One thing Donald Trump is clear on is his view that there is no such thing as bad publicity. After his wife was found to have plagiarized her convention speech, he confirmed his view enthusiastically.
But the problem with publicity is that it is like crack, and Donald Trump is a publicity and attention addict. First Trump got publicity for run of the mill rude statements. Then, as those became commonplace, he had to amp up the level of outrage to get the same buzz. You could see it in his prior Birther life, and we have seen it over the course of the primaries. He explained this back in January to the New York Times Editorial Board.
At a meeting with The Times’s editorial writers, Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”
And so it has been, as he has lobbed in one new proposal after another to keep people’s attention. Deporting Mexican immigrants. Banning Muslims. Starting a trade war with China. For a year now, he has made it all up as he has gone along.
Over the past week, needing new headlines to trump the Democrats gathering in Philadelphia, Trump escalated his rhetoric to new heights. First, he reaffirmed his indifference to NATO and suggested that he would not commit to coming to the defense of a NATO ally under attack, notwithstanding our mutual defense commitments under the NATO alliance. It was, in the words of former George W. Bush State Department official Nicholas Burns, “The most reckless statement made by any American leader since the founding of NATO.”
Then, in the wake of Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee internal emails―that caused a furor just as the DNC convention opened in Philadelphia―Donald Trump encouraged continued Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, immediately recognized the lines that Trump had crossed―encouraging both cyber attacks by a foreign power against Americans, as well as foreign meddling in an American election―and tried to walk back Trump’s comments. “If it is Russia,” Pence commented soberly, “and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences.”
But Trump was undeterred by his running mate’s insubordination, and went on to tweet out his press conference comments encouraging new Russian cyber attacks. As the Trump campaign clearly established on day one of the Republican National Convention last week, there is no action that is not justified if it helps to defeat Hillary Clinton. What Pence recognized as bordering on treasonous conduct, Donald Trump saw as just one more opportunity to garner attention and attack his adversary.
Last week, with his acceptance speech in Cleveland, Donald Trump found himself among a rarified group of political figures who achieved the Presidential nomination of the Grand Old Party. And just as he destroyed the traditions and decorum of the Republican nomination process over the past year, it took Trump barely 24 hours to drag the prestige of being the Republican nominee into the gutter, with a new name-calling, taunting tweet about Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
For mainstream Republicans trying to find a way to support their party’s nominee, Trump’s behavior must be dispiriting. Perhaps those Republicans are willing to ignore the racial and xenophobic rhetoric. Perhaps they can convince themselves that the worst aspects of Trump’s plans―the wall and the Muslim ban―will never come to pass. And perhaps they can convinced themselves they can ignore all the noise and bluster and hang their hats on the benefits of his massive tax cuts. But whatever their rationale, those Republicans have to come to believe that Trump will begin acting in a manner that comports with being the nominee of the Republican Party. In the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, many of them had come to convince themselves that once Donald Trump was given the nomination and found himself walking in the shoes of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, he would rein in his worst instincts, that he would tame his unrelenting narcissism and craving for attention, and grow up. Just a little.
But it was not to be.
On the domestic side of the ledger, ours is a system of checks and balances. The Mexican wall will never be built because Congress plays a roll in such decisions. The Muslim ban will not take place, because we have a judiciary. But foreign policy is the purview of the President, and the Constitution provides the executive with broad latitude to unilaterally determine the United States’ conduct in the world. There is a reason that the earliest and firmest revolt against Donald Trump within the GOP came on the grounds of foreign policy. As Michelle Obama said in her speech the other night, in the world of foreign policy, you need a person who is steady and measured and well-informed. Whatever he might be, Donald Trump is none of those.
Now, Trump is not only praising Vladimir Putin as his kind of guy, not only encouraging nuclear escalation among the nations of east Asia and the dismantling of our European alliances, now he is sanctioning cyber warfare attacks by one of our most capable international adversaries against his political opponent. And he is able to get away with it because he believes that as long as he brandishes the specter of Hillary Clinton, he has the cudgel necessary to browbeat Republicans who are reluctant to fall in line.
Donald Trump believes that he understands his audience well. This week, a CNN poll gave him a six point bump in the wake of the Republican National Convention, his strongest performance to date. But within the details of the poll the news was not so positive. While Trumps support grew among uneducated white voters a result of the red meat convention, his support among educated white voters actually declined.
The arrogance of his stance of blackmailing recalcitrant Republicans has not been lost on many in his own party. Foreign policy Republicans―Brent Scowcroft, Ken Adelman and Bill Kristol among others―have been among the most vocal in opposing Trump under any circumstances, because they understand the unilateral power of the President in foreign affairs, and the great risk that a Donald Trump presidency would present, to America and to the world.
Lingering behind all of the Trumpian anti-Hillary rhetoric is a recognition within Republican circles that Hillary may not be all that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and others have worked so hard to make her out to be. At a forum in Cleveland during the convention last week, Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole (R-OK) was sanguine about the prospects of working with a President Hillary Clinton, who, he suggested “could be easier to work with than the President has been.”
Former Congressman and long-time party wise man Vin Weber (R-MN) went farther: “The story line seems to be at the grassroots level, the Republicans just hate Hillary Clinton, they all want her in jail, blah blah blah. Ain’t so. Not true in the Congress. The people who served with Hillary Clinton in Congress as Republicans got along with her, respected her, and worked with her. Didn’t agree with her, don’t want her to be President, but the notion that she will come in hated by everyone in Congress simply is not an accurate statement.”
There is a long time left to go in this campaign, which in many respects doesn’t really start until Labor Day. It used to be that the opposing party stayed silent during the other party’s convention week. Clearly, that is no longer the case, and for his part, Donald Trump is incapable of keeping quiet. But this week, by jumping on the story of the Russian hacking of the DNC, he may have only hurt himself.
Sure, all publicity is good publicity for a reality show celebrity, but as the CNN poll suggests, educated white voters―and particularly relatively moderate Republicans―cannot be pleased by either the conduct or the words of their nominee over the past week. Not only is he incapable of keeping his sophomoric rhetoric under control, but he glories in it. It is one thing to admire Vladimir Putin, but it is quite another to suggest that encouraging foreign attacks on our homeland by a foreign power is an acceptable stance for a presidential nominee.