Sean Illing

Trump Knows His Backers Believe Every Outrageous Lie About Obama – and He's Giving Them What They Want

Donald Trump has transgressed political norms without consequence for most of his campaign. He appeared to have crossed a line, however, with his attacks on the Khan family two weeks ago. Suddenly, fence-sitting Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Adam Kinzinger decided to abandon ship. Even Trump supporters like Newt Gingrich fumbled for defenses of his behavior.

It was sufficiently bad that the Trump campaign began pushing rumors about an imminent “pivot.” Trump was finally ready to get serious and feign decency. To prove it, he read from hand-held scripts at rallies last weekend, hoping to assuage panicked Republicans. Then he gave a conventional speech on the economy at the Detroit Economic Club. For 72 hours, Trump was almost a normal candidate.

But on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his latest pivot, Trump returned to form with his most revolting gaffe thus far. At a rally in North Carolina, he drifted off script and joked about the political murder of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he said casually. As the crowd obediently booed, he added: “Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” There’s no point in debating the implication here – it’s obvious.

On Wednesday night, Trump continued his non-pivot pivot with a rambling, incoherent speech in Fort Lauderdale. The highlight of the evening consisted in Trump calling the President of the United States a terrorist. “In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump said. “ISIS is honoring President Obama. He’s the founder of ISIS. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton.”

The allusion to political assassination was genuinely shocking, even by Trump’s abysmal standards, but what he said on Wednesday, while grotesque and false, was anything but surprising. In fact, implying that President Obama is a terrorist is essentially the first thing Trump did as a presidential candidate.

In 2011, Trump lunged into the political arena by aligning himself with the birther movement. Birtherism is an inescapably racist theory; there’s no reason to believe it apart from bigotry. It springs from a nativist fear of a black president with a Muslim name who represents cultural progress. This was Trump’s “original sin,” as James Carville put it in an April column for Media Matters, and it’s been obscured by all the terrible things he’s said and done since.

It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary it is that the GOP nominated a birther for president. These are people who reject the legitimacy of our first African-American president, precisely because he’s African-American. This is Trump’s chosen base, and he owes his political existence to their allegiance. It’s why he’s been dog-whistling to white nationalists since he started campaigning. His supporters internalized the signal he sent in 2011 and they were with him the moment he descended that escalator at Trump Tower.

To review, the birthers contend that Obama is a secret Muslim Manchurian candidate who, it turns out, was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. This is really just another way of calling the president a terrorist, is it not? Indeed, one can – and should – draw a straight line between Trump’s birtherism and his insinuation that Obama is the founder of the world’s largest terrorist organization.

Whether Trump believes this lunacy is irrelevant. He knows his audience is disposed to believe it (Obama’s a Muslim Manchurian candidate, after all) and so its a piece of red meat to toss about at a rally. That’s what Trump was up to in Fort Lauderdale. This wasn’t an argument about Iraq or Obama’s decision to draw down troops., as Trump insists. He has already laid the blame for ISIS right where it belongs. Here’s what he said during one of the early GOP primary debates:

“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?…The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world…So George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistake. But that one was a beauty. We should’ve never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”

This is the most accurate statement Trump has made as a candidate. Bush invaded Iraq without a plan, not Obama. Bush disbanded the Iraqi army and imprisoned the very people who later created ISIS, not Obama. Bush “destabilized the Middle East,” not Obama. The man who made the above statement knows who dug the hole out of which ISIS crawled. What Trump said on Wednesday night, therefore, was not about Iraq. It was a reference to Obama’s subversive otherness, something to which his core supporters are uniquely attuned. This is what Trump has been doing since 2011; we’re all just used to it by now.

Trump’s greatest achievement in this campaign is how effectively he’s normalized abnormal behavior. That he began his campaign by self-identifying as a birther and almost no one remembers it is a testament to his strategy. By being so relentlessly crude and dishonest, he’s made the extreme appear banal. It’s a kind of political shock and awe: overwhelm opponents and media with lies and vulgarities until it becomes impossible to distinguish truth from fiction, sane from insane.

If any other candidate said what Trump said this week, his campaign would collapse immediately. But Trump has been saying and doing things that would disqualify anyone else for months, and yet he slithers on. The cumulative effect of the last few weeks seem to have damaged him in ways previously unseen, but his political experiment should’ve ended five years ago when he climbed in bed with crackpot conspiracy theorists.

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The Damage Is Done: Republicans Plotting a Trump 'Intervention' Are Way Too Late

Republicans had a plan: warily endorse Trump while keeping a proper distance from his incendiary remarks. It was simple, really. This election wasn’t about Trump so much as Clinton. If you convince voters that the republic can’t survive another Clinton administration, supporting Trump becomes a kind of duty. He may be racist and temperamentally unfit, but he’s not Hillary and that’s enough.

