Donald Trump isn't finished: His vile John McCain insult won't kill his campaign just yet

Trump's hit on McCain was quite a low blow, but we can't call this the end of his surge

By Jim Newell

Published July 20, 2015 4:40PM (EDT)

Donald Trump                                             (Reuters/Dominick Reuter)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Dominick Reuter)

Let's consider The Grand Theory of Trump, the reason no one expects him to rise much higher than his current standing near the top of the field before inevitably cratering. It holds that Trump is less a viable candidate than a manifested vehicle of GOP base frustration with the political system, and that his negatives are so high that sooner or later he will collapse and his voters will scatter to "more realistic" candidates. Sounds about right. And yet to pinpoint an exact moment at which this unraveling will begin seems dangerous.

Trump is relying on some alternate set of physics. That anyone supports this obviously silly person shows that something is very... off... here. Trump's announcement speech in mid-June was, at the time, the most comical spectacle in 2016 politics: an incoherent 50-ish minute rant against everyone who'd ever slighted him, abbreviated by second-degree tangents about his various books, television shows, and massive wealth. (The comedic level of this speech has since been surpassed by several other Trump speeches.) And yet what did the first caller into C-SPAN have to say? "You can hear the honesty in his voice." That's when I knew to throw out the textbook on Donald Trump's copyrighted effort to Make America Great Again!

Many political reporters and analysts, as well as Trump's fellow Republican candidates, have already determined Saturday to be the point at which Trump's decline begins. Trump, speaking at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, was not willing to bestow war-hero honors on the latest figure with whom he's feuding, Sen. John McCain. Trump, in conversation with GOP "message guru" Frank Luntz, went all, John McCain, war hero? Eh, he was captured, big whoop, I like the ones who don't get captured. (This is only very loosely a paraphrase.)

My reaction was to laugh out loud. Others, however, took to the Internet for special Saturday blogging to bury Trump's campaign. The Upshot's Nate Cohn shoveled on the first heap of dirt:

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

His support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts from publicizing his anti-establishment and anti-immigration views, which have some resonance in the party, to reflecting the chorus of Republican criticism of his most outrageous comments and the more liberal elements of his record.

You'll notice that "probably" appears twice in that first paragraph of analysis. As a writer who believes that there's no better tool in the political analyst's belt than some good old-fashioned hedging, I respect this.

It seems like a very open question as to whether this prematurely -- or post-maturely? -- kills off Trump. The political media's two-decade infatuation with "The Maverick" spiked over the weekend, and that may be playing into the perception of this remark as (pardon the term) a game-changer. It's simply unconscionable that someone would say this about St. John McCain! It was a callous remark, especially considering Trump's own history of securing multiple draft deferments. But I don't recall conservatives, or media figures, getting quite as upset when the bullshit criticism of John Kerry's war record was launched during the 2004 presidential campaign. In fact I recall that helping to tarnish one of Kerry's greatest strengths and helping George W. Bush secure reelection.

It's also important to remember that the hard-right conservatives Trump is corralling absolutely despise John McCain, perhaps even more than they despised John Kerry. (Among conservatives, RINO-hate is a force stronger than hatred of the opposite party will ever be.) Conservatives have always respected John McCain's record as a POW, but their hatred of him otherwise may go a long way to dismissing whatever uncouth remarks come out of Trump's mouth.

If you've listened to everything Trump has said this past month, examined his demeanor, seen the man in all of the press coverage he's received... and determined that you want to support him for president anyway? It's hard to believe that one stray comment, about someone you don't like, is somehow going to flip the switch back off. Trump's moment will end but expect it to be more organic. A string of terrible comments, combined with the compression of time: as actual voting nears, and Trump voters begin to picture themselves in a voting booth, caution will set in as they realize that they don't really want Donald J. Trump, of television's "The Apprentice," facing Hillary Clinton or perhaps even sitting in the White House.

Give it to Trump, though, that jerk: he knows that the one way to ensure his imminent collapse would be to do what everyone's asking him to do, and apologize to John McCain. Trump's whole thing is premised on being strong and wrong, and not doing what any fellow candidate or party establishment figure demands of him. This is at once the source of his current strength, and the reason he can't rise much further than he already has. He wouldn't be allowed to present himself as a well-rounded human being even if he was one.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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