Saturday, May 7, 2016

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 9): Trump,
the end of the reality sideshow, and the next 185 days

WHEN Donald John Trump acquired operational control of the soul of the Republican Party on Tuesday night in Indiana, it was a victory so long predicted by the media and campaign seers, no other outcome seemed possible. For those opposing him, which includes about 50 percent of active Republicans, the news of a resounding Trump win over Ted Cruz’s deeply dysfunctional campaign was bad enough (or not so bad, depending on how they felt about Cruz).

By some perverse acclimation, Trump has become the presumed standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln; there, all resemblance with the party of Lincoln ends. As Trump’s pugnaciously racist, xenophobic, exclusionary dog-whistle lovefest of a modern presidential campaign has ground on and on for the last 11 months, it’s highlighted not just how loose a cannon the billionaire attention addict really is. It’s both revealed the fissures in the Republican party and those in the nation itself.

Race, class, gender, economy, world-view: these are the pressure points in a campaign year that’s already seen its share of rancor, and the bullet points with which the Trump campaign has tuned and sharpened its identity. Now, with Trump on the cusp of formalizing what Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus said was already a working reality, what’s next for the campaign, the party and the country? There are challenges at every level.

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The Trump campaign’s next move is complicated: Keep dancing with the ones what brought him to (lead) the party. The Donald has found favor with some very unlikely bedfellows: disaffected Republicans unhappy with the direction in Washington; Reagan Democrats unhappy with the direction of the Democrats they elected in 2008 and 2012; independent voters unhappy with everything; and moderate Republicans who can’t abide Trump but who like Hillary Clinton even less,

And oh yes, a solid bloc of white supremacists whose public profile and personal style have lately been reinvigorated, and (disturbingly) maybe even sanitized, by their juxtaposition with the campaign.

Trump can’t walk away from any of them. He needs this base of various conservative ingredients to build solid momentum for the fall. But Trump also needs more, a wider constituency, more Americans by the millions in a country that’s philosophically democratic — small-d democratic — and demographically more diverse than at any other time in its history. Americans who are inclined, by temperament, persuasion and/or life experience, to be either independents or upper-case D Democratic.

Party registrations tell the story. Democratic voter registrations outpace Republican registrations, and registrations for independent voters outpace those for Democrats.

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So achieving the crossover that’s necessary for a successful primary season to translate into a successful general-election campaign was already a challenge for Trump.

The party he’s running to lead is by definition one that thrives on the idea of exclusion, a willful  separatism from consequential communities the GOP has chosen to alienate for years. Trump’s provocative, divisive scorched-earth antics on the campaign trail have only made that basic situation worse with the vast cohorts of Americans he needs to win.

The general election campaign is, necessarily, all about reaching out, expanding the sphere of influence, broadening the reach. It’s very hard to do that (to say nothing of unbelievable) when a campaign has been passionately doing the opposite for 11 months, demonizing the Latino and minority and women voters that campaign requires for victory.

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AND AS TRUMP goes, so likely goes the party. One reason that Republican policy makers and party officials are so concerned about Trump’s campaign: The impact isn’t just from Trump per se; it’s also from the effect a Trump wipeout would have on their political fortunes down-ticket — whether they endorsed the man or not.

With Trump as the GOP standard-bearer, Republican candidates seeking other offices can’t run or hide their affiliations; they’re lashed to the same mast as the man at the top of the presidential ticket, Whether they like him or not. You can ask John McCain about that.

And with the resources of the RNC slowly and reluctantly beginning to coalesce around the Trump campaign, down-ticket candidates will increasingly find there’s nowhere else to go for the kind of mainstream party recognition and organizational support a fledgling state campaign needs from the RNC. Republicans are reliably very big on everybody falling in line. If the candidates won’t get behind Trump, how far would the RNC go to get behind them?

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Like any salesman, Trump’s looking for customers, but his reach for Sanders supporters will almost certainly be a bridge too far, a preposterous bid for support that doesn’t consider Trump’s lack of a value proposition in the transaction.

In his outreach to Sanders partisans, Trump’s trying to get something for nothing. He’s not about to move in their direction politically, and Sanders loyalists don’t look a thing like the people supporting Trump. So what would Sanders supporters gain by voting for him, besides a silly, spiteful nose-thumbing of the Clinton campaign?

