It was 8 years ago that the idea of the 3 a.m. phone call entered the American political psyche, thanks to an ad trying to promote Hillary Clinton in those 2008 presidential primaries. The notion was the nation needed a president with experience, sound judgment and resolve to deal with world crises, which so often seem to break out halfway around the world, in the dead of the American night.
With the rise of Donald Trump, Americans might have to worry that the 3 a.m. phone call will followed by the 3:10 a.m. tweet.
OK, actually Trump waited until 5:27 a.m. to tweet that the EgyptAir jetliner that had just recently disappeared from radar was undoubtedly a terrorist attack. "Looks like yet another terrorist attack," the presumptive (literally in this case) GOP presidential nominee tweeted. "Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant? Great hate and sickness!"
It would be more than a day before the wreckage was even located at sea. Trump uttered his "100 percent" certainty that terrorists had attacked the downed Airbus 320 later at a rally and on national television. There's a decent chance that The Donald, in leaping to a conclusion before most citizens were even awake, was right....but there's also a very strong chance that he's wrong. We know that several smoke alarms were triggered over a couple of minutes, suggesting an electrical fire of unknown origin -- possibly not related terrorism at all.
The Obama administration has offered its condolences (Trump hasn't, for what it's worth) but has not addressed the cause until investigators know more. That's the prudent if non-sexy thing to do. It's called leadership. It may explain why President Obama's approval ratings have risen to their highest sustained levels, after the country has had more than seven years to judge how he's doing.
It's also a leadership style that, were it a baby, Americans seem ready to dump out with the bathwater. Over the last week, a series of polls have suggested that Trump is currently with a dead heat with the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton -- in fact the latest and most ballyhooed survey, from ABC News and the Washington Post, shows that 46 percent of Americans have rallied behind Manhattan's short-fingered vulgarian, giving The Donald a two-point lead.
As I've written here many times before, there needs to be a word in the English language that means "shocking" yet not "not surprising." The speed with which button-down Republican stalwarts who vowed #NeverTrump to the notion that their once-proud party -- founded a century and a half ago to halt the spread of slavery -- could be cowed into submission by a compulsively lying race-baiting xenophobe crumbled has been truly astounding. Vidkun Quisling would undoubtedly feel at home in today's GOP.
The Democrats haven't helped matters in handing their nomination to a focus-grouped candidate who's severely ethically challenged and who remains unpopular outside of her base of party stalwarts. But in an election year in which "qualified" has become a buzzword, does anyone doubt that the former secretary of state is qualified to handle that 3 a.m. call in a way that Tweety McOrangeFace is not?
In another year, with another candidate, Trump's inappropriate tweet would have led to a week of chatter by the chattering classes, launched a series of Page 1 articles, and raised serious questions about whether the soon-to-be Republican nominee is fit to sit at the Oval Office desk. But this is 2016 -- the year that America finally cracked up.
Something like Trump's tweet now elicits a gasp or a sigh -- and then we all gallop on to the next news cycle, like Exaggerator down the muddy home stretch of Saturday's Preakness. Just this morning, there was a timely article on Politico by David Cay Johnston, who covered Trump's rise on the Atlantic City beat for the Inquirer in the 1980s and later won a Pulitzer Prize covering tax issues for the New York Times. Johnston notes evidence that Trump had forged ties with organized crime figures in ways that once would have been unthinkable for an American president.
The nation's reaction: Meh.
There's been some chatter that America is now experiencing a form of "Trump fatigue." That's Trump's non-stop barrage of half-truths, outright lies, and over-the-top outrageousness has finally overloaded and broken the political machine. That the public and especially the news media -- after the infinityith comment-that's-supposed-to-end-Trump's-campaign-but-didn't -- has thrown up its hands and surrendered. And with the conventional outrage machine broken, voters are just falling into our usual bunkers. as if this were your normal old U.S. election and Mitt McCain McReagan were running against Lyndon F. Gore.
Do. Not. Let. This. Happen. First, read this righteous and sometime potty-mouthed diatribe about how the media needs to stop whining and do its job, in style of David Cay Johnston. Second, read a remarkable essay that the writer Adam Gopnik published in The New Yorker this weekend -- in case you've forgotten what's at stake. Not some wild-eyed socialist (to my knowledge), Gopnik has won many of America's major writing awards for his reasoned pieces on culture and social issues. He now believes that America is looking out over the moral abyss as Trump moves closer to the White House.
Writes Gopnik in "The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump": "He's not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn't. But then Hitler wasn't Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn't so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis."
This next paragraph is particularly essential:
"If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don't really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate."
These, to mimic LBJ in 1964's "Daisy" ad, are the stakes. As I've noted here previously, America's deep lack of trust in the news media -- some of that self-inflicted, much of it whipped up by the vast right-wing conspiracy -- ensures that investigative journalism reaches a very small audience of persuadable voters. But that audience must be reached -- because every vote will count this November..
The reality is that -- despite what the current vibe and the new polls -- Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular. The only reason that he's even within 500 miles of the Oval Office is that millions of Americans, including the poor and downtrodden who have the most to lose from a Trump presidency, don't bother to vote. I've seen polls showing The Donald losing by an incredible 40 percentage points among the most critical group of Americans right now -- eligible voters who aren't registered. The threat posed by Trump won't be beaten back by trying to convince those who can never be convinced -- but getting the righteously convinced to vote.