Behind the scenes, GOP leaders probably convinced themselves that there wasn’t a choice. Trump was wildly popular among the base, and he brought thousands of new voters into the party (a good deal of which are white nationalists, but their votes count all the same). Usurping Trump would alienate this new wing of the party, which would depress turnout in November and endanger down-ballot candidates. Such was the thinking of folks like House Speaker Paul Ryan and RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who, whether they like or not, are the faces of this strategy.

However logical, this was a short-term plan that prized immediate gains over long-term costs. It also underestimated the depths to which Trump would sink. As I wroteWednesday, the Trump campaign is imploding in dramatic fashion, and doing permanent damage to the GOP brand. Thanks to a needless PR battle with the family of a slain soldier, Trump seems finally to have crossed a moral line – or at least a moral line that Republicans recognize.

Now the panic is setting in. NBC News reports that several Republicans close to Trump – including Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Priebus – are “plotting an intervention with the candidate.” To be fair, a source with ties to the Trump campaign told me there is “zero” truth to these reports. Nevertheless, the fact that once-supportive Republicans are publicly questioning Trump suggests the panic is real and growing.

There are also reports that GOP officials are entertaining scenarios in which Trump, for unstated reasons, drops out of the race. Jonathan Karl of ABC News writes that “senior party officials are so frustrated – and confused – by Donald Trump’s erratic behavior that they are exploring how to replace him on the ballot if he drops out.” This is wish-thinking, however. The RNC cannot force Trump to quit. He would have to voluntarily exit and he would have to do so by early September in order to replace him on the ballot in most states.

Good luck with that.

Republicans have to face a frightful fact: They gambled on Trump’s sanity and lost. They told themselves Trump’s shtick was just that – a shtick. He’s not really racist. He doesn’t really want to ban Muslims. He doesn’t really think we should kill the families of suspected terrorists. He plays a fascist on TV, but he’s not really a fascist.

I don’t know what Trump actually believes, but this much is evident: He. Will. Not. Change. This ought to be obvious to everyone now. Still, though, a few Republicans are grasping for hope. One operative, quoted in a revealing Washington Post report, said “A new level of panic hit the street” after Trump’s public slander of the Khan family and that “It’s time for a serious reset.” Really? A reset? Here’s what Trump said on Wednesday: “The campaign is doing well. It’s never been so united. Right now it’s the best in terms of being united since we began” Does that sound like a candidate on the verge of a reset?

How many times have we heard a “pivot” was imminent? It’s not happening, and it was never going to happen. It was a self-serving delusion on the part of Republicans to believe otherwise. Worse still, it was an insult to voters who listened to Trump’s racist bile month after month. Would it satisfy anyone to learn that Trump was just pretending to be a bigot all this time? A man who feigns bigotry for votes is arguably less respectable than an earnest bigot who believes the garbage he spews.

In any case, Trump’s image can’t be rehabilitated – it’s too late for that. He’s a lost cause and Republicans are stuck with him. I’ve argued Trump doesn’t actually want to be president, but he needs to lose without appearing to quit in order to preserve his brand. He’s already planted the idea that the election is rigged. When he’s trounced in November, he’ll cry corruption and his audience will believe it like they believe the rest of his fictions. It won’t matter that he self-destructed, that he did everything possible to lose this election. He’ll be the victim of a “system” his supporters don’t understand but hate passionately.

And the pile of rubble in his wake will be the Republican Party.

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It's Worth Asking Again: Is Donald Trump Trying to Tank His Campaign?

In the last two weeks, Donald Trump has slandered the family of a dead soldier, committed treason by inviting Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account, admitted he lied about receiving a letter from the NFL, saw an Air Force mother get booed at one of his rallies, claimed Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine even though they already have, refused to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan’s candidacy, falsely accused a fire marshal of limiting his crowd for political reasons, tossed a baby out of a rally, and called Hillary Clinton “the devil.”

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A Frightening Precedent: Can We Talk About the Dallas Police Using a Bomb Robot to Kill a Man?

The police shootings in Dallas last week were disturbing for a number of reasons. Most obviously, five officers lost their lives. Whatever your thoughts on police brutality or racism in the criminal justice system, there’s no justification for what happened. But last Thursday was also disturbing because of a dangerous precedent set by the Dallas Police Department. The lone gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, was killed around 2:30 AM Friday morning after a protacted stand-off with the police. Trapped in the parking garage of a local college, Johnson negotiated for hours with the police, reportedly refusing to cooperate. Eventually, officers on the scene sent a robot into the garage and detonated an explosive device near the suspect, killing him instantly. “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot,” said Dallas Police Chief David Brown. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

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The Vicious Dialectic of Violence and Retaliation: A Plea for Dialogue and Peace After Dallas

Five Dallas police offers were killed Thursday night, another seven were badly wounded. It appears one man armed with a rifle ambushed the officers following a peaceful demonstration in downtown Dallas. The motives of the murderer are murky at this point. We know only that he was “upset about Black Lives Matter” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown. The gunman has been identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old Army reservist from Dallas. Johnson was killed in a stand-off with authorities shortly after the shooting.

