggressive sense. The fact that Clinton “personally” blames Clinton for the death of her son makes her appearance that much more poignant.

The other guest is more of a head-scratcher.

Malik Obama, the president’s half brother and a Trump supporter, has been invited to attend the debate as a guest of Team Trump. Malik, the president’s half-brother, has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, but not being an American citizen, it’s not clear what purpose or problematic associations he would have at the debate on Team Trump’s side. He can’t vote here, and there’s no one on the ballot named Obama, and his status as a non-citizen support carries the weight of the visitor expressing preference in a contest whose outcome he has no impact on at all.

Clinton's countering with two deep-pocketed players long in the public eye: Republican Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard and a former Republican presidential candidate, who was persuaded to sign on with Team Clinton as a fundraiser and evangelist, certainly on the grounds of expedient political practicality; and Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” cutthroat Mark Cuban, a man of seemingly independent mien who’s taken great relish in being a boil on Trump’s ass for months.

That’s your tale of the tape. Tonight may be one of those nights when the audience may be almost as interesting as the debaters themselves. There’s always the unpredictable afoot. It’s the third of three. And don’t forget, after everything else ... it’s happening in Las Vegas. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

Image credit: Clinton-Trump faceoff: Frontline (PBS)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The art of the feel: Trump gropes for credibility
on Twitter as polls plummet

IT'S GETTING ugly, and desperate, for Team Trump. As the cascade of sexual assault allegations against the Republican nominee for president slow down the Trump juggernaut, the Midnight Tweeter and his proxies have stepped up attacks on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, including claims of election “rigging” and a flat-out call for Frankenstein-mob anarchy in the U.S.A.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows Clinton pulling away from The Donald, in no small part due to the 2005 Trump/Billy Bush tape in which Trump made insanely unsavory remarks about women. Never mind the numerous claims from former Trump employees and associates who allege Trump’s proclivity for unsolicited kissing, groping and fondling members of the opposite sex was never a one-time thing.

The poll, released Sunday, 23 days before the election, shows Clinton leading Trump by 11 points, with 47 percent among likely voters, compared to Trump’s 37 percent. The poll of 905 likely voters conducted between Oct. 10-13, reflects a big jump in Clinton support from a 6-point lead in a previous poll.

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The survey found that 64 percent of respondents were concerned about the tape — no doubt including some of the college-educated women voters still said to be undecided. About a third of the people responding to the poll said the 2005 tape’s contents should be grounds for Trump exiting the race.

Significantly, this poll didn’t break before or after a bout of bad news: Most of the bad news is baked into respondents’ beliefs, since it was released after the second presidential debate and release of the Trump/Bush tape. The rest of any nasty polling results could come with the next NBC/WSJ poll, when the full weight of the sexual assault allegations plays a part in poll respondents’ answers.

But it’s all led to twitterverse desperation from the Trump camp. First, on Saturday, David A. Clarke Jr., sheriff of Milwaukee County (Wisc.), one of Trump’s few visible African American supporters and a high-profile campaign water carrier who spoke at the Republican National Convention, tweeted a call to arms.

(Fans of fire safety might be advised to avoid Milwaukee County; there’s apparently no law against open flames in large public crowds.)

Clarke doubled down on his Saturday tweets with one on Sunday:

But Trump remains the winner and still champeen in Twitter posts. Pretty much as the NBC/WSJ poll went public, The Donald took to the twitterverse to claim that the election is “absolutely” being rigged “at many polling places.”

That followed his attack on Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of trump on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”: “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

We can expect this twitshow to continue the closer we get to Election Day; the public’s suspicions of Trump having long ago mastered the art of the feel over the 40 years of his public life aren’t going to stop now. Watch this space.

Image credits: Tweets by their respective creators. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Miranda Sings, and art imitates life
imitating art in a LOL Netflix series

With more than 300 hours of videos uploaded to You Tube every minute, the video service can be a great leveler and a great elevator. The culture is rich with stories of John or Jane Doe posting a video seen by millions of people, which usually translates into the evanescent, vanishing stardom of the Internet … but sometimes, it’s something bigger, something more.

