When is a news story not a news story? That question hung in the air much of the day on Friday, as the major cable news networks laboriously steered around any direct reference to the political bombshell that had set social media aflame since the small hours. Once again the mainstream media had been Trumped, made to look floundering and foolish by the Republican clown-prince even as it wrestled with one of the biggest news days of the year. Belgian authorities had apparently captured a leading suspect in the Brussels attacks, and the United States military had apparently killed an ISIS leader in Syria. But for at least half the day, those headlines felt like footnotes to the hot topic TV news wouldn’t even touch.
With no apparent sense of irony, Fox News sought to recast itself as a sober, responsible news organization, whose guests and commentators are deeply concerned about the toxic nature of American political discourse. During the 11 a.m. hour of Fox’s “Happening Now,” an entire group of panelists earnestly embraced Hillary Clinton’s recent complaint that moderate, centrist, reasonable voices had been excluded from public debate and political media, and that this was harming democracy. The old saw about putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t begin to capture it. Friday’s display of cable-news hypocrisy and paralysis, as the talking heads danced along the edges of the unmentionable story everyone in the real world was talking about, was more bizarre and more far-reaching than that.
It was like Vlad the Impaler taking a break from roasting infants on skewers to lament the decline of table manners. It was as if all the pathology and bad karma of American politics in 2016 had been compressed into a few unhappy hours of avoidance and denial and enforced foolishness. Republican leaders and their media enablers have devoted many years’ worth of cynicism and manipulation and fear-mongering into seeding the ground for Donald Trump. Now he’s here, and those people act shocked every single day to wake up and discover that Trump is pulling their strings instead of the other way around.
Of course the sober, responsible can’t-we-get-along shtick didn’t last long on Fox. An hour or so later, during the female-centric midday program “Outnumbered,” which is a nightmarish parody of “The View” featuring a phalanx of women in high heels and short skirts surrounding Tucker Carlson, the tone shifted back to the Fox default setting of “Hillary Clinton: Destroyer of Worlds.” Casting about for potential girl-talk topics that would somehow avoid the obvious, the panel conceded that Trump might have a problem with female voters. This, Carlson observed, was patently unfair. After all, who had actually abused and mistreated more women: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? His companions nodded and furrowed their brows: Intriguing question, Tucker!
A few minutes before that, Carlson had waggishly noted that the central question of the Republican contest had now become “whose wife is hotter.” Oh, he got scolded for that: You dog, you! Then the strain of not mentioning the name of a certain tabloid publication, or gossiping about who might be depicted in its tantalizingly blurry photographs, drove the “Outnumbered” couch-cluster into bitterness and madness. One of Carlson’s fembot co-hosts, possibly Andrea Tantaros — it wasn’t Meghan McCain or the token liberal or the one with the Southern accent — acridly suggested that “feminists” were eager to judge Melania Trump for taking her clothes off, “but when Lena Dunham does it, they think it’s great.” McCain lamented that bad sexual mojo in the Republican race was interfering with important issues, such as the fact that Hillary Clinton’s husband was a “sexual predator.”
When Republicans try to distract their base with Lena Dunham, they’re desperate; when they drag out Monica Lewinsky, they’re lost and lonely and afraid. Worst of all, the “Outnumbered” panel concluded, the Trump-Cruz catfight and its ugly but unmentionable new twist had ruined the prospect of a Republican “unity ticket.” (For which the rest of us should send both candidates fruit baskets.) But Friday’s disorder was not limited to Fox News. On their mid-morning news shows, both CNN and MSNBC hosted cagey, half-hearted segments about whether the name-calling, spouse-mocking playground feud between Trump and Ted Cruz had gone too far — but without explaining exactly how far it had gone.
Gratefully seizing on breaking news from Brussels and the Middle East, both networks kept those segments brief and cryptic. We heard (several more times) about the nude photo of Melania Trump tweeted by a pro-Cruz PAC, and about Trump threatening to “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz. We repeatedly got to see Cruz’s unconvincing tough-guy act, where he wore a bomber jacket and stared down the TV cameras and called Trump a “sniveling coward,” looking somewhat like a sixth-grader trying to deliver Marlon Brando’s lines from “The Wild One.” By the standards of the 2016 news cycle, that was all moldy cheese from the back of the fridge, used as a coy placeholder for something else. All these purported adult news professionals had to pretend, for reasons they couldn’t quite define, that they had just rolled out of bed and hadn’t noticed the day’s biggest political plot twist.
What I’m talking about, of course, are the latest revelations about Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails, which will surely land her in prison one of these days! (That was actually floated as one of Friday’s big stories, however briefly, during the fevered last few minutes of “Outnumbered.” Carlson played buzzkill, ruefully admitting that he didn’t think Attorney General Loretta Lynch would indict Clinton.)
OK, no I’m not. As virtually everyone in the viewing audience for Friday’s news shows already knew, the National Enquirer had published an overnight cover story claiming that Ted Cruz has had at least five extramarital relationships, accompanied by fuzzy but easily decoded photos of his alleged lovers. (Several of the women in those pictures appear to be prominent Republican operatives who have worked for Cruz and other candidates, including Trump.)
