Politics & Policy

The Worrisome Implications of 2016’s ‘Insult Campaign’

Trump on the campaign trail in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty)

Fans of Marco Rubio are rejoicing: Their man is finally giving Donald Trump a taste of his own medicine.

Here’s Rubio on Trump’s, ahem, “unnatural” complexion: “The guy with the worst spray tan in America is attacking me for putting on makeup. Donald Trump likes to sue people. He should sue whoever did that to his face. . . . Donald is not going to make America great, he’s going to make America orange.”

On Trump’s backstage preparations for last week’s Houston debate: “He had this little makeup thing applying makeup around his mustache because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then, he asked for a full length mirror . . . maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.”

On misspelled words in Trump’s tweets: “That’s how they spell at the Wharton School of Business. . . . He must have hired a foreign worker to do his own tweets.”

On a pro-Trump heckler: “Ladies and gentlemen, the valedictorian of Trump University!”

And, last but not least, on Trump’s manhood: “He’s like 6′2″, which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5′2″. Have you seen his hands? They’re like this. And you know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.”

RELATED: Trump, the Insult-Comic Candidate

If anyone has it coming, it’s Trump. He’s made a whole campaign of dishing such insults out; now we’re watching him take them. And the same media outlets that gleefully aired Trump’s insult-filled rallies live for most of 2015 have no standing to lament the coarsening of American public discourse now. The disgusting symbiosis between Trump and cable-news programmers has defined this election; Rubio’s just belatedly decided to play by their rules.

Nevertheless, it’s worth asking how this particular genie could ever be put back in the bottle.

#share#The networks have made it pretty clear that they’ll take their eye off Trump only as long as Rubio is insulting him. As soon as Rubio returns to his standard campaign speech — to the ideas and policies that elections are supposed to be about — they cut away to the studio, or back to the moment’s Trump rally.

RELATED: It’s Trump’s World. We’re All Just Enabling It.

And Ted Cruz, who refuses to emulate Don Rickles in criticizing Trump, has virtually disappeared from the news cycle. Cruz has been as critical as Rubio; last week he said, “I’m not willing gamble my daughters’ future with Donald Trump. If Donald Trump became president, nobody knows what the heck he would do. He doesn’t know what the heck he would do.” But that line just wasn’t funny or shocking enough to generate many headlines.

The rise of such a crass and obnoxious candidate reflects the fact that America has a crass and obnoxious culture.

It’s still possible for Rubio to overcome Trump or deny him the delegates needed for the nomination, but this should provide little comfort to those of us who actually care about the direction of the country. If Rubio wins, it will be in part because he adapted to the shock-value circus that modern political journalism prizes above all else. If Rubio and Cruz lose, it will be in part because Cruz wasn’t willing to play the insult game and Rubio started it too late.

But then, everything about the GOP’s reaction to Trump came too late. In September, when he mocked Carly Fiorina’s appearance, he gave party leaders a clear opportunity to declare that those kinds of comments were completely unacceptable from an aspiring standard-bearer. They failed to seize that opportunity, and the countless other similar openings Trump would later provide them.

#related#The rise of such a crass and obnoxious candidate reflects the fact that America has a crass and obnoxious culture. In some circles, it’s considered shallow to judge people by their appearance. In others, it’s the drop-the-mic final word that resolves the argument. Trump called Fox News’s Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” declared Heidi Klum is no longer a “ten,” wrote Gail Collins to tell her she has the face of a dog, and said Arianna Huffington is “a dog who wrongfully comments on me.” He’s the comments section personified: sneering, swearing, lashing out.

His base has applauded all the while, and that’s the truly worrisome thing: Our political culture is so toxic because just enough of us like it that way.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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