EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (And reading deer),
“But sir, Jimmy and his team are still down there!”
“Damn it, you don’t think I know that? Close the doors.”
“You heard me.”
“Yes sir. [whispering] May God have mercy on our souls.”
If a similar conversation hasn’t already begun at the RNC, it’s going to start pretty soon. We are in the last days of the “He can pivot!” fantasy (and the toll is showing on Trump’s praetorian guard). The Pivot is the dearly held hope of a diverse group of politicians and pundits that Donald Trump can stop being Donald Trump.
Waiting for the Pivot at the End of the Universe
I’ve been keeping an informal file cataloging what can only be called case studies of MBSS — Mass Battered Spouse Syndrome. Battered spouses, at least according to the cliché, insist that their partner can change. He’s good inside! He isn’t always like this! He can get better!
A few examples (feel free to skip ahead if you already know what I’m talking about):
In its April 14 endorsement of Donald Trump, the New York Post wrote:
Should he win the nomination, we expect Trump to pivot — not just on the issues, but in his manner. The post-pivot Trump needs to be more presidential: better informed on policy, more self-disciplined and less thin-skinned.
From the Associated Press, April 21, 2016:
Trump’s newly hired senior aide, Paul Manafort, made the case to Republican National Committee members that Trump has two personalities: one in private and one onstage.
“When he’s out on the stage, when he’s talking about the kinds of things he’s talking about on the stump, he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose,” Manafort said in a private briefing.
“You’ll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You’ll see a real different way,” he said. . . .
“He gets it,” Manafort said of Trump’s need to moderate his personality. “The part that he’s been playing is evolving into the part that now you’ve been expecting, but he wasn’t ready for, because he had first to complete the first phase. The negatives will come down. The image is going to change.”
Here’s Reince Priebus in early May:
“He’s trying. Honestly, he is trying,” Priebus said, staring awkwardly at the floor with a pained expression on his face as Politico’s Mike Allen asked what he thought of a tweet sent out into the ether by the presidential candidate on Thursday in honor of Cinco de Mayo. It pictured Trump eating a taco bowl and giving a thumbs up. The caption read: “I love Hispanics!”
“I’ve been clear about that, I’ve said that many times, this is not like breaking news,” he said, before attempting to end on a forward-looking optimistic note. “I think you’re going to see it. I think you’re going to see the change in tone,” he predicted.
In early June, Hugh Hewitt wrote:
Trump’s task now is clear: It’s time to abandon his off-the-cuff remarks, disengage from his battles with the media and methodically prosecute the case that throughout her career, Clinton has consistently displayed a disqualifying lack of judgment. He needs to develop this argument, detail it and drive it home.
On June 7, Senator Bob Corker said:
“He’s got this defining period that’s over the next two or three weeks where he could pivot, can pivot, hopefully will pivot to a place where he becomes a true general election candidate.”
In late June Mark Liebovitch met with Priebus:
“I’m feeling good about things,” Priebus told me. His voice was flat and deliberate, hostage-video mode. It was hard to resist a few pokes at the organization man. How’s that Trump pivot working out?
“I think it’s a work in progress,” Priebus said.
Three weeks later the Huffington Post reported:
“The chairman of the Republican Party says that Donald Trump is “pivoting” — in other words, that he is re-inventing himself as a thoughtful, responsible political leader Americans would feel comfortable putting in the Oval Office.”
On July 16, Reince Priebus, speaking to Bret Baier about Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as a running mate, said that “this is the pivot that everyone has been waiting for.”
Now, I could add literally hundreds of other examples to this list, but you get the point: The battered-spouse establishment can’t come to grips with the fact that they’re being played for suckers or that they are actually enabling Trump. I half expect Reince to come out with a black eye and tell everyone that he walked into a door at Trump tower. “I shouldn’t have been so clumsy.”
And I get it. When something is too terrible to contemplate, there’s a natural human tendency to avoid contemplating it. But when a grizzly bear is eating your face, saying “He can change” is not the best response.
Not least because Trump can’t change. He can’t change any more than a one-armed southpaw can suddenly pitch right-handed. Within days of the supposed Pence-pivot, Trump got worse:
In the time since he accepted the nomination Trump has, among other things: revived a crackpot theory on Ted Cruz’s father and the JFK assassination; suggested his adopted party is filled with people who don’t want to help others; invited Russia to influence the U.S. presidential election; smeared the parents of a fallen U.S. Army captain; trashed a retired four-star general; and appeared not to know that Russia had annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
And all of this was at the exact moment when Hillary Clinton lied again about her e-mail controversy (this time about what FBI director Comey said in his testimony), and the government released horrific economic numbers.
And here’s what he said in a mere 24-hour period earlier this week:
And then, just this morning, Trump ate a live hamster on national TV.
Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the point. The Trump you see is the only Trump you’ll get.
I’d love to see a mash-up of Hannibal Lecter channeling Marcus Aurelius as he talked to Reince Priebus.
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Reince. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Reince Priebus: He wins primaries? He controls the news cycle? He insults people?
Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by doing these things?