Miranda Sings, a gawky, bossy 20-something from Tacoma, Wash., is a legend in her own mind, and in today’s viral, interconnected world, that might just be enough. Miranda – actually a character created by performer Colleen Ballinger – has plotted a course for stardom as a singer, secure in the knowledge that she is a star — whether the rest of the world (or her family) knows it or not.

That’s the premise for “Haters Back Off,” the new Netflix comedy series that debuts on Friday. But don’t be misled by the word “new”; the show’s prime mover has already had a long life in web culture. ...

Read the full review at TheWrap.

Image credit: Ballinger: Netflix.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This is Donald Trump. This may or may not be
Donald Trump on drugs. This is the media
on Donald Trump on drugs.

AS IF the flailing campaign of Donald Trump didn’t have enough problems, for two weeks now there’s been a sub rosa speculation that The Donald, presumed stalwart of Republican values, could be using cocaine.

The twitterverse and social media generally have been rife with suspicion, but the notion has gotten very little traction in mainstream media, curious given the usual investigative reflexes of journalists on the presidential campaign trail.

With other stories in an election year in which the improbable has been the everyday, the fact that there's apparently no “there” there hasn't stopped reporters from looking for “there” anyway.

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We can thank Howard Dean for setting this off, of course. When the doctor and former Vermont governor observed Trump’s constant sniffling during the first debate, Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, Dean tweeted something, certainly not a diagnosis but a speculation:

“Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?”

He saw what we saw the night of the first debate:

On MSNBC on Sept. 27, defending himself, Dean said Trump exhibited “grandiosity,” “delusions” and “trouble with pressured speech” and “couldn't keep himself together.”

“You can't make a diagnosis over the television; I would never do that,” he said, but “I just was struck by the sniffing and then by his behavior, which all sort of came together, these four symptoms. ... [D]o I think he has a cocaine habit? I think it's unlikely that you could mount a presidential campaign at 70 years old with a cocaine habit, but it’s striking.”

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IS HOWARD Dean right? There's been ritual full-throated denial from the campaign. In a statement, Team Trump said Dean went “straight to the gutter and was nothing more than a sad distraction in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.” What’s since taken shape in mainstream media, especially in the wake of more Trump sniffling during the second debate, is a situation where some prominent mainstream outlets of journalism have sidelined or shut down debate on the issue — unusual for a disinterested press corps in a raucous election year.

Forbes decided to approach Trump’s sniffling head-on; the magazine web site published a piece on Sunday, a partly humorous report by contributor Bruce Y. Lee that offered a generously panoramic explanation for The Donald’s nasal woes:

The Donald “may have” allergies, sinusitis or past head trauma. Lee, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that sniffing could be caused by medications including blood pressure meds, antidepressants and ED treatments. Sniffling can even be provoked by inhaling glue, use of amyl nitrate or by everyday allergens like perfume, cologne or cigarettes.

◊ ◊ ◊

Trump’s doctor, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, released a medical report last December, a report whose brevity and general praise without specifics raised eyebrows in the media for months.

In the report, Bornstein said Trump’s blood pressure was “astonishingly excellent,” but we can’t know right now if that’s with or without blood pressure meds. Trump has no known history of depression, so that’s probably out.

After 30 or 40 years in the public eye, in a world of serious money amid people with serious money, it’d seem that if he had an allergy to perfume or cologne, any of the Shalimars and Chanels No. 5 of his cloistered, privileged world, we’d have seen and heard sniffling before now. Similarly, if he’d been in an accident causing serious head trauma, it’s not likely he, one of the more visible people of our culture, could keep that (or recovering from that) a secret.

◊ ◊ ◊

ARE THERE any other possible causes? Of course. At Mediaite, readers of Carrie Fisher’s frank statement that Trump “ABSOLUTELY” exhibited the behavior of a cokehead, pushed back, fairly commenting that the cause of Trump’s sniffles might just be the recirculated air in his airplane cabin, or even the natural sound of his breathing with the mic close to his mouth.