Politically, Sanders and Trump are economically and philosophically polar opposites. At an almost cellular level, Sanders is opposed to Trump’s economic ethos, his world view, his personal style and his ruthless, incendiary brand of politics.

What on earth would Trump have that they’d want, that they can believe in? The Trump campaign’s notion that Sanders supporters are persuadable completely overlooks the reason why they're Sanders supporters in the first place.

You could make a more compelling case going in the other direction. A Tuesday CNN exit poll found that 53 percent of Republicans feel betrayed by their own party. On that basis, is there any reason not to believe that disaffected Republicans might be as inclined to cross over for Clinton as Trump thinks Sanders supporters might cross over for him — instead of voting for Clinton?

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TRUMP’S WIN in Indiana can be attributed to a lot of things: Cruz’s inescapable perceptual momentum as a loser; Trump’s outsize personality; the ever-fading campaign of John Kasich.

CNN’s Dana Bash may have got it right on Tuesday; paraphrasing, she observed that, at this point in the long march of the primary calendar, voters may be just worn down by the ubiquitous Trump juggernaut, exhausted by a suitor who won’t take no for an answer.

By extension, Bash said, voters finally decided that a vote for Ted Cruz — a man with a firm grip on second or third place, with half the delegates Trump has — would be nothing more or less than a vote for a contested convention in Cleveland.

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The impact of the presumptive Trump nomination on the country may be the biggest known unknown variable. His scorched-earth campaign, big on style and substance that reinforce white cultural identity by coincidence and design, has seeped its values and its distinctions into the country as a whole, and revealed itself in many ugly ways.

And we as a nation have to decide how much of that we’re willing to put up with, how far we’re prepared to go in sanctioning such aggressive division in our national politics. How willing we are to let Trump do to the electorate what he did to Ted Cruz: exhaust us with the timed-release vision of a Trump White House, and all that comes with it.

Trump is playing high-stakes poker, and he’s playing with house money, and it’s our house. Just how much we need to take him very seriously was made obvious in a startling, excellent Wednesday story by Shane Harris in The Daily Beast.

Harris reports: “After Donald Trump is formally chosen as the Republican presidential nominee, he’ll be able to receive classified U.S. intelligence briefings, which could include some of the same sensitive information that President Obama is given in the Oval Office.”

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More from Harris follows:

“My concern with Trump will be that he inadvertently leaks, because as he speaks extemporaneously, he’ll pull something out of his hat that he heard in a briefing and say it,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who has participated in the process of briefing presidential candidates.

“Unlike his presumed rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would receive the same briefing if she’s the Democratic Party nominee, Trump has never sat across the table from U.S. intelligence analysts and been given updates on the latest machinations of ISIS, or efforts by foreign governments to penetrate American computer networks.

“It’s not an unreasonable concern that he’ll talk publicly about what’s supposed to stay in that room,” said another former senior intelligence official.

A currently serving U.S. official echoed some of those anxieties and wondered whether Trump would respect the discretion of the briefing and not use it to his advantage on the campaign trail.

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LIKE NEVER before, as something bigger than a fast-growing regional curiosity or a reality sideshow, the Trump campaign post-Indiana has attained a gravitas it may be unprepared for. Intelligence briefings are just a fraction of what’s at stake in this election.

The immediate challenge for the Trump campaign is obvious and maybe monumental: convincing the nation that Donald Trump, billionaire xenophobe, take-no-prisoners businessman and the greatest carnival barker who ever lived, has acquired the judgment and rhetorical sobriety to make him worthy of sensitive classified intelligence information that affects me and you and everyone else living in the United States. To be, ultimately, worthy of the presidency.

In effect: Convince the American people that the Donald Trump of the last 20 years of boisterous, ostentatious, out-loud public life — and the last 11 months as a willfully volatile candidate — no longer exists. That will be a tall order.

The challenge for the American public is just as obvious, and given the collective impatience, maybe just as steep a hill: To resist Trump’s transformational claims; to push back on being dazzled by divisive, passive-aggressive sarcasm and very little policy substance ... or not. We’ve got exactly six months from Sunday, 185 days, to work that out.

Image credits: Trump wins in Indiana: CNN: Trump smiles: Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press. Party affilaition among millennials chart: NPR/Pew Research Center. CNN logo: © 2016 CNN. Daily Beast logo: © 2016 The Daily Beast. HuffPost front page: ©2016 The Huffington Post.

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