PHOTOS: Republican candidate Donald Trump stalking Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton around the debate stage in St. Louis yesterday evening (CNN Photo). Below: 20th Century screen star Bela Lugosi, Edmonton political commentator Chanchal Bhattacharya and a Wildrose supporter in a Trump-style ball cap (National Observer photo).
I guess we can be thankful, after watching last night’s deeply troubling U.S. presidential debate as we digested the remnants of our Canadian-grown supply-managed turkey, that things haven’t reached quite to the same stage in this country.
They likely will, though, as all political ideas from the United States eventually make it across the 49th Parallel, especially the bad ones, and many of our American cousins’ worst political sins are already here in abundance.
Still, it’s a pretty appalling commentary on the state of affairs south of the Medicine Line that the spectacle of one candidate threatening to throw the other one in jail if he manages to get elected and stalking around the stage behind her like Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space didn’t seem to trouble commentators all that much.
Nor was it particularly reassuring that the sensible candidate in this debate appeared to be threatening to start a war with a nuclear-armed power – which, if nothing else, suggests as a gesture of sanity and survival we Canadians may want to get the peace movement up to speed again as quickly as possible!
At any rate, on the U.S. network I was watching, the pundits apparently thought Donald Trump’s performance wasn’t bad enough to warrant any more Republican leaders deserting his campaign as it settles deeper in the water.
They seemed to think those Republicans who hadn’t already scuttled down the hawsers would probably stick around so as not to annoy the disaffected lunatic fringe that longs for a caudillo like Mr. Trump to fix America’s woes … unless the polls take another drastic dip in the next few hours, of course.
That could happen, because women viewers can’t have much liked the Republican candidate’s creepy performance dogging Hillary Clinton’s footsteps around the stage at Washington University in St. Louis. If so, we may see another round of strategic Republican defections. Indeed, this morning the New York Times tried to suggest that was about to happen.
Still, it appears likely the damage done to Mr. Trump’s campaign by the Washington Post’s release Friday of the now immortal recording of his decade-old groping commentary has already all but destroyed his campaign. To stick with the maritime metaphor, his vessel has been holed below the waterline and all that remains is for it to slip beneath the waves, albeit noisily. Trying to pass off his rebarbative behaviour as mere locker-room banter probably didn’t help all that much.
Indeed, Ms. Clinton may have stuck to warily playing defence as much as she did on Napoleon Bonaparte’s sensible advice that you should “never interfere with your enemy when he’s destroying himself.”
In a piece published a few hours before the debate, the New York Times suggested Mr. Trump’s problem was that Good Republicans – a largely imaginary category of humanity not dissimilar to Good Germans in the 1930s and Good Southerners in the 1850s – had finally had enough of Mr. Trump’s bigotry and bullying.
“It turns out that even the most self-interested members of the political class, the true weather vanes swinging in the wind, have their limits,” the Times opined hopefully. “After 16 months of accumulated doubts, embarrassments and indignities, they are finally fed up.”
I don’t think so. The defections are best explained by simple arithmetic. Mr. Trump could get away with threatening Muslim-Americans, insulting Mexican-Americans, questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace and mocking American soldiers killed in battle if they happened to have been raised in the wrong faith because all that appealed to the Republican Party’s base, which frankly doesn’t sound that different from the Wildrose Party’s base here in Alberta.
But he couldn’t slip off the hook for the same casual and threatening contempt for women because pretty well all women get it about the kind of repellant behaviour he described in the recording. There’s a simple reason for that: almost all women have experienced it.
This is why, once the strategically timed October release of the recording of Mr. Trump’s groping commentary had taken place, he was all but done for anyway.
As soon as enough conservative women had walked away from Mr. Trump because of his repulsive behaviour for the polls to start reflecting the change, that was the moment – and the reason – Republican leaders who hitherto had stood by silently began to head for the exits. All of a sudden they were forced to contemplate their own political survival “down-ticket,” as they say Stateside.
So don’t expect the Republican Party – or its fervent imitators here in the Great White North – to change very much in the future. They’ll just pick their victims with more care.
There’s a reason Wildrose supporters show up at party rallies wearing Trump-like red-and-white Make Alberta Debt-Free Again ball caps. That said, in fairness to the Canadian right, just now it has no potential leaders that are quite as loathsome as Mr. Trump. But just as the American Right, addicted to divisive wedge politics, is likely to seek a new Donald Trump with a better strategic mind now that this campaign appears to have foundered, we can expect to see more Canadian Trump types urged on by right-wing talent scouts like the Manning Centre if they show any potential for success.
After all, as it becomes more difficult for neoliberal hothouses everywhere to pass off their political standard bearers as reasonable creatures of the centre right, the temptation to descend into identity politics to advance their agenda will be powerful. Kellie Leitch, c’mon down!
Of course, some American political phenomena are bound to affect Canadian parties of the centre and left too, especially if they appear to be the only effective way to fight back against well-established tactics of the right.
Consider the timing of the release of Mr. Trump’s recording. Edmonton political commentator Chanchal Bhattacharya observed in an essay, unfortunately seen only on Facebook, that “everything about the latest ‘Trump Eruption’ suggests to me a carefully planned and well executed effort to highlight Trump’s repugnant behaviour, in a way that ensures an intensifying cascade of media attention and reports that are optimally disruptive to his campaign, and to the Republican Party more generally.”
In Dr. Bhattacharya’s view, the key to classic political “opposition research” is “deep secrecy and deniability.” In other words, the ability to lead the media horse to water on the assumption it won’t be able to resist the temptation to take a deep draught, but without letting on who led it there. “The goal is to ensure the information comes to light, via reputable sources, at the moment they can inflict the greatest harm and dislocation to the opposing candidate and campaign.”
Indeed, we have already seen this phenomenon in Alberta, as in the well-timed 2012 release of information about the evangelical pastor running for the Wildrose Party whose views on the eternal future of his gay fellow citizens became public at exactly the wrong moment for the party’s success.
As ungentlemanly as it may seem, Canadian political parties that ignore trends like this in U.S. campaign strategy do so at their own peril.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.