But ... could coke be off the table as a possible cause? The 70’s and the 80’s were eras in which cocaine was rife among the moneyed class in America, as well as a fixture in the bacchanal popular culture to which Trump affixed himself. In one of the more popular novels of the 80’s , Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” the protagonist avails himself of “Bolivian marching powder” as he navigates the canyons and clubs of Manhattan.

In its heyday, Studio 54, the legendary New York disco raided by New York police in 1978, was awash in nose candy. Trump was a frequent patron, first going there when it opened in April 1977, with then-wife Ivana, The Washington Post reported in June of this year. “His prowling gear at the time included a burgundy suit with matching patent-leather shoes,” Timothy L. O’Brien wrote in his 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”

Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Still, is it a worthwhile line of journalistic inquiry to pursue?

◊ ◊ ◊

It took Chris Cillizza, writer and editor of “The Fix” politics blog in The Washington Post, to clear his throat and weigh in with what could be a party-line rationale for how the MSM will, or will likely, investigate any possible connection between The Donald and the blow:

Dean is a former Democratic governor! He was, at one point, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination! He was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee! And, perhaps most important, he was once a doctor!

Dean alleged — not once, but twice — that the Republican presidential nominee uses cocaine. That's a pretty big allegation, no? Particularly when you offer absolutely no evidence beyond the fact that Trump sniffed a bunch during the debate. That's sort of like insisting a candidate is dying because they have a coughing spell, right?

The pushback against that line of argument is, "Well, everyone was thinking it!" Um, okay. Number one, Democrats on Twitter don't count as "everyone." Number two, thinking something and saying it publicly — especially when you are a former head of the Democratic Party and a physician — are two very different things. ...

Monday, October 10, 2016

Clinton-Trump II: The rage that changes nothing

MARTHA RADDATZ of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN did their best to, uh, maintain law and order at last night’s second presidential debate, but the presumptive law-and-order candidate, Republican nominee Donald Trump, was having none of that.

Despite the moderators’ pushback, Trump tried to set both the tone and the agenda for this one, at Washington University in St. Louis, and failed miserably at doing either one.

And by the end of the 90-minute slugfest, with an increasingly game Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, getting more confident, and an increasingly angry Trump working the room like a tent-show evangelist in a one-on-one with the devil, Trump employed antics that probably changed no minds and revealed — in ways Trump never anticipated — how little he really cares about changing any minds a month before the election.

Least of all his own.

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Some parts of the debate were close to being as respectably spirited a debate as we could ask for, and had any right to expect. Vigorous, reasoned, even smashmouth at times, with both Clinton and Trump willing to maintain the veneer of decorum.

But then, at some point, in fits and starts, The Donald’s id switch kicked in. Realizing he’d probably lose on points, sensing that he’d never win on substance, and with the Billy Bush tape in the side of the back of his mind, Trump doubled down on straight, 90-proof alpha male aggression, bristling with a malign energy. This is what it looks like when a drunk is psyching himself to start a bar fight.

In one context, a certain amount of aggression in a live debate can be interpreted as a reaching out to the audience — a kind of pleading your case to the jury.

But Trump’s aggression was only aggression, with no mitigating qualities. Clinton was the target. It came across on television as bullying, Trump trying to use his ever-increasing girth as an implicit threat against Clinton. Trump did his best to dominate the physical space, glowering, prowling the stage like some bespoke-suited ghoul, standing behind the chair he almost never sat in.

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TRUMP’S ALPHA-male put a badge on. Playing what seemed like some, uh, trump card when he went after Clinton in a way that dragged presidential campaign rhetoric to a new, Trumpian low in the guise of the pursuit of law enforcement.

“I didn’t think I’d say this,” Trump said, “but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. There has never been so many lies, so much deception, there has never been anything like it, and we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.”

“It’s just awfully good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton said.

Trump’s fiery-fast retort: “Because you’d be in jail.”

It was a staggeringly, blindingly awful expression of unalloyed hatred and a threat (if a probably empty one: you can say crap like that if you don’t think you’ll win, knowing good and well the last thing the American public wants or needs is another partisan witch hunt to get preoccupied about).

