Politics & Policy

A Long Trump Summer

(Brian Snyder, Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
When have voters faced a choice between two such unpalatable, unprincipled candidates?

Before summer is over, we may see things now scarcely imagined that will make Brexit seem anticlimactic.

Trump’s Attack Mode

I think the following is an accurate statement: No major public figure has ever before attacked the Clintons in the manner that Donald Trump did last week. The details and tone of his charges can be endlessly analyzed, but their central theme resonates: The Clinton couple, broke when they left the White House in 2001, leveraged Hillary Clinton’s planned political trajectories to amass a personal fortune of between $100 and $200 million — all in the form of quid pro quo investments by wealthy individuals and foreign governments in the likely continuance of Clinton political power. Government is not the jungle of Manhattan real estate, and should have demanded at least a veneer of honesty.

The scandals of the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton’s various get-rich and jet-set escapades, and much of Hillary Clinton’s paranoia over the audit of her e-mail communications all revolve around a Clinton circle that can never be squared even by liberal pieties: The wealthy do not make politicians fabulously rich — unless they assume that they will receive something of much greater value in return.

The Clintons are unique — like no other first couple in recent American history. Not the Carters, not the Reagans, not the two Bush couples, not any first family emeritus has so unapologetically charged banks, foreign governments, corporations, and universities so much money for overtly so little, but on the expectation of clandestinely offering so much.

RELATED: The Sins of the Elite Don’t Excuse the Sins of the People

The Clinton ethical miasma is emblemized by the Laureate International Universities scandal — the highbrow version of Trump University, but a public not a private debacle. Between 2010 and 2015 “Chancellor” Bill Clinton was paid $16.5 million by the for-profit Laureate — but for what services he was to become one of the highest-paid university officials in history is not clear. Mirabile dictu, an educational affiliate of Laureate saw its support from the State Department more than triple from a pre-Clinton $15.1 million.

True, Hillary Clinton, who deleted over 30,000 of her private-server e-mails, can demand hard proof of such payola, but she still cannot rationalize why her husband was paid so much for so little demonstrable work, while she, after stepping down as the nation’s top diplomatic official, followed his reprehensible cue in her retirement.

Does Hillary think that she can match Trump’s mastery of the arts of personal slander and invective?

Trump will continue to expand these charges, no doubt in his characteristic nihilist, take-no-prisoners fashion. Hillary is already replying in like kind, rather than in exalted “Have you no shame?” stature. But the rounds of fire between the two candidates are not quite symmetrical. Trump is brash, crude, and a brawler. Hillary is a carefully scripted and choreographed establishmentarian. Recently, speech coaches seem to have had some success in sedating her screech-owl, nails-on-the-chalkboard rants. She has seemed calmer, quieter, more deliberate.

But in response to Trump’s charges, Hillary is starting to resort to her naturally unpleasant side, both in form and in content. She should learn from Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. When Trump unloaded on them in turn, each eventually stooped to reply in like kind — and seemed suddenly unpresidential. Trump, of course, never claimed to be or perhaps could be completely presidential. But his establishment targets became less presidential once he scraped often their veneers and they climbed down into his muck.

RELATED: Two Establishments, Two Failures

Does Hillary think that she can match Trump’s mastery of the arts of personal slander and invective? This time around, the target is not Marco Rubio’s stature, Jeb Bush’s energy level, or Ted Cruz’s hardball delegate hunting, but a scandal that won’t go away, because it cannot, given the meteoric rise of the Clintons’ net worth predicated on the misuse of government power. Hillary should revisit Elizabeth Warren’s surrogate attacks. She went from a consumer-rights, liberal Harvard icon to a fellow Trump brawler and lost a twitter war of invectives, having forgotten that she is a U.S. senator, while Trump is (at least for now) a private citizen.

Trump — Never or Maybe?

Both Never Trumpers and those who expect to hold their nose and vote for the less disastrous Trump over the specter of a 16-year Obama–Clinton continuum face challenges in the upcoming months.

Those who may reluctantly vote for Trump over Hillary always have to deal with the liability that Trump on any given day can say anything — from convincing political agendas to crude and cruel invective to abject conspiracy theories to sensational rumors. And such straws grow heavy on the camel’s back as voters become aware that acknowledgement of voting for Trump is assumed to be an investment in his outrageousness. Key here is Trump’s own arc: Will he refine his teleprompted attacks on Hillary, advance and defend a conservative agenda, and draw in respected advisors, or will he continue to detour into the swamp to defend his various past deals? Will we be asking these questions still on the eve of the election? So far, Trump has a wondrous ability to blow openings — the inspector general’s report on Hillary’s nefariousness, the unhinged liberal reaction to the Orlando tragedy, the uproar over Brexit — by referencing himself in his initial response. Meanwhile, time is running out, and Trump needs money, organization, and handlers who can direct his grapeshot to the proper targets.