Reince Priebus: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir . . .
Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. He covets attention and respect and he confuses one for the other.
ABP — Always Be Pimp’n
It’s important to keep in mind that Trump knows he has to promise things he cannot deliver just to keep everyone on the hook. He’s a bit like a pimp in this regard (actually he’s like a pimp in a lot of ways: gaudy, loud, self-absorbed, fond of gold and red velvet — but we’ll stay on point). He tells those counting on him that he can be better.
On March 9, he told Sean Hannity:
“At the right time, I will be so presidential that you’ll call me and you’ll say, ‘Donald, you have to stop that.’ (LAUGHTER) But you know what? It is true, and I think you understand: When they attack me, I have to attack back. I’m a counter-puncher. When they attack me, if I don’t attack back — You know, the press could say, ‘Oh, he should act more presidential.’ And then like a couple of days ago, I gave a speech, they said, ‘That was so presidential.’ I can be presidential. But when you’re being attacked and when you attack back, they say it’s not presidential.”
This is pimp talk. This notion that he can’t let any insult go un-answered is the lizard-brain logic of the streets and the prison yard. “Honey britches, I gotta save face. I can’t let no one trash-talk me or my name won’t mean sh*t out there.”
The Pivot Challenge
I want to put forward a challenge to everyone still clinging to the he-can-change, pie-in-the-sky, free-beer-tomorrow, Godot’s-bus-is-just-running-late, he-can-change fantasy. Pick a date. Any date between now and Election Day. I want you to commit to the idea that if he hasn’t changed by that day, he never will. And on that day, you need to accept that he is the same cheeto-dusted smatterer some of us saw from Day 1. Then, ask yourself: “What should we do now?”
The New Rules
My friend Hugh Hewitt is currently a leader of the “remain calm” camp with regard to Trump. I am utterly sympathetic to his dismay about a Clinton Restoration. But I am very skeptical that, barring some horrific terrorist attack on American soil, Trump’s candidacy can be saved.
Donald Trump isn’t running a presidential campaign; he’s running a national speaking tour.
Hugh is right that polls in August normally don’t mean much. But there’s an irony here. To invoke that truism is to invoke the normal rules. And if there’s one thing both Trump boosters and Trump critics can agree on, it’s that the normal rules have been suspended — except of course when the normal rules benefit Trump.
I keep hearing that Ronald Reagan was at 39 percent in the polls in 1980 and that George H. W. Bush was behind by 17 points after the Democratic convention. Never mind that these deficits were before their respective conventions. The real problem with these examples is that they were about normal presidential campaigns. Donald Trump isn’t running a presidential campaign; he’s running a national speaking tour. When a normal presidential campaign gets into trouble you can change tactics and strategy. When a cult of personality gets into trouble, what can you do? Only one thing: Change the personality. And, again, that isn’t going to happen. Ever.
Oh sure, his poll numbers will go up again. He’ll have a good few days, maybe even a good week. And given how we’ve lowered the bar when it comes to Trump’s behavior you can be sure Newt and Christie and, of course, Hannity will celebrate it like the demoralized parents of a junkie teenager who manages to get a B on his report card. “He’s got his act together!” Back in September, I wrote about the tendency of Trump boosters to over invest in Trump’s political accomplishments:
But this is not an argument for Trump as a serious presidential candidate. It is really no argument at all. It is catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument. Every principle used to defend Trump is subjective, graded on a curve. Trump is like a cat trained to piss in a human toilet. It’s amazing! It’s remarkable! Yes, yes, it is: for a cat. But we don’t judge humans by the same standard.
In the days ahead, Trump will stay on message for a day or two and the reaction from many will be “The Prophecies Are True!” and “Watch out Hillary!” and “Behold! The Cat Who Pees!” Never mind that serious presidential candidates are expected to be disciplined for months on end. We’ve so downgraded our expectations of Trump that even minimal or sub-minimal professionalism from him is greeted like unprecedented statesmanship. But it won’t last. It won’t last because it can’t. The “Days Since an Unpresidential Screw-Up” Clock will never hit double digits.
Close the Damn Blast Doors Already
Which brings me back to the radiation leak in the containment area, the flooded submarine section, the runaway junk-liquidating virus, and the mutant ant army racing toward the suburbs of Cleveland (if you get nauseous from constantly mixed metaphors, I suggest you leave now).
Trumpism is a radiation leak threatening to destroy the GOP, not just in 2016 but for a generation. The half-life of Trumponium-90 is very long. The Republican nominee is the fourth choice of voters 18-29, after Clinton, Johnson, and the Bolshevik Jill Stein. Trump has 1 percent support among African Americans. He’s doing worse among married women and Hispanics than any modern GOP candidate. I cite these numbers not just to point out that he is very likely to be a loser in the fall, but to call attention to the fact that he is destroying the reputation of the Republican party in the process.
I think Paul Ryan sees all this, but he’s desperate to save as much of his crew as possible. A ten-point landslide for Hillary will wipe away the Senate majority for sure, and possibly the House majority as well. His dilemma isn’t philosophical, it’s empirical. What can he do to contain the damage? He calculates that if he doesn’t shut off the reactor core, the rest of the gang can still save themselves.
