Readers of this column have likely noticed that after Ted Cruz lost Indiana and Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, it hasn’t delved into the presidential election much.
There’s a reason, of course — if you take conservative philosophy seriously, Trump is a bitter pill to swallow as a Republican presidential candidate, and rather than do things to ameliorate the split between conservatism and Trumpism which still hasn’t quite healed he’s largely ignored the problem. Trump even went so far as to say, when asked about unifying the party, “Some of it I don’t want.” It was fairly obvious he was talking about people like me.
Fine, whatever. And Trump might even be right that he doesn’t need ideological conservatives to win. But if he’s going to beat Hillary Clinton, or whatever other Democrat is parachuted in Frank Lautenberg-style should her amassed baggage prove too much for the DNC establishment, then there are a few things he’s going to want to get a handle on if he’s going to attract independents and soft Democrat voters who make decisions based less on philosophy and principle than on more touchy-feely factors.
Mostly, Trump needs to clean up some things which don’t affect whether he’s moving right or left, but are rather basic questions of candidate quality. One would have thought these would have hurt him in the primary, and it’s a testament to his ability to own news cycles and capture the public mood that they didn’t, but he would be crazy not to address them well in advance of the general election getting underway in earnest after Labor Day. Here are some of them.
First, he needs to release his tax returns. So far, Trump’s line on that issue is he can’t do that since he’s being audited. We’re not going to litigate whether that’s a valid excuse; it doesn’t matter. It will be used against him if he doesn’t release them, and the media will chew him to pieces if he continues to withhold them. Even Mitch McConnell, who has endorsed him, is telling him to release the tax returns.
Nothing good can happen if he withholds those tax returns. Lots of stories will be concocted about why he doesn’t want to show his cards, and they’ll all hurt him.
The two most likely lines of attack can be blunted, given enough recovery time. For example, if Trump’s taxes show that he’s worth a whole lot less than the $10 billion he claims, that’s bad — but if what Trump is worth is the $165 million Mark Cuban suspects he’s worth, for example, so what? He’s still awfully rich by the standards of virtually everybody in the country. Would it make him a liar if he turns out to be worth $165 million instead of $10 billion? Yes. Anybody who doesn’t already know Trump is prone to fibbery and exaggeration is probably a Trump fan who won’t care what his actual net worth is. For the rest, it’s better to have that train wreck in June than in October. There will be time to recover.
If those returns show that Trump doesn’t pay much of his income in taxes, that’s an even bigger “so what?” than the net worth question. He’s already said he pays as little in taxes as possible, and he’s already said that the government is a lousy steward of our money. So if it turns out that Trump has gamed the system in order to screw Uncle Sam, he might even be able to gain an advantage out of it. The easiest way to do that is to point to John Koskinen, the execrable IRS chief on the verge of being impeached by the House, and call him a crook and a bastard, and to say “you’d have to be crazy to expect me to give that a-hole the money I work my butt off to make when I can hire attorneys and accountants to avoid it legally.” A long-winded recitation of things the federal government wastes money on can follow.
Sure, that would make Trump’s flip-flopping statements on his tax plan look even more inconsistent. Again, so what? Trump’s inconsistencies are priced into his stock and he can’t fix most of that. What he can fix is a lack of transparency. He’s a lot better off getting pounded on the usual stock Democrat class-war arguments when Hillary Clinton, whose lucre comes from influence-peddling and giving boring speeches to crony-capitalist fatcats, is in the same tax bracket as he is than if he’s the subject of fever-swamp conspiracy theories.
Like, for example, that he’s actually broke and that’s why he’s not self-funding his campaign.
Or worse, which brings us to the second item — namely, that he needs to get rid of the Trump University lawsuit. It’s a cancer on his campaign, and it doesn’t get better when he spends his time castigating the “Mexican” judge who won’t dismiss it.
Sooner or later, you are going to hear a rather loud accusation made that Trump hasn’t settled the suit not because he doesn’t want to but because he can’t; specifically, he doesn’t have the money. Consider that there are 5,000 plaintiffs in the suit, and each of them paid at least $1,495 in tuition at Trump University — those who bought more expensive “mentoring” plans paid as much as $60,000. The New York Attorney General is seeking some $40 million in punitive damages from Trump, and he said there had been settlement discussions at one time.
If Cuban is correct and Trump’s worth is in the $165 million range, it is quite possible that settling the suit for, say, $20 million would require a good bit more liquidity than he possesses — and the accusation is almost surely going to follow that Trump is running for president in order to deny the plaintiffs a chance to collect; it’s a fun legal question whether a president, who is immune from lawsuit while in office, is immune from a lawsuit already in progress when he’s inaugurated.
