Trump Still Presents a Neverending Conundrum for Pundits

Donald Trump is a fascist, wrapped in a chameleon, wrapped in an entertainer. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and the fascist part is on the outside while the entertainer is his core? It’s hard to figure out which comes first with him: the nativist or the clown, the Bulworth or the George Wallace.

After his GOP debate performance this weekend — in which he hammered left-wing talking points about the Bush Administration’s culpability for 9/11 and the Iraq War, cited Planned Parenthood as an organization that does wonderful things for women’s health, and rightly called his opponents out for their unpleasant qualities, even as he was getting booed — the head-scratching has begun once again. The problem is, just as during a previous debate when he defended “New York values” from Cruz , the orange-faced hatemonger actually had a few winning — or at least truth-telling — moments. And consequently, he’s actually forcing his in-denial political party to reckon with the terrible legacy of the Bush presidency.

Yet there’s no truism more apt this election silly season than: Trumps gonna Trump. You see, any piddling goodwill Trump earned with this debate performance was swiftly blown into pieces, yesterday, when the candidate started peddling conspiracy theories about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was asked about the conspiracy theories swirling around Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. And he didn’t exactly shut down the speculation.

“They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” Trump said in a radio appearance on The Savage Nation, first noted by Right Wing Watch.

The pillow was not over Scalia’s face, later reporting by the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce clarified.

This little bit of flame-fanning, which is surely going to lead conservatives right to POTUS’s doorstep, was a reminder that Trump rode his way to political notoriety through a far more obnoxious conspiracy: Obama birtherism. And Obama birtherism is a reminder that Trump is a racist nativist hot mess, full of rhetoric that actually and chillingly evokes the mid-century European fascists.

In fact, as today’s Guardian reminds us, one of his early forays into public life is equally shameful and bigoted, born from the same forces as “show me the birth certificate”: public involvement in the “Central Park Five” case that led to the unjust conviction of five young black men for a crime they didn’t commit.  Trump’s intervention — he signed full-page newspaper advertisements implicitly calling for the boys to die — has been gradually overlooked as the businessman’s chances of winning the Republican nomination have rapidly increased. ”

If there’s anything mitigating about his awfulness, then, it’s not positive in nature: it’s simply knowing that his criticism of Obama is mixed in with the same kind of indiscriminate bomb-throwing towards the GOP establishment. In the case of the Bush family there’s a grain of truth to it.

Earlier this year I argued that SNL shouldn’t give The Donald air time, and I maintain that they shouldn’t have. Yet comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon continue to attempt to make hay with a candidate who is essentially un-mockable because he’s so extreme, as James Poniewozik pointed out in The New York Times today: “With Mr. Trump and his movement, a comic can often only point and wince.” Indeed, it’s once more hard to know what to ask from the entertainment and pundit class from here on out. He has to be covered and taken seriously; he’s a leading candidate and has won a primary. We can’t dismiss him as a joke or minimize the threatening nature of some of his positions.

And yet I’ll say up front what many have said; as terrifying as his rhetoric is — and it’s genuinely terrifying — I think I’d actually prefer candidate Trump to candidate Cruz in the general election, because Cruz seems genuinely evil, with none of the buffoonery and desperation to be liked of his opponent. On the other hand, when Jonathan Chait says liberals should actively support a Trump victory in the primaries, he speaks from the position (as Frank Rich did earlier this year) of privilege, as a white man who wouldn’t have to live in fear that Trump’s stump speeches would literally inspire people to beat him up. That danger of that rhetoric is real and shouldn’t be understated; as much as Trump blows with the wind on some issues, his firm commitment to being a racist fearmonger seems to be a core part of his belief system, as much a part of his brand as anti-gay, anti-abortion nonsense is part of Cruz’s.

On the other hand, the prospect of the Republican party imploding thanks to a Trump victory is hand-rubbingly enticing, and promises to bring home to roost many of the chickens bred by patrician GOP types like the Bushes when they appealed to racist dogwhistes in previous elections.

On the other hand yet again; is having a true blue user of Bull Connor-evoking  rhetoric one step from the White House a risk we want to incur, even for the sake of seeing the conservative movement in temporary tatters?

And so on and so forth. I wish I could articulate a clear position on how the media should cover Trump, but I remain as flummoxed as my fellow election-watchers. The most important task seems to not be distracted by the mess he’s making with his fellow candidates, and also to not forget just how steeped in racism his entire history as a human being is. As much as he may be willing and able to pivot to centrism during a general election, and as unorthodox as some of his positions are, this is an aspect to his personality that seems unfortunately consistent.