Is there any way to explain the outrageous and provocative “Skittles” tweet by Donald Trump Jr. yesterday? “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
Was it misspeak? The words of someone unschooled in the art of politics? A campaign messenger going off-message? An overzealous son?
None of the above, in my opinion. This was calculated, planned, and cynical. And it wasn’t the first time that Trump Jr. has taken on the assignment of saying something that goes beyond the pale of human decency and the boundaries of the permissible in politics.
That it triggered an avalanche of media criticism around the country and world was no surprise to the ringleaders of Trump’s campaign. They assumed it would. But they also assumed that it would be music to the ears of many of Trump’s most loyal supporters.
In the remaining weeks of the election, we will hear and see more of this from Trump’s surrogates. They will — with rightwing talk radio and Fox News giving loud amplification — throw out rhetorical red meat to the meanest and most backward of Trump’s supporters. Meanwhile, Trump himself will strike a different posture and tone down his inflammatory side.
It is hoped in Trump’s camp that this division of labor will serve two purposes going into the home stretch.
One is to make Trump sound presidential, and thus electable. There are, after all, lots of voters, including Trump supporters, Trump-leaning voters, and undecideds, who wonder if he has the necessary temperament and experience to sit in the Oval Office. The other purpose — and it is here where the over-the-top rhetoric of his appointed firebrands comes into play — is to keep his most zealous and backward supporters in the game and revved up, while Trump himself pivots towards the mainstream of U.S. politics.
Whether such a strategy, resting on deception, duplicity, and demagoguery, will work is another matter. My guess is that it won’t. And I would be willing to stake an evening at a bar of your or my choice on it.
First, undoing the widespread perception that Donald Trump is a loose and dangerous cannon is easier said than done. Once a negative image becomes embedded in popular consciousness, it is difficult to dislodge. Especially if it’s the candidate’s own doing, as is the case with Trump. Out of his mouth has come a steady stream of hate, threats, taunts, insults, lies, and outlandish proposals. While it got him the nomination of the Republican Party and normalized to a degree racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and other forms of hate and division, it also fixed in the minds of millions that Trump is unstable, divisive, and dangerous — a powder keg who, if elected president, could erupt to calamitous effect. Shit sometimes sticks, and in this case, it won’t easily wash away.
Second, it isn’t easy for megalomaniacs, like Trump, to stay on message. His overweening sense of self and contempt for people, and especially for people of color, immigrants, and women gets in his way. Every time his enablers assure the public and Republican Party leaders that he is going to clean up his act, he goes wilding.
Third, the biggest social constituencies — labor, communities of color, and women, and many others — that educate and mobilize voters will not be fooled by the efforts to sanitize Trump. From the moment he announced his candidacy, this coalition understood that Trump was a real danger to everything that they hold sacred, and his end-game verbal gymnastics won’t change that.
Of course, it will still be a dog fight. But I strongly believe that despite many obstacles — the Republican Party’s painting of Hillary as dishonest and unlikable, the innumerable ways that sexism has burrowed into people’s thinking, and the inability of some who should know better to appreciate the larger dynamics of the moment — she and the people’s coalition that supports her will make history on November 8 and set the stage to move to higher ground.