RELATED: Dump Trump Can Cause Chaos in Cleveland, but What Then?

But Never Trumpers have their own dilemmas. Trump’s historic attack on Hillary delighted Ted Cruz conservatives, radio talk shows, and the right-wing base. The more Trump wounds Clinton, attacks the entire liberal agenda, and drops the names of conservatives a President Trump might appoint as Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials, the more problematic it is to adhere to the various arguments that the latest version of Trump is not conservative and that he will guarantee a Republican catastrophe in November. Is citing Trump’s prior liberal incarnation proof that he is now worse than Hillary’s present, far more left-wing one? Why do not principled liberals write op-eds confessing that they cannot vote for a Democrat who may be the first presidential candidate in history to face criminal indictment in the course of the campaign, in the way that conservatives make “not in my name” promises to vote against the Republican nominee? Is the logic that principled conservative losers are always preferable to liberal unprincipled winners?

Never Trumpers, then, face a sort of existential quandary: The more they attack Hillary Clinton, the more it becomes surreal to attack simultaneously (and far more frequently) Trump, who has attacked Clinton in a fashion never before seen in her long political history. And if Never Trumpers insist that the two candidates are of equal odiousness, what then is the point of daily reiterating their oppositions: On Monday attack Trump, on Tuesday Clinton, on Wednesday Trump again? Very quickly the message is received that the two are equally terrible people and therefore the election should not warrant any more commentary or interest, given that any outcome will be wretched. The logic of Trump voters trashing Clinton and Clinton voters trashing Trump is obvious; but what is the rationale of trashing both, other than a sort of detached depression that does not wear well in daily doses?

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More or Less of Obama?

Over the summer, how will Hillary handle Obama if the news cycle continues to reveal his narcissistic ineptitude? Hillary was a Cabinet officer in the Obama administration, whereas John McCain had not been part of the Bush administration when he ran in 2008. She is perhaps more akin to Hubert Humphrey, who tried to follow and not follow Lyndon Johnson. Added to the mix is her own criminal exposure, which pressures her to show continued fealty to the Obama administration and its record in hopes of avoiding prosecution. Does she campaign on successes in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Iraq that she oversaw? Reset with Russia? An ironclad end to the Iranian bomb? A better relationship with Israel? Al-Qaeda and the jayvee ISIS on the run? The wisdom of never mentioning radical Islam after Islamic terrorists kill and maim? How did raising income taxes and slashing defense spending still lead to half-a-trillion-dollar budget deficits?

Hillary is somewhat akin to Hubert Humphrey, who tried to follow and not follow Lyndon Johnson.

Is the economy humming, or is it mired in no growth, overregulation, record labor non-participation, zero interest rates, and unprecedented debt? Is Clinton happy with Obamacare, as rates soar, plans are canceled, doctors are reassigned, and insurers leave the field? To suggest that Hillary would do x or y about terrorism or the economy would be to certify that Obama has not done and apparently will not do either. Any agenda Clinton advances will either be antithetical to Obama’s or advocate its continuance. Neither offers her much of an edge — given that a thin-skinned Obama would resent any course of Clinton triangulation.

By early June, the Trump campaign was broke, without reputable pollsters, voter-registration drives, serious staffers, or much of an advertising or ground game at all — and was attacked as much by Republicans as by Hillary supporters. Trump was at his worst, self-referencing, barreling down dead-end streets, fighting chimeras, and always off message. Despite the charges of fascism and worse, Trump’s campaign was not lockstep but an unorganized mess, without either big donors or ideologues. The grammar-school pointers in The Art of the Deal are not the agendas of Mein Kampf. Anarchy, not fascism, better describes the program and campaign methodology of Team Trump. (How did some outraged conservatives miss the obvious point that the natural arc of Obama-style progressivism is always anti-constitutional fascism, and thus still warn about what might come when much of it is already here?)

RELATED: After Eight Years of Obama, America Needs Someone Better than Trump or Clinton

The media, the punditocracy, the universities, the political establishment, Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-wealthy, even the Koch brothers and Hank Paulson, former head of Goldman Sachs, can’t get near the taurean Trump’s china shop. Trump should have been down by 20 points.

But he was not.

#related#As the months pass, if Trump focuses on the moral and ideological bankruptcies of Hillary Clinton and the corrupt elite apparat she represents, he has an outside chance — given that her scandals will not fade, and some of Trump’s conservative opponents will appreciate his harsh attacks on the Clintons more than they will object to the outlandish manner in which he launches them.

The Brexit vote taught us that this summer nothing can be trusted, not polls, not establishment endorsements, not traditional campaign formulas. In the old days, an op-ed endorsement from Hank Paulson in the Washington Post might have meant something. This year it would be emblematic of the kiss of death.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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