Some said it was the End of The Donald, others the Beginning of the End.
Republican officials and professionals called it the moment when the Trump house of cards had begun its inevitable tumble. Many in the media agreed.
But was it so, or are we in Washington, the political-professional establishment, missing again what we have missed before?
On Saturday, Trump dissed the heroism of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and dismissed him as a loser. Was McCain a war hero? No, Trump said, amending that a moment later to say, yes, a hero, because he was captured — “and I prefer those (heroes) who were not captured.”
Trump then prompted laughter from the audience at the Iowa voters forum with his reference to McCain’s failure in the 2008 presidential election. (“He let us down”). He also took a shot at McCain’s inability to correct problems in the Veterans Administration, an issue the senator has tackled repeatedly.
Trump surely broke the rules with this assault. But he never agreed to play by any rules other than his own. And this has already proven appealing, even compelling, to millions of Americans.
That explains why the first set of polls released after McCain’s apparent gaffe still showed him enjoying a huge bounce. The latest ABC-Washington Post survey had him all but lapping the field with 24 percent to 12 for runner-up Jeb Bush.
That poll was mostly finished before the news of Trump’s remarks about McCain. The next round of polls will surely be different, and the pollster said that on the last day of polling — after the remarks — Trump’s numbers dropped in a statistically significant way. But the stunning fact remains that after months of campaigning and news coverage, Trump is the Republican who is getting through.
He also has staying power as a self-financing candidate who need not worry about donors jumping ship. “Straight talk” has always been his style, and he has thrived largely by being, unconventional, anti-establishment and anti-media.
Of course, Trump’s rivals for the 2016 Republican nomination were swift to denounce his insults to McCain. The Arizona senator, once a maverick himself, has become a party stalwart — an icon among conservatives generally and Vietnam veterans in particular.
The gauntlet tossed at McCain’s feet was too much for most of Trump’s rivals to tolerate. Notably, most had gone easy on Trump after he said some Mexican immigrants were “rapists” in June; but if that earlier statement was painful, the slap at McCain was a direct challenge to the party.
Siding with McCain seemed like a no-brainer to nearly everyone in the establishment media, too. We all know you can’t talk that way about a real war hero, especially not if you, like Trump, skipped the Vietnam War on student deferments, a disability claim (“bone spurs in both feet”) or an absurdly high draft lottery number. (Trump, remarkably, had all three.)
But there is a broader context for Trump’s latest “gaffe.” He was, in fact, returning fire after McCain had referred to Trump supporters in Arizona as “the crazies.” There has been no love lost between these two men with household names for years, with the immigration issue being the major irritant. But Trump was signaling that he will not take criticism without responding, and he was demonstrating once again that he will not defer to party elders or presumptive icons.
This had many media analysts sending up the flare we have all been ready to launch once Trump finally “went too far” and “blew himself up” or “imploded.” One of the GOP candidates most quoted in the blowback was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said Trump had disqualified himself as commander in chief. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry said much the same and urged Trump to leave the field.
Lindsey Graham, often McCain’s wing man in the Senate, concluded that Trump had “revealed himself.”
Well, yes. It could be said that revealing himself is what Trump does all the time.
So were this weekend’s antics really different? If so, what did Trump reveal himself to be? And to whom?
If anything, he revealed himself to be Donald Trump. And the only people who were surprised were the people expecting the emergence of “the real” Donald Trump to immediately turn off the supporters who have been gravitating to him in recent weeks.
Does it hurt Trump to be volatile and outspoken? Or are these the Trump traits that resonate with his legion?
We will soon know. But if the McCain fracas does not knock Trump out as initially expected, the Trump phenomenon will be more troublesome and intransigent than ever as we enter the hot and humid precincts of a hyper-political August.