Trump brought all the ugly weapons, and the wrong weapons. In some kind of scattershot attempt to smear Hillary Clinton by impugning the past of husband and former president Bill Clinton, Trump brought some of the women who accused Clinton of sexual improprieties years ago, like back in the ‘90’s, to a press conference before the debate.

“Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” he said. “So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women, and attacked them viciously.” It was more stunningly bad stagecraft from a showman we’ve been led to believe was better than this.

WHAT CAME before and happened after that was more or less classic Trump debate-speak: short on (or absent of) facts, long on finger-pointing and promises. Besides turning almost every question about his policy prescriptions into an answer that was an attack on Clinton, Trump made two costly unforced errors, either of which should resonate with the remaining panorama of undecided voters.

Trump played the rather tired game of encroachment, strutting into Clinton’s physical space, arrogant and intrusive in a way that won’t endear Trump to the college-educated women voters still thought to be undecided. You needn’t be especially liberal to appreciate not being bullied by your opposite gender. Trump’s little stunt wasn’t original, and it probably won’t even be successful. Clinton could have told him that. Rick Lazio could have told him that too. And more.

And Trump made another hugely damaging imagistic mistake, whether it’s recognized as one or not: More than once, he literally turned his back on the proceedings, walking to or near the rear of the stage, his back facing not just Clinton and the people in the hall, but also the 67 million Americans watching the debate in millions of homes in the several battleground states, and the nation beyond.

On the split screen that’s been a standard feature of the debate format, the visible contrast last night was obviously striking. More than that, it perfectly distilled the character, the essence of the two candidates and their respective campaigns.

Instant meme: Clinton = Talk to me. Trump = Talk to the hand.

In failing to recognize this in real time, or maybe because he just doesn’t care anymore, TRUMP, the master showman, the mandarin of image was nothing less than masterful in his incompetence.

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By the historical weight placed on leaning in against your opponent (according to classic debate style), Trump acquitted himself better Sunday night than he did in Round 1. But frankly, that’s too low a bar for any meaningful comparison. He couldn’t help but improve on that.

The hunting of the presidency (Part 12):
Trump’s 2005 October surprise and its consequences

YOU GRAB ‘EM BY THE PUSSY.” Those six words spoken in 2005 apparently constitute Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s former approach to securing the romantic attention of women. They’re hardly an 11th-hour outreach to women voters still inclined to sit on the fence over whether or not to endorse him with a vote for the presidency, 28 days from today.

But those six words and more — others in the same brittle, callous, misogynist vocabulary of a man used to getting what he wants when he wants it — are likely to be the political epitaph of an [x]illionaire self-improvement grifter at the helm of the campaign that will be a template for how not to run a campaign ... for generations to come.

In September 2012, and with no fear of contradiction, I called Mitt Romney's White House bid “the most panoramically inept presidential campaign of the modern American political era.”

With the release on Friday of a video from 11 years ago, the torch has been passed to a new conflagration.

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The new backstory you know by now: In 2005, Trump was hangin’ with “Access Hollywood host” Billy Bush on a bus while on the set of the NBC soap, “Days of Our Lives.” At one point, while they were talking, his inner primal didact coming to the surface over an accidentally live mic, Trump began to discuss Nancy O’Dell, an “Access Hollywood” host now with “Entertainment Weekly,” in sexually subjective and strategic terms.

Showing always beats telling, and excerpting this mess doesn’t do it justice. Witness for yourself:

Witness the unscripted conversational asides of a prospective president of the United States and leader of the free world: “I moved on her like a bitch. ... I did try to fuck her ... she’s got the big phony tits ... grab ‘em by the pussy ... when you’re a star, you can do anything.”

Well, maybe. The one thing this star can’t do is nail down supporters in his own party at a critical juncture in the campaign. The absence of any major newspaper endorsements, and the defection of some high-profile historically conservative papers to the other side — all that’s bad enough.

