Chris Christie’s failure to secure the Republican nomination for president has many causes, but one of the most significant was the “Bridgegate” scandal. That’s when staff and appointees of the New Jersey governor closed lanes to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge to create traffic jams as political payback.
Christie claimed ignorance of the decision, but it was done under his administration. And it stung because it hit Christie directly at one of his biggest strengths: The ability and wherewithal to go after political opponents. People loved Christie for his toughness, when it was directed at liberal media or corrupt unions. But when it was directed against commuters — against people like them — it was suddenly not such a good look.
Donald Trump had a similar moment in Saturday night’s CBS debate. Now, it may flummox beltway pundits and most of the media, but Trump is a great debater for the current moment. We don’t really have debates so much as pseudo-events, and Trump is the master of same. He gets his voter-friendly message across in a memorable fashion, he deflects criticism, he has fun, and his sense of humor comes across to enough voters to give him a plurality of support.
Saturday night, however, none of that was true. The rage that he usually directs against the media, fans of political correctness, and other elites was turned on GOP voters. He vociferously defended Planned Parenthood, the abortion corporation that wages war against Republicans. He suggested that voters who initially supported the invasion in Iraq were dupes who had been fooled in a massive conspiracy. He went from making Republicans look bad, which his fans love, into making his fans look like supporters of an angry Michael Moore-type conspiracy-monger. He made them look stupid, as Ace discusses here. His postscript is also worth reading:
I was just telling someone that every campaign boils down to two four word claims:
Dress it up however you like, the subconscious messaging in every election is just that.
I’m on Your side.
He’s not like Us.
With just a few poorly chosen angry words, Trump declared a lot of allegiance to the enemy tribe, and essentially said ‘I’m not like you.’
Trump also managed to do the thing that his critics are frequently doing — protecting him and building him up by unfairly comparing him to Hitler or what not. Here’s an example from late last year in Tablet magazine:
The late-middle-aged white workers, then—what do they see in Trump? And what do they make of his proposal for dealing with the not-really-a-crisis? His proposed deportation of 11 million people would amount to the largest mass deportation in world history. You have only to picture for a moment the massed police and immigration agents and National Guard mobilizations to recognize that it is not going to happen. Suppose that a President Trump managed to do it, anyway. It would out-Stalin Stalin. The economic consequences alone would be catastrophic, given the unemployment rate. Entire industries would sink into the underpopulated sands.
Claiming that Trump would out-Stalin Stalin or out-Hitler Hitler has made the media feel very good about themselves. But it’s so over-the-top that it makes normal people push back. When Trump issued his rage-word-salad-of-conspiracy against George W. Bush, not exactly a hero of the GOP, it makes normal people instinctively defend Bush. (I myself opposed entry into the Iraq War — because of differences in foreign policy approach, not because I thought George W. Bush spoke funny or lied to people — and found Trump’s behavior at the debate not just childish but harmful to legitimate foreign policy criticism of the previous administration.)
Now, polls are notoriously unreliable, but one leading up to the debate showed Trump with a 20-point lead. His bad performance would have to be pretty bad to dent such a large margin, and his fans have previously shown a downright Clintonian ability to compartmentalize and justify his problems. They may be able to take his conspiracy-mongering and support for the pro-abortion and hyper-partisan Planned Parenthood in stride. But that makes them seem more like leftist media types than an angry base.
I know many people who support Trump. I’ve joked that I’m a Trump whisperer in my ability to get people to tell me they support him. When I think of those friends and associates who support him — which include people with long careers in the military, folks upset with elite media control of discussions, and people of principle fed up with the Republican Party — Trump’s performance made them look bad. They likely know this. Perhaps their desire to see everything burn will overwhelm their sense of self or their love of country. But knowing these people like I do, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a softening of Trump’s support.