Sometimes you begin to suspect that the entire U.S. presidential campaign is part of some elaborate hoax, a massive hoodwink or an epic version of Practical Jokes and Bloopers. As if some super-duper-director is trying to see just how erratic and obnoxious a presidential candidate like Donald Trump has to be before Americans understand that it’s all a practical joke at their expense. That at any minute the curtains will be raised and Allen Funt will emerge from the behind the scenes to say “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera” or Ashton Kutcher will jump on you and pronounce “You’ve been Punk’d."
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Because fantastic as it may seem, Trump continues to go from strength to strength. He says the opposite today of what he pledged yesterday, and his polls only get better. He taunts, insults and abuses just like before and Republicans are lining up behind him. He is exposed as a trickster, a harasser and a breaker of his word and he keeps getting closer and closer to the Oval Office, with its keys to the nuclear kingdom.
After all, the crop of revelations, exposes, denials and retractions of the past 72 hours alone would have sufficed to end the ambitions of a normal presidential candidate. Impersonating your own PR guy so you can praise yourself and then denying it despite the recording, the eyewitness verifications and your own previous testimony? Who but Trump could brush that off as if it was a speck of dust?
And what about the New York Times expose on Saturday of Trump’s sordid relations with women? Never mind the reported harassment and exploitation, what about this repeated incidents of lusting for his own daughter? Trump once told Howard Stern that he would date her if she weren’t his offspring, now he’s quoted as allegedly asking whether she’s hot, when she was only 16. Does this really make fathers love Trump more? Can this truly be reconciled with Trump’s improving status with women?
And then there’s his chauffeur of 17 years, who yearns for President Barack Obama to be assassinated. Yes, he was summarily dismissed, but does anyone believe that he worked alongside Trump day in and day out for so long without imparting any of his opinions to his boss? Perhaps he was the one who convinced Trump that Obama was born in Kenya and that his birth certificate was forged?
And all of this before we get to the more serious stuff, such as Trump suddenly refusing to release his tax returns after promising for weeks that he would; or Trump turning to big money after he boasted for so long about how his wealth allowed him to be his own man. He once said that Sheldon Adelson was supporting Marco Rubio in order to make him his “little puppet.” Now that Adelson has come out in his support with guns blazing and is reportedly about to bestow more than a hundred million dollars on his campaign, Trump has “tremendous respect” for the Las Vegas casino tycoon. And that’s before we get to the biggest howler of them all, which is Trump suddenly announcing that everything he has ever said, promised or proclaimed, no matter how emphatically, should be taken with more than a ton of salt, because he isn’t president yet. It’s just a suggestion. “On the ice,” as we say in Hebrew.
Nonetheless, the working assumption has got to be that these embarrassing mishaps and misdemeanors won’t harm Trump, just as all of his previous missteps, which everyone thought were sure to finish him, only made him stronger. He has shown himself to be a kind of mega-turbo-Teflon kind of candidate: Not only does he not pay for his sins and foul-ups - they actually seem to make him stronger.
True, Hillary Clinton continues to maintain a solid lead over Trump, but recent polls have shown him closing the gap. She still has to contend with Bernie Sanders and with the corrosive effect of his attacks on her, while Trump is well on his way to mending fences with his hitherto disapproving GOP. The polls have something do with it: Republicans are beginning to view Trump as a possible winner. They want to get on his bandwagon while there’s still room. Others are aware that their constituents have shifted dramatically: whereas a majority proclaimed until recently that they would never vote for Trump in the general elections, more than 84 percent now promise they will. For others, the specter of another four years of a Democrat in the White House is enough to sharpen their minds, as Samuel Johnson said in another context, and to push them into Trump’s camp.
That’s how Rick Perry has decided that rather than being a “cancer” that must be excised, Trump loves his country and would surround himself with experts; Bobby Jindal has moved on from his diagnosis of Trump as an “egomaniacal madman with no principles” because he’s still the lesser of two evils, compared to Clinton; and even Lindsey Graham, hitherto Trump’s fierce nemesis, has now discovered that the New York tycoon has “a great sense of humor” after all. Perhaps Adelson, who funded Graham’s presidential campaign, explained Trump’s jokes.
There are still some pockets of resistance of course, including the former presidents and candidates of the Bush family as well as Mitt Romney. The 2012 presidential hopeful is said to have discussed the possibility of a third party candidacy with Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ran against Trump, as well as Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, one of the presumptive candidate’s harshest critics. But most observers believe that it’s too little and too late to mount an outsider campaign that would effectively block Trump’s way to the White House.
Perhaps the recent revelations will eventually catch up with Trump; there’s usually a hiatus of a week or two before events register in the polls. Perhaps his recent rise is just a fata morgana because Sanders supporters refuse to commit to Clinton as long as their candidate is in the ring. But maybe Trump is trampling all the known rules of politics and reshuffling the deck altogether, a la George Orwell’s 1984. His weaknesses are his strength, his nastiness is saving grace, his ignorance is his wisdom and his complete incoherence is just what American voters are yearning for.
It was Winston Churchill who said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And another anonymous wit who contributed that the problem with political jokes is that they end up getting elected.