But then, The Washington Post reported this on Saturday: “Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Deb. Fischer (R-Neb.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah); Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Mia Love (R-Utah0, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.); and Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada as well as the current and former governors of Utah are among those Republicans who have pulled their endorsements and/or called for him to leave the race. Carly Fiorina and talk-show host and Trump apologists William J. Bennett and Hugh Hewitt dumped him as well.”

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THIS FOLLOWED what happened earlier in October, when 30! Republican lawmakers past and present signed an open letter calling for the party to drop Trump as its nominee.

“Our party’s nominee this year is a man who makes a mockery of the principles and values we have cherished and which we sought to represent in Congress,” the letter read in part, as reported by The Hill.

The lawmakers who signed on include former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, former Rep. Vin Weber, Reps. Bill Clinger, Jim Leach, Tom Petri, G. William Whitehurst, Sherwood Boehlert, Jim Kolbe and Geoff Davis.

Imagine a poker table at one of Trump’s casinos, a huge circle for a big number of Republican high rollers, placing their bets on Trump as the winning hand ... then, going around the table, one by one, player by player, throwing down their cards in sputtering disgust and shouting “fold!”

That’s what happening for Team Trump right now.

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Even before the tape surfaced, the Trump campaign was in a nosedive; since then, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, approved cutting off funds to Team Trump, preferring instead to spend that money to down-ticket races — a tacit admission that the RNC thinks the top of the ticket is dead as fried chicken.

If a plurality of recent polls is even remotely accurate, as they often are, the steady descent of the Trump campaign is undeniable and it's likely to continue. The American people are starting to see Donald Trump for what he is: a smug, passive-aggressive attention addict, a 24-karat charlatan, a vampire masquerading as a phlebotomist.

Whether you buy the flash-poll interpretations of who won or lost the second debate, Trump won’t move the needle much regardless of how you score it. There’s a trajectory that’s locked in now. There’ll be no road-to-Damascus moments for this campaign; Team Trump’s had more than one of those opportunities already,  and they’ve ignored them every single time.

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PRESUMPTIVE conservative cerebral cortex Newt Gingrich gets this. “He can’t learn what he doesn’t know because he doesn’t know he doesn’t know it,” Gingrich said to The Washington Post back in August. Back when there was still hope.

It’s way worse than that now: Trump doesn’t want to learn what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to learn any more about things that distract him from what’s important, which is, now and always, Donald Trump. That’s why all the bogus talk awhile back about a “campaign reset,” all the expectations of the candidate “evolving” beyond his primary-season self were certainly a waste of time. It’s way too freakin late in the day for all that.

The Donald Trump we’ve seen for the last sixteen months, the one we’ve discovered in the last seventy-two hours, the one that stepped on stage last night is the only Donald Trump we’re going to get from here on in. And that’s true for the elegantly, sadly simplest of reasons:

It’s a small part of the only Donald Trump there ever was. That's why given what we know about the candidate, the only thing surprising about Trump's October surprise is that we're surprised by it at all.

Image credits: Trump illustration: via The Nation. The Washington Post nameplate: © 2016 The Washington Post Company. Priebus: CNN.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Kaine-Pence: Style vs. substance
on the undercard

WHEN A vice-presidential debate gets the nickname of “The Thrilla in Vanilla” before a word’s even spoken, you know you’re facing something with the potential to underwhelm. But in Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia both brought the fireworks, and two distinct styles of rhetorical combat, to at the Longwood University campus in Farmville, Virginia.

We got the back and forth between Democrats and Republicans that we’ve had all year, at the lower wattage of a vice-presidential context. Flash polls — notoriously emotional and notoriously unreliable — proclaimed Pence the winner, largely on matters of style.

But count on it, once fact-checkers and analysts check in with the accuracy of what was said, you’ll hear more of what’s bubbling in the social realm right now: that it was a somewhat clumsy, ham-fisted win for Kaine and the Clinton campaign on the facts.

If style’s your thing, Pence was the winner; if it’s substance you’re after, Kaine came out on top.

◊ ◊ ◊

It wasn’t long after the debate started that Kaine went on the offensive, and doing it in a way that was more mildly offensive to Pence. Kaine’s first big shot wasn’t directed at the man sitting beside him, but aimed instead at Donald Trump, whom Kaine said “always puts himself first.”

