My friends, we have fallen down the rabbit hole. This presidential campaign has completely departed from ordinary reality, into a place where there's no such thing as truth and accountability is a joke—at least for some. I wish I could tell you with confidence that it all will work out in the end, that the electorate will be wise and thoughtful, that we'll only shake our heads and chuckle when we think back on 2016. But I'm no longer so sure.
This is the sequence of events we witnessed over the last few days. On Friday, Donald Trump held an event at which he finally gave up the malignant crusade he has been on for the last five years to convince people that President Obama was not born in the United States. In doing so, however, he told a breathtakingly brazen lie: "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy." There just isn't any debate about this: Neither Clinton nor her campaign ever mentioned the scurrilous rumors about Obama's birthplace in 2008. And in many of the news reports about Trump's event, reporters were unusually forthright in calling this lie for what it was.
Yet by Sunday morning, every Republican had obviously gotten the message: Don't worry about the fact-checks, don't worry about whether everyone knows we're lying, just keep repeating over and over that Hillary Clinton started birtherism.
And so they did. If you were unfortunate enough to watch the Sunday shows, you were fed this rancid tripe with a shovel. "Associates of the Clinton campaign started this Birtherism question in 2007," said Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press. "We were reminding people where this started. It was used as a smear against Senator Obama by Clinton campaign associates." Later in the program, Republican consultant Alex Castellanos had the gall to complain that the media were being unfair to Trump by tarring him with birtherism. "I think these two candidates are being treated very differently on this very issue, because this is something that Hillary Clinton's campaign started when it was convenient for her. But the media covers it as if it is only Donald Trump" who's been a birther.
On the other shows, the same chorus was sung. "The issue was raised by the Clinton campaign," said Chris Christie on Fox News Sunday. "This started with Hillary Clinton's campaign," Conway said on Face the Nation, powering through host John Dickerson's repeated attempts to get her admit she wasn't telling the truth. His next guest, RNC chairman Reince Priebus, said the same thing: "The preponderance of the evidence shows Hillary Clinton started it." Mike Pence went on This Week and said, "I know there's news reports that trace this birther movement all the way back to Hillary Clinton's campaign back in 2008."
The Trump campaign has obviously figured out that this election is essentially the class bully facing off against the nerdy smart girl on the playground, and "I know you are but what am I?" is the most sophisticated and effective riposte one can offer to any criticism. And lord help us, it's working.
He's been doing it for a while now. When Clinton gave a long and detailed explanation of all the ways Trump has courted bigots and white supremacists and echoed their views, Trump didn't defend himself; instead he came out in front of a crowd and snarled, "Hillary Clinton is a bigot!" He runs outright scams like Trump University, the Trump Network, and the Trump Institute meant to separate struggling people from their money, then calls her "Crooked Hillary," and that's that. He doesn't bother to pretend to know anything or care at all when it comes to policy, yet tells his crowds, "Hillary Clinton is running a policy-free campaign. She offers no ideas, no solutions, only hatred and derision."
Do Trump's supporters buy all that? It's not even the right question anymore. They know it's ludicrous, but they're having the time of their lives. To those who support him, there is literally nothing that Trump says or does that they won't find a justification for. Tell them about how he scammed struggling people out of their money with his various schemes, and they say, hey, he was just being a businessman. Present them with his repellent views and statements, and they say, he just tells it like it is. Show them how many hundreds and hundreds of lies he's told, and they say, shut up because Hillary's the real liar.
That's what Politico's Michael Grunwald found when he went to the first Trump rally after the birther turnaround to find out how Trump's most ardent fans reacted to his supposed change of heart. "Trump's sudden abandonment of his five-year birther crusade on Friday does not seem to have changed how his supporters view either him or Obama," Grunwald reported. "In interviews at the rally, the birthers and non-birthers all seemed to think that Trump has privately agreed with them all along, and all praised his flip-flop as a shrewd political stratagem to change an inconvenient subject."
For a while it was reasonable to believe that once people really understood who Trump is, Clinton would win in a landslide. We know now that won't happen. In fact, as we've learned more about Trump and he's been out campaigning longer, it has turned out that he's a thousand times worse than anyone imagined when this all began—not just a buffoon, not just an ignoramus, not just shallow and cruel and stupid, but a figure as sinister as anyone in contemporary public life. When he began the race, even informed people had no idea how many grifts like Trump University he has pulled, or that he'd give so much aid and comfort to white supremacists, or that his foundation is itself a scam, or that he'd think he could continue to make money from hundreds of overseas partnerships but never release his tax returns so that we can understand the scope of his conflicts of interests, or that he was not just a guy who liked to exaggerate but a positively pathological liar. At first we found him ridiculous and comical, but we didn't know the half of it.
Yet here we are, seven weeks from election day with the race essentially tied. There will almost certainly be more Trump scandals, but they won't change anything. There is no gaffe Trump will commit, no outrageous statement he'll make, no new disclosure from examinations of his businesses, that will undo his campaign. When it comes to Trump, nothing matters anymore.
It isn't that Trump's supporters are untroubled by his reversals and lies. It isn't that they put them aside in favor of a greater purpose. No, they love it. They cackle in glee and revel in their part in the greatest scam of all. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's supporters toss and turn at night wondering if she's trustworthy enough because she doesn't rush to inform reporters every time she's feeling sick.
In a few days some pollster will come out with a survey showing that half of the public believes that Hillary Clinton started the birther controversy, despite all the fact-checks and all the emphatic assertions from journalists that it just isn't true, and despite Trump's five years promoting that noxious, racist lie. Never has the truth mattered less.
When Trump said back in January, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters," he was right. In fact, he could do much worse. And yet he might become president of the United States, the most powerful person on Earth. This is the place of madness we have reached.
Enjoy this piece?
… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.
It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.
Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.