The Teflon Donald

What does a guy have to do to offend the electorate these days?

Donald Trump has been trying hard to do it, but for some reason he has been unable to turn off the voters. He said Mexico is sending murderers and rapists across the border into the U.S. He suggested Sen. John McCain is less than heroic for getting captured and spending years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He has been trashing Megyn Kelly of Fox News since she dared to ask him a question about his derogatory comments about women. He has used the debate stage to let us all know there’s “no problem” with the size of his hands or with another part of his body.

And the result? He is the darling of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and in the lead for the Republican nomination.

The Republican Establishment is blaming Trump. I think there has been a change in the Republican voters. Their sensibilities have become much less delicate than in years past. Many candidates have been cast aside for much less.

Remember Howard Dean? He was the governor of Vermont for 12 years, and in the 2004 election he was the Democratic presidential frontrunner, until he finished third in the Iowa caucuses. In his address following the caucus he made this famous gaffe: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York…. And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!” Only it wasn’t “Yeah!” it was more like a “Yeaaargh!” that made people say, “What the heck is this guy doing running for president?” That was the end of his candidacy.

John McCain did his campaign no favor when he said, in the middle of the near collapse of the banking system, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” Then he made Sara Palin his running mate and sealed his fate.

Remember Dan Quayle trying to tell a school kid to add an “e” on the end when spelling “potato”?

George Allen, a U.S. Senator running for re-election in 2006, decided at a political rally to introduce the young man of Asian Indian descent working for his opponent’s campaign by videotaping Allen’s comments. “This fellow over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is,” Allen said. “He’s with my opponent. Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The racial slur was soundly criticized and is credited with causing Allen’s loss in the election.

But Trump seems to have numbed his supporters, who think he is just “telling it like it is.” Any fact-checking organization like Politi-Fact will tell you Trump tells it like it isn’t most of the time, but to his supporters, he’s telling it like they think it is, or should be. Maybe that’s the scary part of this.

Certainly there are many Americans who do take offense at the bilge that often comes from Trump’s mouth, but they weren’t going to vote for him anyway.

I think this speaks to the coarsening of politics over the past eight to 12 years. Negative political ads used to be rare and almost shocking. Now they are commonplace, almost expected. Why? Because they work. We have come to expect our politicians to carp about their opponents, to criticize and belittle them rather than simply disagree with them.

And the epitome of this kind of campaigning is Donald Trump.

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com

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