The Real Threat Trump Poses to Hillary—and Us

The GOP frontrunner has found a way to dominate the news cycle with his lies and nutty claims, allowing him to rob our elections of their last bit of substance.

01.08.16 5:01 AM ET

Donald Trump says Ted Cruz may not be eligible to be president, and what happens? It dominates the news cycle for three days. Going on four.

See a pattern here? You should. A few months ago people used to ask, “What impact is Donald Trump having on the race”? Now we know very clearly exactly what it is. He takes over the news cycle. He says something about one of his rivals—or occasionally about an issue, although it’s always un-substantive and full of untrue assertions—and it sucks all the other oxygen out of the room. The rivals have to answer Trump, and the cable shows do panel after panel on whether what Trump said is true, whether it even matters whether it’s true, how so-and-so handled the response, and how it’s going to change the polls.

It’s happened over and over again. In fact it’s happened pretty much nonstop. Trump says Jeb is “low-energy”; Jeb has to prove he’s high energy. He hammers Marco Rubio for this, Chris Christie for that, and now Cruz. In a nutshell, this is the campaign, at least the campaign that those of us who aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire see.

The effect has been to turn the campaign into a vacuous, reality TV dick-swinging competition. And bad as that is, the effect has been far worse when Trump makes one his assertions about the country or world. He says these things about the world that are either just false or crazy, and everybody has to spend three days explaining why it’s false or crazy. He saw “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attacks. That was eventually debunked. But it took nearly a week. And by the way, it hasn’t been debunked everywhere; certain web sites on the right spent days if not weeks defending Trump.

This is the real Trump Effect: He forces us to spend an endless series of three-day cycles debating at best pointless or at worst toxic and corrosive questions. That week we had to spend proving that American Muslims didn’t celebrate 9-11 wasn’t just a stupid and wasted week. It was a hatefest week that pulled an entire country in reverse, unlancing boils, raising temperatures. It was the same, more or less, when he said what a great guy Vladimir Putin was.

No. These are things we know. Putin is not a great guy. He’s a thug, just like you, Donald. We may not know for a fact that he’s had journalists killed, but a lot of anti-Putin journalists have died mysteriously. American Muslims did not cheer 9/11, bub. The government of Mexico is not “sending” rapists. And on and on and on.

But this is our level of discourse with Trump in the race. I’ll grant him that it’s a skill, of a kind. He says things in a hot-button way, a way we’re not accustomed to hearing from most politicians, certainly most presidential candidates, who usually strive for some simulacrum of dignity. It’s catnip, especially for cable news. He gets ratings. Every night all the shows get their figures on how each individual segment did in the crucial 25-49 demographic. Undoubtedly, the Trump-Cruz segments right now are doing better than the North Korea segments. And in any event, it’s not like the media can just totally ignore the demagogic claims of the Republican front-runner.

What a way to elect a president. The process has been corrupt enough. The billions of dollars spent by the rich, the dishonest attack ads, the stupid emphasis on things like who we’d supposedly rather have a beer with.

But now, we’re really going down the sinkhole, and Trump is leading us. Republican primary contests lately have not exactly been flower gardens of new policy ideas, as candidates in 2012 and this year basically just compete against each other to see who can offer up the most irresponsible tax cut and who can sound toughest on immigrants and moochers and terrorists. But there are a few ideas out there, and a few interesting differences. We hear about them a little, but then Trump comes along and says something and he smothers everything.

And yes, it can get worse. Imagine Trump as the GOP nominee. Imagine a general election run like this. General elections, underneath all the spumes of nonsense, actually are contests of ideas. There were clear and important policy differences between Barack Obama and John McCain, and between Obama and Mitt Romney, and they had to talk about them.

There will be clear and important policy differences between Trump and Hillary Clinton, but the difference is we’re not likely to have a real debate about them. Instead, we’re going to have more of this. Clinton is going to give some normal and slightly over-earnest speech about paid family leave. Important thing. And Trump will respond…not by stating his counter-position, but by saying something about how women want to be paid to sit at home and watch soap operas, and we’ll spend three days on it. And of course he’ll issue an endless stream of false or over-the-top statements about Whitewater and Vince Foster and, as he’s promised, Bill’s sex life.

And the campaign will just be that, over and over and over. Trump says crazy thing A. Cable shows salivate. A few responsible outlets read by 4 percent of the population point out that what Trump said isn’t true. Clinton spends three days repeating that. Upshot: Much of America is left with the impression, because Trump will be attacking and Clinton will be responding, and in TV land that’s what mostly matters, that it’s probably true. And then he’ll say crazy thing B, and then crazy thing C…

There is no force that can stop it. Well, maybe the Clinton campaign. They’ll sure need to figure out how, if Trump’s the nominee. I don’t think he can beat her, barring really bizarro circumstances or developments, but it’s not her losing I’m most worried about. It’s us.