The PJ Tatler

Frank Rich Nails the Trump Phenomenon: 'A Much-Needed Wrecking Ball'

My old journalistic frenemy, Frank Rich (we both worked for the same editor at Time magazine, the late Martha Duffy), hates Republicans, hates conservatives and is just about as reliable a liberal as they come. He’s also generally wrong about everything, from the worth of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals to contemporary politics. But, man, does he nail the appeal of The Donald and the seething hot mess that is the GOP establishment and the entire political establishment in general. It’s a long piece in New York magazine but well worth your time, if only for grafs like these:

What’s exhilarating, even joyous, about Trump has nothing to do with his alternately rancid and nonsensical positions on policy. It’s that he’s exposing the phoniness of our politicians and the corruption of our political process by defying the protocols of the whole game. He skips small-scale meet-and-greets in primary-state living rooms and diners. He turned down an invitation to appear at the influential freshman senator Joni Ernst’s hog roast in Iowa. He routinely denigrates sacred GOP cows like Karl Rove and the Club for Growth. He has blown off the most powerful newspapers in the crucial early states of Iowa (the Des Moines Register) and New Hampshire (the Union-Leader) and paid no political price for it. Yet he is overall far more accessible to the press than most candidates — most conspicuously Clinton — which in turn saves him from having to buy television ad time.

It’s as if Trump were performing a running burlesque of the absurd but intractable conventions of presidential campaigns in real time. His impact on our politics post-2016 could be as serious as he is not. Unsurprisingly, the shrewdest description of the Trump show’s appeal has come from an actor, Owen Wilson. “You can’t help but get a kick out of him,” he told the Daily Beast, “and I think part of it is we’re so used to politicians on both sides sounding like actors at press junkets — it’s sort of by rote, and they say all the right things. So here’s somebody who’s not following that script. It’s like when Charlie Sheen was doing that stuff.” As Wilson says, for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.

He also makes a sport of humiliating high-end campaign gurus. When Sam Clovis, a powerful Evangelical conservative activist in Iowa, jumped from the cratering Perry to Trump in August, it seemed weird. Despite saying things like “I’m strongly into the Bible,” Trump barely pretends to practice any religion. The Des Moines Register soon published excerpts from emails written just five weeks earlier (supplied by Perry allies) in which Clovis had questioned Trump’s “moral center” and lack of “foundation in Christ” and praised Perry for calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism.” But, like Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, Trump figured correctly that money spoke louder than Christ to Clovis. He was no less shrewd in bringing the focus-group entrepreneur Frank Luntz to heel. After Luntz convened a negative post-debate panel on Fox News that, in Luntz’s view, signaled “the destruction” of Trump’s campaign, Trump showered him with ridicule. Luntz soon did a Priebus-style about-face and convened a new panel that amounted to a Trump lovefest. One participant praised Trump for not mouthing “that crap” that’s been “pushed to us for the past 40 years.” It’s unclear if Luntz was aware of the irony of his having been a major (and highly compensated) pusher of “that crap,” starting with his role in contriving the poll-shaped pablum of Newt Gingrich’s bogus “Contract With America.”


Rich is equally unsparing in his barely disguised loathing of the Hillary! campaign, with its breathtaking, unapologetic phoniness:

A perfect paradigm of how lame old-school, top-heavy campaigns can be was crystallized by a single story on the front page of the Times the day after Labor Day. Its headline said it all: “Clinton Aides Set New Focus for Campaign — A More Personal Tone of Humor and Heart.” By announcing this “new focus” to the Times, which included “new efforts to bring spontaneity” to a candidacy that “sometimes seems wooden,” these strategists were at once boasting of their own (supposed) political smarts and denigrating their candidate, who implicitly was presented as incapable of being human without their direction and scripts. Hilariously enough, the article straight-facedly cited as expert opinion the former Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom — whose stewardship of the most wooden candidate in modern memory has apparently vanished into a memory hole — to hammer home the moral that “what matters is you appear genuine.”

We also learned from this piece that Clinton would soon offer “a more contrite tone” when discussing her email woes, because a focus group “revealed that voters wanted to hear directly from Mrs. Clinton” about it. The aides, who gave the Times “extensive interviews,” clearly thought that this story was a plus for their candidate, and maybe the candidate did, too, since she didn’t fire them on the spot. They all seemed unaware of the downside of portraying Clinton as someone who delegated her “heart” to political operatives and her calibration of contrition to a focus group. By offering a stark contrast to such artifice, the spontaneous, unscripted Trump is challenging the validity and value of the high-priced campaign strategists, consultants, and pollsters who dominate our politics, shape journalistic coverage, and persuade even substantial candidates to outsource their souls to focus groups and image doctors. That brand of politics has had a winning run ever since the young television producer Roger Ailes used his media wiles to create a “new Nixon” in 1968. But in the wake of Trump’s “unprofessional” candidacy, many of the late-20th-century accoutrements of presidential campaigns, often tone-deaf and counter­productive in a new era where social media breeds insurgencies like Obama’s, Trump’s and Sanders’s, could be swept away — particularly if Clinton’s campaign collapses.

When, not “if.” But hey. Kicker:

Even if this drama does not play out to the convention, the Trump campaign has already made a difference. Far from being a threat to democracy or a freak show unworthy of serious coverage, it matters because it’s taking a much-needed wrecking ball to some of what has made our sterile politics and dysfunctional government as bankrupt as Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. If that’s entertainment, so be it. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the Republican Party is reduced to rubble along the way, we can live with it. Trump will not make America great again, but there’s at least a chance that the chaos he sows will clear the way for those who can.

I’ve been pounding the “wrecking-ball” metaphor for some time now as well: until the GOP crew of crybaby losers is removed, the Republicans may as well not even show up for national elections. Trump’s doing them a great service but, as usual, the Stupid Party just continues to step out, and step in it.

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