One of the recurring patterns of the 2016 presidential campaign is that anytime Donald Trump is dealt a setback, or one of his opponents has a good break, the GOP frontrunner has been able to change the subject by doing or saying something outrageous. This is sheer political genius on his part, but, as with most successful people, a little luck also helps. That was proved true yesterday when the big political news of the day on Tuesday should have been Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s endorsement of Ted Cruz a week before his state’s crucial primary. But instead, the news cycle was dominated by the announcement that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was being charged with misdemeanor battery for roughing up former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a Trump rally. Yet even as we marvel at Trump’s ability to spin a disaster as a triumph, we ought to also be wondering about what all this means for a possible Trump administration.
Since the timing was the result of a decision by the Jupiter, Florida police, we can call it serendipity. The effect was the same as every previous Trump diversion. The news was dominated by Trump’s defense of his man’s thuggish behavior, as well as his unconscionable and misogynist attacks of Fields. Walker became a footnote as the nation debated Trump’s attempt to persuade us not to believe our lying eyes when the video shows Lewandowski doing what Fields and the police allege said he did. We don’t need to waste much time joining in that discussion, since this isn’t so much a “he said, she said” dispute as it is yet another chapter in the book of Trump fabulism.
In terms of its impact on Trump’s general election prospects, I agree with our John Podhoretz when he says in today’s New York Post that the candidate’s loyalty to an out-of-control aide is “politically insane.” This story only feeds a narrative that more or less dooms the GOP in November as it gives female voters and independents one more reason to join Hispanics in shunning the party.
But, like every other crazy thing Trump has said or done in the last nine months of political insanity, it’s not going to persuade his legion of fans to abandon him. Any other candidate would cut loose a character like Lewandowski, especially since he’s also mixed it up with protesters at Trump rallies. But Trump’s willingness to smear an innocent reporter as a liar or obsessed with Lewandowski (a classic chauvinist tactic) will be seen by his supporters as admirable loyalty to a faithful retainer. Even worse, it will be interpreted as more proof of his indomitable refusal to bow to political correctness. They will cheer his defiance of the media as evidence of an admirable belief in “telling it like it is,” even if everything he and his apologists say about the issue is a lie as shown by the video, an audio transcript, and eyewitnesses to the incident.
But, for the moment, let’s put aside the short-term boost this gives Trump among his supporters and the long-term problem it poses for the Republicans chances of holding Congress, let alone their dwindling chances of taking back the White House. Instead, let’s ponder what the l’affaire Lewandowski tells about what a Trump administration would be like.
If we suspend disbelief and imagine a world in which there are enough angry and credulous white males to elect a candidate like Trump to the White House, let’s take the next step and conjure up a West Wing inhabited by Trump henchmen like Lewandowski.
Let’s concede that all presidential staffs are hostile to reporters that aren’t prepared to recycle administration spin. But there’s a difference between hostility and violence. As with the candidate’s open encouragement for his supporters to attack demonstrators at his rallies (something that Lewandowski has also done), a Trump White House would be one where anyone that refused to play along would be at risk in one way or another.
But though the focus of this controversy has been about how Trump treats the press (something about which most people don’t care), this is about more than just the treatment of the media. It also illustrates the way Trump does business and how he and his staff view the world.
This is not just the “culture” of violence encouraged by Trump. When presented with the damning truth about an incident, any normal candidate would assess the situation and look to cut its losses. But not Trump. That’s partly because of his belief that, if everyone says to do something, then he must do the opposite in order to preserve his outsider brand. But more than that, Trump’s bare-faced lies that are contradicted by a tape, an audio transcript, and eyewitnesses also illustrate how he operates in a bubble that is a closed circle indifferent to the facts as much as it is to perception.
Worse than that, it also shows a Stalinist streak in which the leader believes his words, no matter how ridiculous, are more powerful than even the demonstrable truth. Again, such an administration wouldn’t be the first to be at odds with the facts as we’ve seen over the last eight years with President Obama and his team. But the sort of behavior we’ve seen from Trump takes the workaday mendacity of Obama and morphs into the sort of 2+2=5 madness that seems straight out of the world of Orwellian totalitarianism. Not only would there be nothing sacred in a Trump White House, it would also be a place where the lies of reality television would be united with the awesome power of the federal government.
While a staffer bruising a reporter may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, when it is in the service of a celebrity personality cult, it takes on a more sinister tone. In a White House led by a man who would employ and then defend Lewandowski, anything is imaginable when it comes to not merely lying to the press, but it also shows just how far it might go to suppress the free press and the truth.
A president that would personally threaten a competitor’s wife, as well as sanction both the roughing up of a reporter and then lying about her, is one that is capable of anything. It doesn’t merely show how minor incidents could become unmanageable international incidents. It also gives us a hint of authoritarianism that would chill democracy in the manner of a Vladimir Putin. As bad as Obama has been, a President Trump would be a man that appears to be even less willing to act within the constraints imposed upon the executive by the Constitution than his predecessors.
Like everything else about Trump, the Lewandowski business makes for riveting television. But it also illustrates that a Trump administration would be more of a horror film than a reality show. Though such instances make a Trump presidency less likely, it would be foolish to deny that he has a chance to sit in the White House if he wins the GOP nomination. If somehow he is elected, after this and other incidents that illustrate Trump’s character and habits, Americans will not be able to claim they didn’t know what would this mean.