Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A quantum of umbrage: There is no line

People immediately jumped on Trump's shout-out to "the Second Amendment people" on Tuesday. DailyKos and Charlie Pierce were among the first out of the gate, but only by a whisker.

Both pieces took the same tack – and many more did the same over the next 24 hours:

This time he has finally crossed the line! This one is definitely, absolutely It. You thought it was bad when he did [insert your favorite list of Trump's insults, fabrications, demonstrations of ignorance, etc.]? Well, he's not going to skate through through this time.

Folks, I've got news for you. There is no line. Not any more.

I was going to respond yesterday, but I decided that Trump merely hinting that someone might want to assassinate Clinton is "dog bites man" territory. True, the dog's a little bigger than usual this time, but that's about the only difference. I waited, because the story is the reaction Trump's outburst gets – or doesn't get – from the sources of his political oxygen.

Maybe you could shut Trump down if top Republicans put an end to their mealy-mouthed "I wish he hadn't said that, but if you insist on knowing, I'm not withdrawing my support" bullshit. But that's not going to happen. The GOP at the national level only wants power; they don't want to have to actually work using it with a Democratic president, and it's been that way since 1992.

It might cramp Trump's style a little if the political media could resist showering him with more attention, but I honestly don't know how that could be accomplished at this point. Apart from the fundamental click-baityness of his campaign that makes him an ad-buyer's dream come true, there's the plain fact that, horrific as this sounds, he is the presidential nominee of one of the only two national political parties we allow ourselves to have. I see that some media outlets are slowly moving, like Tevye the Dairyman, to the realization that this time there may not be an "other hand" no matter how sweetly Both-Siderism calls to them. Can they do enough, and can they do it in time? I doubt it. (And, of course, any coverage that Trump doesn't like would stoke his narrative that the election was "rigged" against him.)

And the thought that his base might ever have second thoughts about him is preposterous – most Trump voters are still waiting for their first thought. The notion that their boy would put out a hit on the Hated Hillary would delight them – they're already at "jail the bitch," so "shoot the bitch" really isn't much more than a tap-in.

And really, what is the "line" we're talking about here except the accumulation of the unwritten rules such as that you don't "Willie Horton" your opponent? That you don't deny the legitimacy of an elected president simply because he (or she) is from the other party? That you don't invest millions in public and private money to disgrace or discredit him? That you don't call him a liar during the State of the Union address? That you don't conspire with foreign leaders just because you don't like the President's policies? That you don't shut down the government for temporary political advantage?

If that's what we mean by the line – and I think it is – the point is not that we have crossed it. The point is that, thanks to a generation of political nihilists who run one of our two national political parties, we really can't cross it because the line no longer exists.

I see one of two scenarios playing out over the next three months. Neither is good. One is that Trump, being bored with the game or secretly fearing he won't be able to spin his defeat as a victory, will continue to raise the stakes with things like yesterday's outburst, and probably making demands of the Commission on Presidential Debates that he knows they won't agree to, and then – claiming that he'd accomplished everything he set out to do anyway – he'd pull off the ticket. That would be a political crisis – it would expose the power vacuum at the top levels of the GOP, and it would make Clinton's victory certain but its meaning ambiguous at best.

The other scenario is that he stays in the race (more outbursts, more feuding with the CPD, etc. – that's just a given), then loses to Clinton, probably by a substantial electoral margin and perhaps a substantial popular margin too. At that point he holds a press conference to announce – based on evidence that is unconvincing, assuming it's even provided – that the election has been stolen. At that point it's not a political crisis any more; it's a constitutional one. I remember the 2000 end game far too well to place much trust in our institutional ability to navigate our way out of that one. (And I suspect it's already occurred to many #nevertrumpers that this would finally put them back on familiar territory: Doing their level best to hamstring a Clinton presidency. Good times.)

Maybe I'll feel better as November nears, and in any case I'm going to vote, but that's how it looks to me at the moment: There is no line, ladies and gentlemen. There's just more and more of the same until something blows up.

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