Toss that aside, though, and just focus on the question of how on earth Trump could possibly win a presidential election while he’s either on trial or about to be in a fraud suit by no less than 5,000 people, the most telegenic and sympathetic of which will surely get their 15 minutes of fame this fall. That’s a mess which will be impossible to clean up then. Unless he can’t actually cut the check he needed to get that suit off the books before he even ran for president; doing it now is better than later.
Speaking of Trump’s attacks on the judge in the Trump U. case, he needs to revisit that list of potential Supreme Court appointees and stick to it. One of the biggest unforced errors he’s made in the campaign was, a mere few hours after putting out a good list of potential justices, saying that if it wasn’t somebody on the list he’d send up to replace Antonin Scalia as president it would be somebody “like” the people on the list. That led his critics on the Right to dismiss the entire project as nothing more than a feint in their direction and to call it worthless, arguments which were valid at the time — I know, of course, because I made one of them. Trump compounded that problem by trashing the judge in the Trump U. case in so vituperative a fashion; he sent a signal that he doesn’t have much regard for the judiciary and gave fuel to the perception that regardless of whether he appointed a conservative or a liberal to the Supreme Court the one thing he would definitely look for is a certain pliability with respect to his agenda.
In other words, a yes man.
Just go back to that list and pledge you’ll nominate somebody on it. Add to it if you want. If you don’t have any intention of sticking to the pledge, fine (well, not really, but follow me here) — let the folks complain about it once you’re president. Just don’t give them any reason to think you’re hiding the ball.
Finally, Trump needs to give the alt-Right a Sister Souljah moment. If you aren’t familiar with that little historical nugget, Sister Souljah was a hip-hop artist of little note who, following the Los Angeles riots in 1992, made some appalling comments about how the gangsters perpetrating those riots were justified in killing white people instead of the usual victims. Bill Clinton, then running for president for the first time, clobbered her for the incendiary rhetoric and suggested that with a few insertions of “black” for “white” and vice versa her statements could come off nicely as a David Duke speech.
Clinton took a bit of abuse from the black community and Jesse Jackson in particular, but he was feted by the media for his “brave” stance in standing up to extreme members of his coalition.
Naturally, it wasn’t brave for him to do that. It was smart. He risked nothing by rolling Sister Souljah over; who else was she going to support, George H. W. Bush or Ross Perot? And he came off as a centrist and a reasonable, plausible candidate.
Which is precisely the situation Trump is in with the army of indeterminate size known as the “alt-Right,” a collection of disaffected whites who run the gamut from young activists opposed to political correctness and globalism to hard-core white supremacists. How large the “alt-Right” is, nobody can quite tell; it isn’t a movement that will show up perfectly in polling. If you go by social media and comments under online news articles, you might conclude it’s a subset larger than the margin of error in polling.
The growth of this movement was, frankly, inevitable — and while it seems relatively uniformly supportive of Trump’s candidacy, he’s not responsible for it. Barack Obama, who engineered two presidential terms of economic stagnation which put much of poor white America in the same disadvantageous position with respect to social mobility as poor black America is while engaging in divisive and stupid attacks on traditional America for practically his entire presidency, is the father of the alt-Right. He created the white working class as an aggrieved minority and taught them how to vote and act like one, and the natural product of his actions is a movement of people with the predictable sectarianism and chauvinism aggrieved minorities always show.
And as a weapon against social justice warriors and political correctness, one might even argue that the alt-Right can be useful.
But much of the “alt-Right’s” intellectual product tends to be anti-Semitic and openly racist rot, and the attachment that movement has made to Trump, not without his tacit approval, is going to ultimately make him responsible for them.
These people aren’t going to turn on Trump. They’ve got no other option. He needs to come up with a way to, at their expense, cast himself as a uniter of Americans. Perhaps it’s anti-Semitic online harassment, particularly of journalists, he can use to create that distance or perhaps it’s something over the line that Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps the most famous of the alt-Right provocateurs, says. One thing Trump does have credibility on is the opposition to political correctness, so if he can seize the right opportunity for a “C’mon, people” admonition he could get much of the same mileage out of it that Clinton did in 1992.
And doing so might even stand him in better stead to criticize Hillary’s shameless and never-ending identity politics. It’s not actually impossible Trump could pull off the amazing feat of presenting himself as the uniter and her the divider.
If he can do that, and at least some of the other things mentioned above, he might even pull off a more amazing feat — getting elected.