It was opponent-by-proxy: Kaine stayed on offense, scoring Trump for his midwife role in the Obama birther controversy, his seemingly cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s naturally elitist mien ... and swiping at Pence for his role as running mate. It was serve and volley: Pence goes after Clinton on the proceeds of the Clinton Foundation; Kaine comes back with issues about the long-promised Trump tax returns.

The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, ran a tight ship, at least at first, hitting the ball all over the park. Kaine and Pence were grilled on social security, police-community relations, social issues and America’s standing in the world. And mostly it was Kaine who brought his inner Doberman to the game. Maybe too much.

◊ ◊ ◊

DEBATING SOCIAL security, Kaine pledged to “never, ever engage in a risky scheme to privatize social security,” a long-cherished dream of conservatives. “Donald Trump wrote a book and he said Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and privatization would be good for all of us.”

On police-community relations, Kaine opposed the “overly aggressive, more militarized model” of policing common in American cities, and condemned Trump via Pence for statements supporting the unconstitutional practice of stop-and-frisk. “Donald Trump recently said we need to do more stop-and-frisk around the country. That would be a big mistake because it polarizes the relationship between the police and the community.”

Elsewhere in the 90-minute contest, Kaine was similarly forceful, perhaps to a fault. Kaine interrupted Pence 72 times, and his hands were in constant motion much of the time. He may have had a Red Bull I.V. drip before he went onstage.

◊ ◊ ◊

If Kaine went overboard last night as the picture of frenetic energy, Pence did himself no favors coming from the other imagistic direction. The Indiana governor tried to maintain a persona as Mr. Chill, the coolest guy in the room, too laidback by half, calmly shaking his head “no” as Kaine spoke.

But this night there was more to be learned from the guy who wouldn’t sit still. Pence sat reflexively shaking his head “no” despite the fact that much of what Kaine said was true.

Pence probably didn’t help himself with Republican partisans when he found himself agreeing with Kaine — once on community policing (“a great idea,” the Republican said) and once when he gave credit to President Obama “for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.”

And Pence betrayed the short-sighted longtime Republican obsession with size as strength when it comes to the American military. Consider what he said is necessary for the United States “to exercise strong leadership”:

“[T]he Russians and the Chinese have been making enormous investments in the military,” Pence said. “We have the smallest Navy since 1916. We have the lowest number of troops since the end of the Second World War. We've got to work with Congress, and Donald Trump will, to rebuild our military and project American strength in the world.”

◊ ◊ ◊

COMPARE THAT with what Mitt Romney said in October 2012, in his third debate with President Obama: “Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s ... That's unacceptable to me.”

“You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” the president said. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — because the nature of our military's changed. ... And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's, it's [about] what are our capabilities?”

Romney made an endorsement of strength through giantism, and Obama seized on it. On Tuesday, Kaine didn’t follow through on that. But if Pence had done more homework, he wouldn’t have gone down Romney Road in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kaine pushed back on Trump’s broad brush of innuendo and attack with a panoramic attack of his own: “Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don't like saying that in front of my wife and my mother.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The CW's 'Frequency' sprints across time,
space and family history

Back in 2000, the Gregory Hoblit movie “Frequency” opened to strong box-office and generally upbeat reviews. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel played father and son crossing time via ham radio to perform gymnastics of weather, time and space — and of course gain the joy of a moving emotional closure.

The CW is performing its own time-travel experiment (one of several in a nostalgia-crowded season), using Hoblit’s thriller as the source of a flawed but watchable small-screen reimagining of the original film. “Frequency” the series revels in the fanciful liberties of leapfrogging time, just as the movie did.

But the producers and creator Jeremy Carver have deftly retrofitted a familiar film for the small screen with smart present-day touches and solid performances. Now if they can just do something about the weather. ...

