The Columns

W&L's Strong Considers Trump Tipping Point

— by on August 8th, 2016

The following opinion piece by Bob Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared on USA Today’s website on August 6, 2016, and is reprinted here by permission.

Trump tipping point could be upon us: Column

The question is how he lasted so long. Edwin Edwards
of ‘dead girl, live boy’
fame offers clues.

by Robert A. Strong

Edwin Edwards, the flamboyant Louisiana politician who was investigated and indicted on multiple occasions, once boasted, “The only way I can lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” That was in 1983, the year he won the third of his four terms as governor.

Even if you didn’t like what Edwards had to say, you had to admire his willingness to offend media monitors and refined opinion. He was a little like Donald Trump with a career that defied the conventional rules of politics. Trump, like Edwards, routinely says and does things that should destroy his political prospects. He could be about to self-destruct — but we’ve said that many times before.

What is the secret of Trump’s staying power? 

First, there is the authenticity defense. Trump is not a politician; he tells it like it is. He’s authentic, and authentic people speak their mind and tweet from whatever portion of it happens to be awake and active in the middle of the night. You can’t expect Trump to be politically (or factually) correct. This claim has had a remarkable currency in the 2016 election cycle.

Second, there is the sarcasm sanctuary. Trump didn’t mean whatever ridiculous thing he said yesterday; he was just trying to be provocative or funny. Of course, if you are trying to be humorous,as Edwards often was, it helps to have an actual sense of humor. When there are no laughs, the sarcasm claim is hard to make and can only be used on a couple of occasions.

Third, and probably most important, there is the strategic use of innuendo and attribution. Trump didn’t say that Obama was a Muslim, he just thought there were .

So, in this very unusual presidential election, what would it take for the Trump campaign to collapse completely? That is not an easy question to answer, particularly for those who have prematurely predicted his demise on multiple occasions. But here goes.

Trump has survived lawsuits, personal scandals and bankruptcies. It is hard to imagine that any ordinary setback in his personal or professional dealings would trigger a significant change in his popularity. But if his tax returns became public, they might contain damaging information about outlandish tax avoidance, exaggerated wealth or dubious charitable generosity.

Without the returns, the steady shaming of Trump for not making them available might reinforce negative narratives about his business career that eventually undermine his central claim to a presidential qualification.

Then there are the debates. Candidate events with a large field of primary contenders are very different from those with a single opponent.  In the upcoming presidential debates there is always the possibility of a major mistake or gaffe. Gerald Ford inadvertently liberated Poland from the Soviet Union in a debate with Jimmy Carter and never recovered.

Trump will be held to a lower standard than a sitting president, but no one in the history of televised presidential debates will have had less public policy knowledge or political preparation. Trump has proven himself to be a gregarious gaffe gusher with a Houdini-like ability to escape the consequences of his errors. Still, in the widely watched debates in September and October, Trump could easily produce a catastrophic comment that decisively moves the minds of undecided voters belatedly paying attention to the presidential race.

Finally, there is the camel and the straw. The long string of Trumpery and Trumpisms may have made voters immune to the next incident. But it is equally possible that there is a cumulative effect. Criticizing John McCain for being captured is one thing; criticizing a Gold Star mother is another. There may be a tipping point when large numbers of people conclude that they have had enough. The mistakes Trump has made in the last few weeks, along with Hillary Clinton’s lead in new polls, may mean that the tipping point has arrived.

Edwin Edwards, under a cloud of controversy, won his last race for Louisiana governor in 1991. He was running against the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. When reporters asked Edwards about his reputation as a womanizer, he replied that the only thing he had in common with Duke was that “we both have been wizards beneath the sheets.”

There was a bumper sticker commonly seen on Louisiana automobiles during that campaign. It said: “Vote For The Crook. It’s Important.”

It always helps to have an opponent with higher negatives than your own. Alas for Trump, he does not.