Is the Donald Trump campaign finally turning sour? Trump, clearly unnerved by Ben Carson passing him in the polls, seems to be ending his campaign's friendly relationship with the Carson campaign. He's trained his notorious willingness to say the worst possible things about his opponents on Carson. It should be entertaining. The entire Trump campaign has been defined by his talents as an insult comic, which may lack wit but compensate with a daring, Twitter-friendly brevity, and a remarkable precision. He has unearthed the soft spots of his opponents with a brazen speed. But it's not funny anymore.
Trump is an overt racist and a national embarrassment, but for months, the nation couldn't tear their eyes away from him, laughing at every Trumpism. Even liberals were caught up in the fun, because Trump flings most of his insults at his fellow Republicans, and it's just straight up funny watching them have to take it, afraid of losing face with Republican voters if they push back too hard.
But Trump's comments about Ben Carson don't provide any of these naughty pleasures. Instead, they reek of a desperation that makes you want to look away in embarrassment. On "Erin Burnett OutFront," Trump referred to Carson's (questionable) stories of his supposedly violent youth by calling Carson "pathological" and comparing him to a child molester.
"It's in the book that he's got a pathological temper," he argued. "That's a big problem because you don't cure that ... as an example: child molesting. You don't cure these people. You don't cure a child molester. There's no cure for it. Pathological, there's no cure for that."
This notion that Carson is like a child molester and is about to go off at any moment was hardly a one-off mistake, either. Trump seems committed to this line of attack. Thursday night, at a rally in Iowa, Trump spent a full nine minutes attacking Carson, using the same unfortunate metaphor. "A child molester, there's no cure for that," he railed. "If you're a child molester, there's no cure. They can't stop you. Pathological? There's no cure."
Carson is a scummy narcissist with little regard for the truth and questionable judgment, but he's not a child molester or even "like" a child molester. Unlike some previous Trump hits, this one falls flat because it doesn't expose any real soft spots in the candidate. It's just mean.
Compare this "child molester" schtick to a previous Trump insult lobbed at Carson. “Ben Carson’s a very, very nice man,” Trump told CBS in September. “But this will not be a good situation because of the fact that he’s not a dealer, he’s not a negotiator.”
Not the height of wit, but not bad, either. Ostensibly complimenting someone with "nice" when you are actually implying they are weak or simple is classic shade, the verbal equivalent of a head pat. This insult achieves two important insult goals: Being accurate (Carson does come across as ineffectual) and making the target fume with rage that they can't do anything about. You just know that an egomaniac like Carson was blowing steam out of his ears, but what can he do about it? After all, Trump did call him nice.
This latest insult, however, is witless and boring and clearly untrue. It backfires, making you feel sorry for Ben Carson---Ben Carson!---who deserves your scorn, but doesn't deserve being compared to a child molester.
Trump's lost his edge. In the bright warm days of summer, his schtick felt daring and fun, but now temperature is dropping and the leaves are falling, and Trump just sounds like a mean old man who hates everyone and everything.
Take the last debate on Fox Business. Trump, clearly being coached by his underlings to act like a real candidate so that supporters don't start getting cold feet during the primaries, was both boring and clearly bored. He eventually cracked and gave into his New Yorker-bred urge to tell someone to step off, but the moment fell flat. "Why does she keep interrupting everybody?" Trump said of Carly Fiorina, clearly singling out the sole woman on a stage full of men who felt free to interrupt each other.
The audience, composed of Republicans, had a telling reaction. Initially they gave into the urge to laugh at the nasty misogyny. Then -- probably realizing how it looked to outsiders -- they turned quickly to booing loudly. The moment felt symbolic. Donald Trump rose to the top of the polls by saying the kind of stuff conservatives keep indoors, but he was saying it right out there in the public square. What used to feel exciting began to turn embarrassing.
Instead of the well-landed punches of the summer, Trump insults now are projections of his own foibles and insecurities. Accusing Carson of having a temper is rich, because Trump obviously has a hot temper and was accused by his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, of acting on his temper by raping her during their marriage. (She's since renounced that claim, which was made during a divorce deposition.)
Accusing Fiorina of being rude is even richer from a man whose entire brand is express contempt for everyone else in the world.
Joining in with Mark Levin to insinuate that Hillary Clinton's hair isn't real? This from a man who has to wear a baseball cap outside lest his luscious head of hair has some kind of humiliating, wind-based mishap?
“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” Trump asked during Thursday's Iowa rally. Not as stupid as a politician who tells potential voters they are "stupid", that much is for certain.
Donald Trump really is Darth Vader. At first, he seemed so powerful and impervious to outside threats. His tendency to lash out, for a time, didn't hurt his public esteem, but only made him seem more powerful. But now the mask is slipping off. We're all starting to see the bitter, sad old man underneath, a man consumed with hate and who inspires pity, not awe.