If consensus in the media is that the first three days of the GOP convention were a “disaster,” the last night left pundits oddly unsure of how to label it. This was not only a reaction to instant (and notoriously unscientific) polls like CNN’s, which showed that 57 percent of viewers felt very positive about Trump’s red-faced, high-decibel speech, 18 percent somewhat positive, and 24 percent negative. It was also the belief that Trump’s big night showed that maybe, just maybe, he was finally learning to play by the rules.
When the crowd started screaming about Hillary, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Trump gestured for them to stop, saying, “Let’s defeat her in November.” That was not a spontaneous moment of civility, CNN’s John King pointed out; his handlers had prepped him for it. But, hey, he followed orders. He let Ivanka de-right-wing him with what the press correctly deemed a Democratic speech (her dad, she said, would deliver equal pay for women and childcare subsidies). Whether he even paid attention to her promises, it satisfied the rule to appeal beyond your base.
Did last night provide some much-needed disaster relief? After day three and the Cruz non-endorsement, Politico’s Glenn Thrush wrote, “Cruz’s defiance catapulted the ragged, plagiarism-marred, poorly managed convention into nuclear dumpster fire territory.” Post-speech, Thrush adjusted the verdict, saying Trump “is finally learning how to play the game.”
But the impending train-wreck premise is still the dominant one. We can understand why: Everything about Trump’s candidacy, starting with its existence, has defied the rules of the game. In ignoring election history, he threatens the pundits’ own investment of years learning the game. To wit:
You fire people who let things like plagiarism sully your convention, was heard on all the morning shows on Wednesday.
You don’t air-kiss your running mate on stage—you each place one arm around the other guy and raise your free arm over your head, was the refrain on Thursday.
And everyone is still saying, Most important, you raise millions and millions of dollars and spend them on advertising.
The political press has learned that every time they predict that this lie or that faux pas will doom Trump, he comes back—often stronger. So now they begin every prediction with a sheepish preface, Well, I’ve been wrong before, but…
By defying our almost superstitious adherence to rules, Trump has created something less visible: a loosening of the bonds in our heads. Now not only can his followers vote for someone who knows nothing about the world, but they will also applaud positions that they may detest (friendly nods to the LGBT community, promises of big-government spending to solve every problem), just because it comes out of his mouth. For moments, at least, his fans can feel that norms don’t matter, that they’re social constructs, that Republicans don’t have to believe X and never Y. They can cast off chains they didn’t know they were lugging around. It’s a thrill that, I believe, is fueling Trumpmania almost as much as his fear-mongering, racism, and strongman smashing of his opponents. In this sense, Trump is truly unglued—rules for him are so free-floating that he’ll make ’em and break ’em in the same sentence. But in dissolving some of society’s bonds, he could be unintentionally doing us all a service—showing that we can detach from stale expectations, habits, and rote thinking.
He doesn’t seem to possess such wise detachment himself. Trump is nothing if not compulsive, doing things exactly as he’s done for decades.
And the political problem is that his followers don’t extend this thought-loosening beyond their hero; they simply reapply the Trump brand of glue. Free from the restraints of PC, for instance, they simply learn a new version of PC.
So, along with Bill Maher and Michael Moore, I’m of the school of thought that, even if Trump’s train doesn’t run on time, it could well reach the White House.
And not just because the polls are painfully close, or that Clinton is as uncomfortable on stage as Trump is at home, or that her hawkishness allows him to run to her left.
There’s one last weapon that Trump may pull out: Roger Ailes. Now that he’s out as the chief of Fox News, there’s speculation, from CNN’s Brian Stelter among others, that the man who delivered Nixon and George H.W. Bush to the presidency, who honed the Willie Horton strategy and much worse, could work for Trump.
As his media guru, Ailes could make some of those ads the Beltway media have been clamoring for.