In the 2008 primary, Barack Obama memorably declared, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." In this year's race, the rhetoric may not be so eloquent, nor the aspirations so lofty. But Donald Trump's Bondi-Gate is the scandal the press has been waiting for.
To be sure, Trump's buyoff of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, while illegal, would not rank among the most offensive things he's done this week. Maybe not even the most offensive thing he's done today. But it's likely to be a major story for the rest of this election. Here's why.
Ironically, the relative normalcy and familiarity of this type of scandal is precisely what makes it a welcomed change of pace for both reporters and consumers of news. Let's face it: at some point, being outraged at Trump for talking about Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle, mocking a disabled person, or calling for a complete shutdown on Muslim-Americans entering the United States just gets exhausting. It becomes hard to stay shocked, as E.J. Dionne warned.
Trump's farcical campaign has no doubt made a circus out of this election. He started out by calling Mexican immigrants criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. He boasted about his penis size in a primary debate with Marco Rubio. His convention was a gong show--even conservative blogger Erik Erickson of Red State tweeted, "Trump's speech sounded better in the original German," referring to Hitler. The following week Trump attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq. And in his recent Arizona speech, Trump doubled down on xenophobia, hate, and deportations.
But there just might be a certain appetite in the press these days for that old-time religion--a big, juicy political scandal. The craving for a more traditional scandal exists not in spite of Trump's shock jock routine, but because of it. It truly feels like we've reached the point where Trump could crack a menopausal joke about Hillary during their debate, pull out a copy of Obama's birth certificate and proceed to urinate on it center stage, and make fun of Joe Biden's late son Beau...only for that story to be bumped out of the news cycle the next day, disappearing in a fog of obnoxiousness as the next hateful outbursts spew from Trump's mouth, or Android phone. Disgusting as all that would be, what would it tell us about Donald Trump that we don't already know, or haven't already seen? Trying to rank the offensiveness of Trump's daily outbursts quickly resembles a game of "Would you rather?" between 7th graders.
But Bondi-Gate? Now that's old school. This story has more layers than an onion, and more plot lines and duplicity than a season of Game of Thrones. Yet nothing about it is extremely complicated, so everyone can follow along. It is perfect, because it gives us the essence of Trump. It starts with a main storyline of Ponzi scheme charlatanry in Trump University. In that episode, Trump claims to be a real estate genius so he can bilk unwitting middle- and lower-income folks (who did not start with $40 million of their dad's money) of their hard-earned dollars. Meanwhile, there is the subplot surrounding Trump's racist instincts, on display when he lashed out at Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born judge of Mexican descent who is hearing one of the federal class-action lawsuits against Trump in California. We're almost sure to see a number of outright, straightforward lies, as Trump has already denied he ever even spoke to Bondi. Finally, Bondi-Gate features a unifying theme of rank hypocrisy, a trademark of Trump's. During the Republican Convention in July I discussed Trump's tendencies toward projection--the psychological defense mechanism humans use to attribute to others what they are most afraid of in themselves. I predicted Trump would soon attack Hillary for having bad hair, an orange face, and small hands. Boy was I wrong about those! Instead, Trump has since called Hillary a bigot, said she doesn't look presidential, and centered his campaign around the notion that Hillary is "Crooked."
But those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. And after digging and digging on Benghazi, Hillary's State Department emails, and the Clinton Foundation, investigators and reporters from the FBI, Associated Press, The New York Times, and even House Republicans' countless committees obsessing about Benghazi have all exonerated Hillary Clinton. Real reporters are eager to do some actual old-fashioned reporting, especially if it corresponds to the shady narrative that some have attempted to stick on Hillary. Certainly the Clinton campaign and their liberal allies in the press are primed to help Trump get his comeuppance.
In the end, all of this is unlikely to affect the actual outcome of the presidential race, which is not close. Sam Wang's polls-only model at Princeton Election Consortium shows a gigantic lead for Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College, with her chances of winning at 93%. The model has shown a very stable race, consistent with recent presidential general elections in hyperpolarized twenty-first century America. And it's helpful to remember that presidential elections aren't like sports competitions, in which one team may be a heavy favorite, but theoretically anything can happen in between kickoff, tipoff, etc. and the final whistle or buzzer. Presidential elections, in contrast, are not actually discrete events limited to Election Day, starting when the first polls open and ending when the last ones close. How people vote for president--and who turns out--is much more a function of economic, political, and demographic fundamentals, tied in with an accumulation of voters' life experiences and world view. All the while, the cake is baking.
But Bondi-Gate's emergence as a dominant storyline in the 2016 election could affect down-ballot races, as well as Hillary's mandate and ability to govern as president. Because of his endless record of offensive statements and sheer unpopularity, Trump is already on track to be a serious burden to Republican candidates for Senate, House, and almost any other race this year. But a full-on implosion of Trump's candidacy--including the real possibility that he could quit the race before Election Day--might mean the difference between Trump being merely a drag on Republicans down-ballot, and Trump being a colossal millstone around their necks as they drown in a sea of his disgusting bile.
In this crazy circus election, no single story will completely dominate the race, at least for long. But Bondi-Gate just might have the right ingredients to really drive this narrative all the way into November.