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Bernie Sanders Issues a Stern Warning: Europe's Populist Revolt Could Happen Here

The populist revolt in Britain and much of Western Europe isn’t reducible to a single variable, but it’s partly a reaction against a globalized economy that has failed the masses. It’s a frenzied, myopic reaction to be sure, but the underlying grievances are real. Mark Blyth, a political economist at Brown University, summed up the Brexit fiasco about as well as anyone could in a recent interview with AthensLive:

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Why the GOP Convention Will Almost Certainly Be a Trainwreck

Nominating conventions are designed to be infomercials for the respective parties. It’s three days of pomp and staged celebration. While there are occasionally bitter fights over nominees or platform positions, modern conventions have become highly engineered television spectacles: The nominees are anointed, future stars jockey for stage time, and everyone pretends that the previous 12 months of in-fighting never happened.

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The Republicans’ November Fantasy: A Glance at the GOP’s Swing State Strategy Ought to Delight Democrats Everywhere

It’s generally understood that presidential elections are decided in the so-called swing states. Everything reduces to turnout. Which is why the ground game is so important: You can’t get people to the polls without a sophisticated voter targeting operation, and thousands of staffers and volunteers on the ground doing the dirty work. To the extent that that’s true, Republicans are in trouble.

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Hillary Clinton Has Just Made It Harder for Trump to Control the Terrorism Narrative

The banality of mass shootings in America is itself a scandal. Gun-related carnage is something we’ve learned to live with. We’re numb to it. But what happened in Orlando this weekend was uniquely grim. The figures are familiar by now: 49 dead, 53 wounded, countless more scarred.

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The GOP’s Women Problem: Report Shows the Party of Trump Is Struggling to Elect Women to Congress

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It Doesn’t Get Much Sadder Than This: Marco Rubio’s Pathetic - but Predictable - About-Face on Donald Trump

Marco Rubio was the momentary savior of the Republican Party. He’s young, exuberant, and parrots talking points with unusual aplomb. He was a fresh face the establishment could sell to Middle America. Curiously, he was also considered a moderate, the kind of mainstream candidate who could help rebrand the GOP.

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It's No Time to Panic: Ignore the National Polls and the Democratic Tensions - None of It Matters (Yet)

A quiet panic is spreading among Democrats. Two national polls were released Sunday, one by ABC News and the other by NBC News. In the former, Trump edged Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent. In the latter, Clinton retained a 46 percent to 43 percent lead. As a result of the latest shifts, Trump passed Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average.

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Why Donald Trump Could End Up Being Screwed in the General Election

New polling numbers suggest Donald Trump is closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post/ABC poll released Saturday, for example, shows Trump favored by 46 percent among registered voters, with Clinton at 44 percent. However, when asked if the election was held today and the choice was between Trump and Clinton, 48 percent said Clinton compared to 42 percent for Trump.

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Fears of a Riotous Democratic Convention Are Overblown: There Is Plenty of Time to Unify the Party

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Republicans Are Facing an Electoral Disaster in November - and It's Not Trump's Fault

The Republican Party is facing a crisis in November. If you’re thinking that crisis has a face, an orange and bulbous face, you’re half right. Donald Trump is surely a problem for Republicans, both in the short and long term, but the party’s issues go well beyond the Donald.

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Cruz and Kasich Make a Desperate Bid to Derail Trump and They’ve Fallen Right Into His Trap

Ted Cruz and John Kasich have spent the last few months pretending like they had a chance to win a plurality of delegates. Kasich has been more open about the necessity of a contested convention, but he’s still behaved as though the delegate math were otherwise. Cruz, on the other hand, has insisted he’s the only candidate who can and will defeat Trump at the voting booth.

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Donald Trump's Biggest Lie - the Myth That Connects Him to His Fan-Base

Donald Trump is winning elections but losing the under-the-radar delegate battle. The Cruz campaign is better organized, better prepared, and more familiar with the byzantine process. After being outmaneuvered in Colorado, Trump has been in sustained tantrum mode, complaining at every turn about how unjust and anti-democratic the system is.

