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Trump Is Giving Pyrrhic Victors a Run For Their Money

He’s angling for a Kavanaugh bump. But Democrats and sexual assault survivors will remember this for many elections to come

Former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won the battle but lost the war when he courted white conservatives in 1994. Now Trump is headed the same way, Shapiro writes. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)
Former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won the battle but lost the war when he courted white conservatives in 1994. Now Trump is headed the same way, Shapiro writes. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — History is littered with Republican and White House insiders who naively believed that they possessed the hypnotic powers needed to protect Donald Trump from his worst guttersnipe instincts.

In the summer of 2016, Paul Manafort tried to convince the unruly Trump to use teleprompters and speech texts at campaign rallies. Now, of course, Manafort is a long-term guest of the federal government, and Trump is even more out of control than ever at rallies.

Reince Priebus, first as GOP chairman and then as short-lived White House chief of staff, labored under the comic illusion that he could magically transform Trump into an orthodox Republican.

His successor, John Kelly, launched a military-style campaign to control the flow of information and visitors to the Oval Office in an effort to constrain Trump. That went down as Operation Failure, as Kelly only survives as a figurehead chief of staff because he lacks the gumption to follow through on his frequent threats (per Bob Woodward) to resign.

After Christine Blasey Ford offered her controlled, but devastating, testimony accusing Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway revealed in a CNN interview that she, too, had been a victim of such an attack. Conway’s point, which presumably was directed at Trump, was to stress, “I feel very empathetic, frankly, for victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment and rape.”

Watch: Trump’s Tactless Imitations From the Campaign Trail Span Years

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Conway, in effect, dredged up a painful memory from her own past to prevent Trump from demonizing Ford. This also reflected the strategic calculus of Senate Republicans from Mitch McConnell on down to simultaneously treat Ford with public respect while at the same time downplaying her charges.

But Tuesday night at a rally in Mississippi, the president demonstrated that Conway’s efforts had been in vain as Trump fired up the GOP base in the basest way imaginable. As a presidential candidate who belittled John McCain’s suffering as a POW, mocked a Gold Star father and cruelly imitated a New York Times reporter with a disability, Trump had long ago hit rock bottom.

Or so we thought.

But Trump’s vicious ridicule of Ford’s harrowing and heartfelt Senate testimony was so hateful that it should have made Satan bow his head in disgust.

All that glitters

Everything about Trump is a fraud, starting with his stirring self-portrayal as a business genius who did it all on his own. A New York Times investigative bombshell revealed that the president’s father, Fred Trump, funneled the equivalent of more than $400 million to his supposedly self-made son.

Trump’s gold-plated boasts are about as accurate as that of a 19th century politician who reputedly claimed he had been born in a log cabin that he helped his father build.

The one thing about Trump, though, that is authentic is his lack of a shred of human decency. Even the corrupt, racist and anti-Semitic Richard Nixon of the White House tapes seems a paragon of compassion compared to the 45th president.

In political terms, Trump’s blame-the-victim approach seems to have no strategy behind it other than a complete lack of impulse control.

Each of the three GOP senators on the fence (Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) decried Trump’s cruel words. While such statements of concern (Flake called Trump’s mockery “appalling”) do not necessarily predict votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination, they do make it tricky for the three vacillating Republicans to reverse field, dismiss Ford’s accusations and support confirmation.

For skittish red-state Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin, Trump’s latest outburst makes it harder for them to turn their backs on their party, their out-of-state donors and women everywhere.

Friends in very, very low places

Also, Heitkamp learned the hard way that there never is gratitude from Trump for supporting his Supreme Court nominees. Heitkamp broke with the Democrats to vote for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. But Trump at a rally in North Dakota in late June still denounced Heitkamp as a “liberal Democrat” and predicted that she would follow Chuck Schumer’s lead in opposing anyone he nominated to replace Anthony Kennedy on the court.

Republicans — who have been treating the November elections as if they required a blindfold and a final cigarette — are suddenly pointing with glee to an uptick in GOP enthusiasm in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. This supposed Kavanaugh Effect may be due to the way that the passions over the court fight have mobilized conservative voters.

Even if this is more than a brief polling blip, all political divining rods suggest that college-educated women, Democrats and victims of sexual assault will remember Trump’s callous dismissal of Christine Blasey Ford for many elections to come.

Up to now, the political definition of Pyrrhic victory features a picture of former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Running for re-election in 1994, Wilson championed an anti-immigrant ballot measure (Proposition 187) as a cynical strategy to attract white conservative votes.

It worked in the short run as Wilson romped home by a 15-percentage-point margin. But Proposition 187 also permanently drove Latino voters out of the Republican Party and made the state such a Democratic bastion that the GOP could not even get a Senate candidate on this November’s ballot.

These are the lasting risks for the Republicans — no matter how their death-grip embrace of Kavanaugh plays out in the next few days in the Senate. As congressional Republicans are belatedly learning, with a friend like Trump, who needs enemies?

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023