They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast.
-- "Hotel California," The Eagles
Time and again, Donald Trump is seemingly finished off, often by his own words, and then, against all expectations, he comes roaring back.
Trump has just completed what NBC News says might have been “the worst week in presidential campaign history.” It began, of course, with the first debate against Hillary Clinton, one that left him weary, worn, snarling and off-message. Clinton was masterful, feeding Trump lines to goad him and then watching, sometimes with almost visible pleasure (e.g., the much-discussed “shimmy”), as he swallowed the bait, dragging himself ever further underwater.
One of those lines had to do with a former Miss Universe contestant, Alicia Machado. In the days following the debate, Trump seemed almost obsessed with the woman, topping it off with a Friday Twitter storm — at 3 a.m. no less — where he hurled accusations about her weight and morals. Trump’s near irrationality over the fortunes of a Venezuelan beauty contestant from 20 years ago seemed to confirm worries about his temperament, focus and treatment of women.
But the bad week didn’t stop there. Stories appeared about Trump’s dealings with Cuba, an investigation into his charitable foundation, a cameo appearance in a porn film and the revelation that he claimed over $900 million in tax losses on his 1995 returns. That last item raises doubts about Trump’s net worth, business acumen and, of course, feeds into theories as to why he won’t release his current tax returns.
Put a fork in him, you might think. He’s done.
We’ve seen this before, though. Over the course of the campaign Trump has trashed the heroism of Sen. John McCain, called Mexicans “rapists,” attacked Megyn Kelly, besmirched Gold Star parents, and supported Brexit — all positions that were widely seen as fatal to his campaign and all of which he managed to overcome. Granted, polls in the wake of the debate showed movement toward Clinton. Democrats are starting to feel more confident. And I expect we’ll see a spate of stories over the next several days that will be less along the lines of “Will Hillary win?” and more “By how much?”
That confidence is unwarranted. Trump will bounce back. He may not win in November, but until the returns are counted, nothing should be taken for granted.
For one, he’ll probably do better in the next debate. The bar is already so low for him that if he simply stops with the stupid stuff — the interjections, the defensiveness, the meandering responses — and focuses more on communicating the essential messages of his campaign (which, really and truly, have nothing to do with Rosie O’Donnell), he’ll be deemed a “winner.” His numbers will improve.
More profoundly, though, is this: Trump’s message resonates with voters. And it explains why, despite misstep after misstep, this race is neck-and-neck.
Americans want change. They’re sick of gridlock in Washington. They’re angry at a political culture that favors insiders versus outsiders. They think career politicians just protect their own at the expense of the vulnerable, weak and powerless. Bernie Sanders represented such change. So too does Trump.
No question, Trump is an extraordinarily flawed candidate in other respects. That’s what Clinton so brilliantly exposed during the first debate. But what Clinton did not credibly argue is that she offers the change voters are seeking. Indeed, in his most effective (maybe only effective) moment in the debate, Trump turned Clinton’s Washington resume against her — “You’ve been doing this for 30 years” — driving home the point that Clinton was part and parcel of the status quo.
It’s true, of course. Trump is clearly not qualified to be president. But Clinton is also part of the establishment many voters loathe. And so it is that neither can pull away from the other, making this a race that will go down to the wire.
This column was first published by Cognoscenti on October 4, 2016.