WASHINGTON – Shaken by the fact that he’s losing, Donald Trump has fled into the parallel universe of the extreme right – and apparently plans to stay there for the remainder of the campaign. Let’s see if the rest of the Republican Party is dumb enough to follow him.
Trump has reportedly been feeling “boxed in” and “controlled” by the few people around him who actually know something about politics. Advice from these professionals to tone it down must be responsible for his slide in the polls, he seems to believe. So he has hired as chief executive of his campaign a man named Stephen Bannon, who will not only let Trump be Trump, but encourage him to be even Trumpier.
Bannon runs Breitbart News, a website that creates its own ultranationalist far-right reality – one that often bears little resemblance to the world as it really is. As I write, the site is claiming that Hillary Clinton has some serious undisclosed health problem (her doctor says she is just fine), that one of Clinton’s aides has “very clear ties” to radical Islam (which is totally untrue) and that Clinton herself has “clear ties” to Russian President Vladimir Putin (when in fact it is Trump who often reveals his man-crush on the Russian leader).
The site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart, once “described Bannon, with sincere admiration, as the Leni Riefenstahl of the tea party movement,” according to a Bloomberg News profile. Riefenstahl was the brilliant filmmaker who became one of Hitler’s most effective propagandists. I think the comparison is wrong; Bannon is not nearly as talented.
He is a practiced provocateur, however, with a gift for reinforcing the worldview of far-right true believers. Bannon gives readers the impression that the nation is in grave and imminent peril, that Muslims are conspiring to impose Shariah law throughout the land, that Mexican immigrants are running rampant in a wild crime spree, that only Trump can save us – and that polls showing him far behind Clinton are somehow skewed, incompetent or irrelevant.
None of this is true, not a word. It’s all a paranoid fantasy, designed to exploit anxieties about demographic and economic change. And Trump has decided that his best chance of winning is to peddle this garbage, some of which he may actually believe.
So if anyone was wondering if this election cycle could get any worse for the GOP, it just did.
The fact is that there hasn’t been a single national poll since July 24 showing Trump in the lead, according to the tally kept by RealClearPolitics. Clinton has also pulled ahead in all the battleground states and has become competitive in traditional Republican strongholds such as Georgia and Arizona.
It now appears to be a good bet that Republicans will lose control of the Senate. It is far too early to predict a “wave” election that might threaten the GOP’s big majority in the House, but Democrats are allowing themselves to dream. For Republicans, the two most likely outcomes of the election are bad and worse.
Trump’s decision to throw in with the likes of Bannon can only increase the probability of a GOP debacle. Does it have to be spelled out for you in neon lights, Republicans? Trump could not care less about the party, and he would happily destroy it to feed his own ego.
Bannon, likewise, appears to view the Party of Lincoln as merely a vehicle for his own ambition, which is to nurture and grow a nationalist-right movement. His website is as critical of the Republican establishment as it is of the Democrats. He has no interest in making Trump more palatable to the general electorate. Like all would-be revolutionaries, he first wants to heighten the contradictions within the system he ultimately seeks to destroy.
It was perhaps foolish of me to hope that very many Republican elected officials would reject Trump on principle. But now, perhaps, more will do so for reasons of self-preservation.
Trump has made his decision. In a town hall meeting this week moderated by Sean Hannity of Fox News, Trump ignored opportunities to embrace traditional American values and instead reinforced a message of nationalism, xenophobia and fear. He offered himself as the only solution, promising, like any tinhorn strongman, that “I have as big a heart as anybody.”
But there is no room in that heart for the GOP. Trump won’t save you, Republicans. You had better save yourselves.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.