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Politics in the Post-Gaffe Era

Inflammatory soundbites have become this cycle’s most precious currency. Is it even possible to commit a gaffe any more?
gaffe trump for president

(Photo: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock)

The prime-time Republican debate last Thursday saw nine politicos hewing to their respective and largely interchangeable stumps and working hard to appear kindly but grave, optimistic and apocalyptic—the typical tonal balance. Marco Rubio was crisp and full of no surprises. Ben Carson punted on race. Mike Huckabee invoked America’s legions of “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers”—cradled implicitly in the hands of an angry god—and talked confusingly about “the DNA schedule” that offers “clear scientific evidence” that zygotes have souls. Whispers circulated that Jeb Bush’s comment about how America “overfunds” women’s health would prove his undoing. (It will not.)

And then there was the 10th candidate, Donald Trump, an understandable draw for the most-watched early primary debate in history: 24 million viewers watched live as Trump eschewed the pieties of polite politics to offer what his dual constituency—the media, and the base—most desired: more Trump talk. And talk he did! When Megyn Kelly confronted Trump with his history of misogynistic remarks, Trump didn’t flinch, though he did soften the blow with a crack about Rosie O’Donnell. (It was tacitly agreed at some point in the '90s that Rosie O’Donnell’s personal appearance was fair game for politicians and comedians of various political persuasions.) Trump even laid open the possibility that he would one day slander Kelly:

"What I say is what I say. And honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that."

Of course, he did do that, just a few hours later:

So much for Republicans pandering to women; Trump has no interest in binders. As for the Latino vote, Trump manages to corral Mexicans into prime photo-spots at his campaign events even after he launched his candidacy by calling them rapists. (Here’s where the 10-point swing between him and Jeb tells you something about the base; I’ll be curious to see how the base’s xenophobia shapes GOP discourse over the next 14 months.)

The base loves Trump because he is different; because he presents a self-satisfaction that most of us (even Trump himself) may never know; because, in the end, he is incapable of gaffes—they are his greatest strength.

Most interesting, Trump addressed the question of money in politics as directly as possible—by saying I’m the money, I’m the problem, and that’s why I’m the man to find a solution:

I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.

This line of reasoning follows Trump’s ongoing mockery of his Koch-beholden rivals: As his own billionaire, Trump doesn’t need to sell favors—and, having been on the other end of the deal, he says this bolsters his integrity. Bald, shameless, and not entirely unpersuasive. (Trump deflected a sideline challenge from Rand Paul in the same way: “I gave you plenty of money!”)

Finally there are the ways hawkish politicians have spent the last 15 years distancing themselves (at least superficially) from Halliburton and the specter of a “war for oil.” Yesterday, pressed on how he would deal with ISIS, Trump threw euphemism to the winds: “I would take away their oil.... I would bomb the hell out of those oil fields. I wouldn’t send many troops because you wouldn’t need them by the time I got finished.” In this arrangement, a ring of United States ground troops would encircle an operation run by ExxonMobil until every drop of fossil fuel is drained from the near east. “Exterminate ISIS and take their oil”—not even Dick Cheney could get away with saying something like that.

In the summer of 1984, when Gary Hart was battling Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination, Michael Kinsley wrote a tiny but sharp Baedeker to the modern gaffe. “A ‘gaffe’ occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth,” Kinsley says:

The “gaffe” is now the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics, as interpreted by journalists. Each candidacy is born in a state of prelapsarian innocence, and the candidate then proceeds to commit gaffes. Journalists record each new gaffe, weigh it on their Gaffability Index (“major gaffe,” “gaffe,” “minor gaffe,” “possible gaffe,” all the way down to “ironically, could turn out to be a plus with certain interest groups”), and move the players forward or backward on the game board accordingly.

This is less cynicism than remarkable prescience. The Gaffability Index has only grown richer and more complex since the era of Reagan (in 2008, you couldn’t pick up a paper without learning that Joe Biden was a "gaffe machine"), and the recursive self-reference of 24-hour cable news has accelerated the rate of feedback and self-fulfilling prophecy beyond Gary Hart’s darkest nightmare. Americans care deeply about winners and losers, and the pundits are there to tell you which is which, thus preserving the tautology of modern American democracy—if you don't know who the winner is, how will you know who to vote for?  In this sense, Trump is basically a vertically integrated media concern, both funding and constantly evaluating himself. (He's a "winner," by the way.)

Note Kinsley’s final category in the index: “could turn out to be a plus with certain interest groups.” That category is what Trump has rightly identified as an area of opportunity, and he has made bales of hay out of America’s professed love for straight talk. “Certain interest groups” now includes the ever-more-regressive GOP base, still beating against the currents of human migration and gender progress and, more generally, 20th-century Western science. And they love the Donald because he is different; because he presents a self-satisfaction that most of us (even Trump himself) may never know; because, in the end, he is incapable of gaffes—they are his greatest strength.

Mitt Romney titled his “I’m running for president” book No Apologies. Trump’s intuition tells him that if you have to say “no apologies,” you’re immediately weak in the eyes of the base. With Trump, the campaign isn’t a series of issues around which he must tip-toe; it’s about perceived weakness vs. projected strength. Fourteen months is a long time in campaign-hours, and the most likely scenario for Trump’s decline is a general fatigue with his noise—though he appears a nimbler candidate this week than ever before, perhaps because, like many of us, he’s taking the Trump campaign more seriously after his success in the first debate.

There remains the slender possibility of a hot-mic moment for Trump, say if he’s caught referring to his supporters in an unflattering light. But even then, the man could probably once more spin something ugly into something bold or unapologetic—or at least something different. This campaign cycle, after all, is very different from any in recent memory, with an unapologetic socialist and an unapologetic oligarch doing nothing to temper the light and heat of their politics. Maybe the only thing Americans hate more than a gaffe is an apology.