But in the meantime, the radiation is getting out into the rest of the ship. Waiting to close the doors of the sub means filling the boat with water and sinking to depths the hull cannot withstand.
If you take it as a given that Trump cannot and will not change, you need to ask yourself: What should we do?
If you take it as a given that Trump cannot and will not change, you need to ask yourself: What should we do?
To me the answer is obvious: Excise the tumor, close the doors, blow the mine shaft. Democrats do this kind of thing all the time, though not yet in a presidential election. If the only way to stop the virus from escaping the lab is to implement the Torricelli Protocol, then that’s what you have to do.
Personally, I think a last-minute substitute could actually win, particularly if Trump cooperated. Hillary Clinton is still a terrible candidate and profoundly unpopular. Trump may not be a Democratic plant, but a Democratic plant couldn’t be nearly as effective as Donald Trump has been.
Back during Hugh Hewitt’s brief Trump-realism phase, he compared nominating Trump to a plane heading into a mountain. You gotta do whatever you can, no matter how improbable or difficult, to change course. You need “new pilots,” he said.
“It’s like ignoring stage-four cancer. You can’t do it, you gotta go attack it,” Hugh said displaying a Goldbergian penchant for mixing metaphors. And he was right.How do we get rid of Trump? I don’t know. Apparently party rules do allow for dumping Trump, but that would obviously be horribly ugly — if Trump didn’t play along. In a normal time with a normal person, the right people would appeal to Trump’s party loyalty, but he has none. That would be like asking a pope to step down for the good of the Presbyterians. One could appeal to Trump’s patriotism, but there too, his tank is, if not empty, then certainly running on fumes. Maybe that’s unfair. What’s not unfair is that Trump certainly cares more about himself than any other consideration with the possible exception of his kids. So maybe the kids could talk to him? Again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that Hugh was right about doing what you have to do when there’s no other choice but certain death. Some of us saw this a lot earlier — which was just one of the reasons National Review ran its “Against Trump” issue. The other reasons had to do with protecting the conservative movement and the country from the damage a Trump presidency would inflict.
The challenge then, as now, is a collective-action problem. The party was too weak to stop Trump and, as we learned, individual politicians who tried to call out Trump died in the process. But the threat never disappeared, it only got worse.
Someone needs to play the role of Spock in Star Trek II and head into the engine room to contain the radiation leak on the principle that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.” I choked up when Spock died and I would be even more sad to see Paul Ryan sacrifice himself in the effort. Then again, political deaths are not so permanent as we sometimes think. Spock’s return in the next movie was far more improbable than a Ryan resurrection.
Again, I don’t know how to do it. I only know that it needs to be done.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: (Parental Advisory: You may want small children to leave this “news”letter now). I’m still out in Kittery, Maine, working on the book and growing my hermit beard. The dogs are still having a fantastic time. Perhaps too fantastic. The other day, while I was smoking a cigar and writing about German Romanticism or something, the Fair Jessica took the dogs to the woods. While Pippa was chasing sticks or a tennis ball, the Dingo was reprising her Heart of Darkness routine. Moving through the tall grass, she spotted her prey: The legendary rodent of unusual size, the gopher. My wife did not see the moment of the attack. All she heard was rustling out in the bush. Then, the Dingo emerged from sunlight dappled shadows with her prey. To say that she was proud of the kill is an understatement of epic proportions. For the most part, we’ve given up trying to get her to let go of her trophies. The only proven way to do it is to hold her head under water until she lets go. But that presupposed catching her in the first place. Zoë proceeded to remove strips of gopher meat from the beast like it was that fruit leather stuff. When she had her fill, she proceeded to lope around the trail with the gopher’s skull hanging out one side of her jaws and its spinal column out the other. It was like a canine remake of Predator.
Now, I should again stress that I am huge wimp when it comes to these things and I don’t like it when Zoë fulfills her nature because I don’t like watching cute things kill other cute things. So I was glad not to be there for any of that. But that is not to say that I did not participate in the experience at all. For you see, I have learned that gopher-induced canine flatulence is a very serious problem. Even when I was walking her on a very long leash outside on a breezy night, I felt like Kramer driving the horse carriage in that episode of Seinfeld when he fed Rusty a tub of Beefarino. As I joked on Twitter it was like some ancient folktale where the forest gods punish anyone who dares hunt on their sacred lands with a curse of stygian farts. Zoë is fine now, of course. But as the ancient Indian proverbs attest, once a dingo has tasted the delicious meat of the gopher nothing else will satisfy it . . . save of course, squirrels, chipmunks, sliced ham, roast beef, etc.
My column today is on the ridiculous explanation that the White House didn’t pay a ransom to the Iranians — they just wanted the Iranians to think it was a ransom.
My first column of the week was on why Hillary is now more comfortable playing the historic woman card. (A number of readers rightly chastised me for not mentioning that women’s suffrage started much earlier in various states long before we amended the Constitution).