Read the full review at TheWrap

Image credit: Photo: The CW

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bad news carryforward: Taxes, swing states
and The Donald’s next move

IF THERE were ever a time for a wholesale shift in Donald Trump’s campaign, this is it. Now, almost a week after a breathtakingly awful performance at the Hofstra presidential debate — the most-watched debate in history — and days after The New York Times unearths a 1995 tax return that appears to show Trump paid no federal taxes for 18 years, Team Trump faces a kind of bad-news carryforward from last week to this one.

The pressure’s on Trump to do what he can’t do: reinvent himself from the ground up for a general-election audience ... and do it in the next 36 days.

It doesn’t look good.

◊ ◊ ◊

First, even before the Times story broke, there were a multitude of swing-state Republicans who apparently won’t even consider the idea of holding their noses and downing the Trumpian medicine.

“This guy is not qualified for this job,” Bill Urbanski, former head of the GOP in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, told Politico. “He presents himself that way every time I see him. I can’t get over that hurdle.”

Sandra Kase, a lifelong Republican who serves on the Kingston municipal council in Luzerne County, agrees. “Just his attitude toward women, sexism, everything that comes out of his mouth turns me off. I’m sorry, I can’t say a good thing about him,” she told Politico. “I don’t think he has the temperament. As soon as someone goads him into something, he blasts out what we wants to say and feels that’s OK, and it’s not.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THEN THERE’S the Times report, which was published Saturday. According to the Times story, which took four reporters to write and a group of hired tax experts to analyze the records underpinning the story, “tax rules that are especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period.” That comes to more than $50 million a year.

For Trump, there are two yuuuge perceptual problems with the Times report: There’s apparently no denying the legality of Trump’s 1995 tax move, but the way it’s likely to look to the American public — Trump as another rich guy loopholing his way to getting even richer — is not helpful, and certainly not populist in any current definition of the word.

It heavily reinforces the social and economic distinctions between Trump and the nation he hopes to lead. In its own way, it’s as classist and elitist as Romney’s “47 percent” comment, but it shows Trump making use of tax legerdemain that 97 percent of Americans can only dream of.

◊ ◊ ◊

“The fundamental argument of his campaign,” said Democratic National Committee official Mo Elleithee, to Politico, “is the little guy is getting screwed and I’m the guy who’s going to look after you. It is hard to make that argument when there is evidence now in front of everybody about how he has benefited personally, how he has gamed the system.”

The second problem is that the news in the Times story directly undercuts Trump’s unique selling proposition, his reason for being in the campaign: It suggests there is no there there when it comes to Trump being a sound fiscal manager. Never mind how he mitigated the loss: The idea that one company could lose $916 million in a year in the first place — a company helmed by a recklessly lavish, lavishly reckless entrepreneur who’s been through four bankruptcies in his working lifetime — can’t inspire confidence in Americans looking for fiscal responsibility in the next president.

Americans want a steward of the economy as intelligent with money as they try to be. With a failed casino, a failed airline, a failed university and a possibly fraudulent foundation in his wake, The Donald makes people ask: What on earth would stop him from trying to do with the national purse what he’s already done with his own?

◊ ◊ ◊

TRUMP’S ONLY real way forward now is to hunker down behind the persona he’s carefully crafted for himself, and hope that the remaining undecideds and independents out there will give him the underdog benefit of the doubt.

Because there aren’t many other options open now. In order to punch through with the voters still on the fence, he's got to resolve his central dilemma right now: how to be someone he’s never been before to achieve something he’s never achieved before. That requires reinvention, and reinvention requires imagination.

And — something Trump still doesn’t seem to understand — it requires the time and the heart needed to communicate that reinvention to the voters, in a way that's organic, chronologically verifiable, experientially truthful — and not just cosmetics.

Because in American politics, you can adopt a guise for a while, put on a different face for the public, but sooner or later, the mask falls off. There are few things in this world that will rip the bark off a bullshit tree like the relentless, ravenous, high-velocity, balls-to-the-wall environment of a major presidential campaign.

That veteran political analyst William Shakespeare was right: Truth will out. When you run, you can’t hide — your taxes or anything else.

Image credits: Trump tax returns: via The New York Times. Trump: Reuters.
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