Something — some staid, calm voice within — warned me not to get my hopes too high after Donald Trump agreed last week to debate Bernie Sanders ahead of California’s primary.
Anticipating that a Trump-Sanders verbal joust would generate huge ratings, the Republican presidential nominee initially said, during an appearance on ABC’s The Jimmy Kimmel Show, that he would debate Sanders under one condition: the news organization hosting the event would donate a large sum of money from the revenues to women’s health charities. “$10 or $15 million” is an “appropriate amount,” he speculated to Kimmel.
He called Sanders “a dream,” and boasted that people would love it.
And, you know what? He’s right. They would. I was one of those people. And, I will fully concede to feeling giddy — ecstatic, actually — at the possibility of Trump and Sanders in the same room, on the same stage, on live television, sparring with each other about the crucial issues that matter to Americans.
Not just because Sanders is beating Trump in general election polls, although that’s an added bonus. But because I honestly believe in my bones that Sanders would best Trump in a debate. I mean, I’m confident that the real estate mogul, known for his bluntness, would be brutally massacred.
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I’m betting his campaign handlers felt the same way, because within a matter of hours after their nominee waxed poetic about a potential debate, Trump rescinded his offer.
Did y’all see that jumbled statement he released suggesting that it would be “inappropriate” to step in the ring with Sanders — the candidate pegged least likely to win the Democratic nomination — since he’s currently trailing Clinton? I guffawed my ass off!
Up to this point, Trump’s entire campaign has been oiled with an abundance of inappropriateness. It’s been pushed upward by a large supply of inappropriate and politically incorrect behavior. Voters view such behavior as a watermark of honesty. Being inappropriate has been a key ingredient in his campaign. It made him the Sanders of the Republican party.
Now, all of a sudden, the man who has been calling Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers” and Blacks “lazy,” who said women who have abortions should be fined and jailed, who doxxed Lindsay Graham and encouraged supporters to violently assault protestors attending his rallies, would have us believe that he believes candidates should act appropriate.
I don’t buy it. Not one bit.
Here’s what likely happened: reality sank in. Trump and his handlers wised up to the deathtrap Trump had absentmindedly walked into. They remembered that the Republican primary is not the general election and Sanders is not, relative to the times, a run-of-the-mill establishment candidate.
The Republican primary race was nothing more than a year-long clusterfuck circus show and Trump was not only the leading act, but fed off the acts around him. Within this sphere, Trump rode high on a wave of frustration and anxiety among conservative voters.
He was viewed as the outsider, the contrast to all his rivals and, by extension, the antidote to their mistakes and deficiencies.
In this setting, he could come off as the big man on campus. He could make the loudest and most pestiferous noise in the room and, by raising his decibel count, give the illusion of competency and insurgency.
This hasn’t always worked. But when we factor in the slim pickings offered by the Republican party this year, each of whom were viewed as too heavily invested in politics-as-usual, each of whom struck voters as robots, each of whom carried with them their own set of political liabilities into this election year, it’s not difficult to understand how Trump could thrive and prosper in this environment.
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He could raise his political stock by indicting the entire Republican roster for pushing the country into the Iraq War. He could do this because the conservative media loves Trump and the Tea Party had already popularized the major talking points Trump relies on — that establishment Republicans are “weak” and corporate-bought, poor on foreign policy, poor on immigration reform, poor on pro-life, poor on small government, poor on terrorism, poor on trade and, most important, poor on job creation.
But what happens when you share the stage with a candidate who didn’t support and vocally opposed the Iraq War, who’s never lied, who’s consistent in his political message, who hasn’t taken money from corporate lobbyists or super PACS, who’s funded by the people, who’s equally vigilantly critical of existing trade laws and their role in job loss, who performs as well as you do with white workers?
And what happens when this candidate makes up the overwhelming difference within the voting demographics that you currently underperform in: women, students, Blacks and Hispanics? What happens when he’s in a formidable position to — insult by insult — hold you accountable for all the inflammatory and disgusting remarks you’ve made about these groups without the risk of appearing hypocritical?
I’ll tell you what happens. You lose — big. Embarassingly big.