By mid-morning on Friday, Cruz and Trump supporters on Twitter were engaged in open warfare, while left-leaning observers offered Schadenfreude-tinged commentary and media types debated the credibility of the Enquirer and told us they’d heard all this before. As indeed they had: I don’t know whether the allegations about Cruz’s private life are true and I don’t care, but the rumors are nothing new. There is plausible social-media evidence to suggest that Marco Rubio supporters tried to plant similar stories weeks ago, in hopes of rescuing Rubio’s dying campaign.
That didn’t happen, and it probably wouldn’t have worked. One measure of Trump’s Mephistophelean ability to manipulate the news cycle is that the Enquirer story didn’t hit until now, when Rubio is toast and Trump is the only candidate who stands to benefit from the destruction of Cruz’s image as squeaky-clean Christian family man. But Trump’s dark powers go far beyond dirty tricks and shrewd timing, and no one has yet discovered an effective counterspell. Hillary Clinton’s strategists can talk all they want to about their terrific poll numbers and Trump’s huge negatives among women and voters of color and all the rest of it. But Jeb Bush and Rubio and Cruz and those other people all thought the laws of political physics were on their side too. When you do battle with the Necromancer, those laws are suspended and strange things happen.
As he has repeatedly proven during the Republican campaign, Trump can attack his opponents at their weakest point and in the most shameless manner, and can drag them down to his level without damaging himself. He is invulnerable to facts and reason, and thrives on sleaze and insults. If Trump possesses no other visible talents and knows almost nothing about the world, he is a Jedi master of humiliation. Yet as the most avowedly amoral presidential candidate in American history — or at least since Andrew Jackson, who might be his role model if Trump had ever heard of him — he cannot be humiliated.
It doesn’t matter whether the National Enquirer article is a total fabrication. It doesn’t matter whether the Trump campaign planted it directly, fed it through Rubio’s people or (implausible as this sounds) had nothing to do with it at all. It was another turn of the screw in a story Trump has controlled since the beginning. His obligatory denial felt like it came with a broad wink and an elbow to the ribs: Wow, they’re sayin’ Lyin’ Ted is a big old horndog now! Hadn’t heard about that! Not as big as me LOL. As various people plaintively observed later in the cable-news day, after Cruz had turned the Enquirer story into a quasi-legitimate topic, Donald Trump is the last person who should lecture anyone on moral fiber or marital fidelity. That doesn’t matter either, because the secret of Trumpian alchemy is to elevate himself by demeaning and debasing others.
We keep being told that Trump’s evident viciousness and venality, and his lack of anything resembling a coherent ideology or a policy agenda, will eventually bite him in the ass. We’re still waiting, while the asses of others continue to get bitten. It’s now become routine to say that those things are his strengths, because the people who vote for him are angry and ignorant, but it goes deeper than that. I called him a clown in the opening paragraph, and I think it’s a powerful metaphor. Trump seems only intermittently aware that he himself is ridiculous, which is one of the reasons he’s so dangerous. But he is keenly aware of his ability to make others look ridiculous, which is precisely the social role of the clown.
What mattered, in the Trumpian calculus, was not the content of the Enquirer article but the fact that it left Ted Cruz, the pompous, Princeton-educated firebrand who presents himself as the most virtuous conservative in the land, looking ridiculous. On a day when Cruz no doubt yearned to ramp up the tough talk about persecuting American Muslims and bombing ISIS backwards in time, he had to face the cameras, quivering with rage and looking even more like Eddie Munster than usual, to denounce a scurrilous tabloid story for being scurrilous and tabloid-ish. It was almost the definition of a no-win situation, and you can’t say Cruz didn’t deserve it.
Perhaps just as important, the Enquirer episode made all those cable-news talking heads Trump has alternately groomed and antagonized, who have belittled him and predicted his demise and become hopelessly hypnotized by his cobra-dingbat genius, look ridiculous too. They couldn’t talk about the thing everybody was talking about, thanks to an obscure code of ethics they no longer understood and whose meaning has long since drained away in the age of Twitter and Trump. You could almost feel the collective bafflement and irritation emanating from the screen: It was like a bunch of old Irish ladies ordering the Filet-O-Fish on Friday, because they dimly suspect God still prefers it that way.
Clowning can be a powerful political weapon, but it demands a moral compass and precise targeting. Trump barely pretends to respect any moral norms — the ones about torture and incest are on the table, apparently — and directs his mockery at the powerful and the powerless with indiscriminate glee. He displays no actual interest in politics at all, “conservative” or otherwise, which is why his answers to policy questions are so disconnected from reality, and vary from day to day. He’s like an overgrown adolescent who seeks endless adulation from the world, and who yearns to humiliate or destroy all those who resist him.
Although Trump appears to be both ignorant and stupid, and to revel in those qualities, his clowning has a cruel precision and carries hints of dark genius. All his opponents to date have underestimated his popular appeal and his ability to shape the campaign narrative to his own ends, and all have paid the price. If that isn’t keeping Hillary Clinton’s aides up nights, it should be. When he urges his supporters to beat protesters, derides middle-aged women for no longer looking young or makes fun of a reporter with a disability, you can feel faint echoes of those concentration-camp newsreels in which guards fall over laughing while elderly rabbis are compelled to clean latrines with their beards. I’m not saying Trump is a Nazi; that wouldn't be fair. I’m saying that someone would have to explain to him why that’s not funny, and he still wouldn't really get it.