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Chaos in Trump's Campaign: After Wisconsin Loss, His Second-Rate Staff Can't Right the Ship

Donald Trump’s fact-free journey to the Republican nomination appears to have stalled last night in Wisconsin. Trump was expected to lose, but not quite this badly. Ted Cruz won by a margin of 13 points, resulting in a net delegate gain of 30. That’s significant now that the establishment’s singular goal is to prevent Trump from acquiring the magic 1,237 delegates. “Every delegate denied to Trump,” as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz noted, “will be considered a small but important victory.”

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Donald Trump Truthers: Theories Spread He’s Trying to Sabotage His Campaign After His Disastrous Week From Hell

Even by Donald Trump’s standards, last week was a bad week. The Donald’s foot is permanently planted in his mouth, so it’s not unusual for him to say something egregious or stupid. But he’s on quite a roll lately.

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Why Sanders Shouldn't Drop Out of the Election

I’ve accepted that Bernie Sanders is likely to lose the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. It’s not over yet, but Clinton is certainly well-positioned. However, if there’s one thing the Democratic establishment should not do at this point, it’s tell Bernie Sanders to quit. For one, Sanders has a right to campaign as long as he wants – he’s earned it. Secondly, Sanders’s campaign has shattered expectations for a reason: his message is resonating with disaffected voters.

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'I Think Islam Hates Us' - Donald Trump Delights Bigots and Shames Nation Even Further

There are many reasons why Donald Trump should not be president. By now the epithets are familiar: huckster, con artist, clown, opportunist, demagogue. Trump is all of those things, but he’s also quite dangerous. However unserious he may be, people are listening to him — here and abroad. What he says has real consequences. He’s the leading candidate in the Republican race for president; although it’s a responsibility he’d never accept, he’s responsible nevertheless — for the words he uses, for the behavior he incites.

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Nevada Makes Donald Trump Unstoppable: The Unthinkable Becomes Inevitable as He Barrels Toward GOP Nomination

The results of Nevada’s Republican caucuses, while not surprising, do help to clarify a few things. Everyone expected Trump to win. He was polling at 45% in the pre-caucus polls with Rubio and Cruz trailing at 19% and 17%, respectively.

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Ted Cruz Can't Beat Donald Trump But He Might Be the GOP's Only Chance to Nominate Marco Rubio

Ted Cruz has sold himself as the only viable alternative to Donald Trump, the one candidate who can unite the conservative base. His strategy has been simple: Win the evangelical vote and run as the non-Trump anti-establishment candidate. Although it was a bit of fool’s gold, Cruz’s victory in Iowa (partly the result ofunderhanded tactics) helped prop up his narrative a few weeks longer.

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Hillary Clinton's Strategy Shift: Why She's Wise to Run for A "Third Obama Term"

After Thursday’s debate it’s clear what Hillary Clinton’s closing message is: “Vote for me if you want a third Obama term.” Clinton mentioned Obama 21 times during the debate, and almost every time it was to imply that she’s a stronger supporter of the president and, more important, better prepared to continue his legacy. She even dodged questions about her financial ties to Wall Street by noting that Obama accepted more donations from bankers than any Democratic candidate in history. The point wasn’t to bash Obama but rather to reject the idea that “if you take donations from Wall Street, you can’t be independent.”

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Michelle Alexander Explains Exactly Why Black Voters Shouldn't Surrender Their Vote to the Clintons

In many ways, the Democratic presidential race begins now. Iowa was a virtual tie and New Hampshire was a massive – although not unexpected – victory for Sanders. But Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest electorates in the Democratic primary, and so they naturally favor Sanders, who polls well among college-educated whites but struggles mightily with minority voters.

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Bernie’s Campaign Making Wall Street Shiver - Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein Is the Latest CEO to Freak Out

Contempt for the vultures on Wall Street is one of the few things most Americans share. In the last few decades, neither party has done anything to curb the corruption and greed of the financial industry. Indeed, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who did as much as anyone to deregulate the very banks that later wrecked the economy and plundered the public coffers. Although his mythology remains firmly in tact, Ronald Reagan is equally responsible for what happened in 2008.

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Donald Trump Is a Fraud: The Billionaire’s Presidential Bid Is a Long and Calculated Con Job

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GOP Insiders Can Pretend All They Want -  Marco Rubio Is a Hardcore Conservative

Marco Rubio has become the darling of the Republican establishment. Jeb’s implosion is partially responsible for this, but there is also a belief on the Right that Rubio is the best “mainstream” candidate in the field. If that’s true, if Rubio represents moderate conservatism, the GOP is in serious trouble.

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Trump Sets His Own Campaign on Fire: The Donald's Increasingly Insane Behavior Is All Part of a Strategy

“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” – Walter Sobchak, “The Big Lebowski”

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