In the 1870s, when Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall controlled New York City, and in the 1950s and 1960s, when Chicago’s Democratic machine was especially rampant, there was a phenomenon that can be called immunity through profusion: Fresh scandals arrived with metronomic regularity, so there was no time to concentrate on any of them. The public, bewildered by blitzkriegs of bad behavior, was enervated.
What Winston Churchill said about an adversary — “He spoke without a note and almost without a point” — can be said of Donald Trump, but this might be unfair to him. His speeches are, of course, syntactical train wrecks, but there might be method to his madness. He rarely finishes a sentence (“Believe me!” does not count), but perhaps he is not the scatterbrain he has so successfully contrived to appear. Maybe he actually is a sly rascal, cunningly in pursuit of immunity through profusion.
He seems to understand that if you produce a steady stream of sufficiently stupefying statements, there will be no time to dwell on any one of them, and the net effect on the public will be numbness and ennui. So, for example, while the nation has been considering his interesting decision to try to expand his appeal by attacking Gold Star parents, little attention has been paid to this: Vladimir Putin’s occupation of the Crimea has escaped Trump’s notice.
It is, surely, somewhat noteworthy that someone aspiring to be America’s commander in chief has somehow not noticed the fact that for 25 years now a sovereign European nation has been being dismembered. But a thoroughly jaded American public, bemused by the depths of Trump’s shallowness, might have missed the following from Trump’s appearance last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
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When host George Stephanopoulos asked, “Why did you soften the GOP platform on Ukraine?” — removing the call for providing lethal weapons for Ukraine to defend itself — Trump said: “ (Putin’s) not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”
Stephanopoulos: “Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?”
Trump: “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have (President) Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he’s going where — he takes — takes Crimea, he’s sort of — I mean … ”
What Trump, in that word salad, calls the “certain way” that Putin is in Crimea is called annexation, enforced by the Russian army. But Trump — channeling his inner Woodrow Wilson and his principle of ethnic self-determination — says what has happened to Crimea is sort of democratic because “from what I’ve heard” the people of Crimea “would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
Before the interview ended, Trump expressed his displeasure with the schedule for presidential debates, two of which are on nights with nationally televised NFL games. (There are such games three nights each autumn week.) “I got a letter from the NFL,” Trump claimed, “saying this is ridiculous.” The NFL says it has sent no such letter. But before this Trump fib/figment of his imagination/hallucination can be properly savored, it will be washed away by a riptide of others. Immunity through profusion.
The nation, however, is not immune to the lasting damage that is being done to it by Trump’s success in normalizing post-factual politics. It is being poisoned by the injection into its bloodstream of the cynicism required of those Republicans who persist in pretending that although Trump lies constantly and knows nothing, these blemishes do not disqualify him from being president.
As when, last week, Mike Pence reproved Barack Obama for deploring, obviously with Trump in mind, “homegrown demagogues.” Pence, doing his well-practiced imitation of a country vicar saddened by the discovery of sin in his parish, said with sorrowful solemnity: “I don’t think name calling has any place in public life.” As in “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little Marco” Rubio and “Crooked Hillary” Clinton?
Pence is just the most recent example of how the rubble of ruined reputations will become deeper before Nov. 8. It has been well said that “sooner or later, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences.” The Republican Party’s multicourse banquet has begun.