The rationalists in both parties and the nonpartisan public have little time left to sort out Donald Trump and his magic with the lusty crowds that show up for his rallies, hang on his tweets, follow his Fox News gabfests and give him outsized votes in the primaries.
After the Republican convention, it will be too late, for the die will be cast, as Caesar first said on an even more fateful occasion, his crossing the Rubicon in the quest for empire. Even if he's president, Trump is not going to be an emperor, though that is the most popular theme in the hysteria that followed Trump's first primary victories. The great celebrity is supposed to model his campaign after the authoritarian demagogues of the 1930s — Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, and he is often compared to the would-be despots of the left and right who rose in Europe after the war.
Let's at least defend the old showman from that charge, as the Italian journalist Gianni Riotta did this winter in The Atlantic ("I know Fascists; Donald Trump is No Fascist"). OK, so he is insanely popular with the goofy neo-Nazis in the United States, but that doesn't make him one. Yes, he tweeted a famous Mussolini line, but it turned out that he was just retweeting the quote someone else supplied. Not knowing what the hell he was doing is the finer truth to be learned from the incident.
Yes, his first wife, Ivana, said that he kept a book of Hitler speeches in a cabinet by his bedside and often leafed through it. The book, "My New Order," is a collection of Hitler speeches before the invasion of Poland in 1939 in which he told boisterous crowds that he would make Germany great again after its spineless leaders had allowed other nations to trample upon them. Asked about the Hitler book, Trump explained that "my friend Marty Davis from Paramount" gave him a copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," saying, "and he's a Jew."
Davis said, no, the book was "My New Order," not "Mein Kampf," and he merely thought Trump would find Hitler's orations interesting, not as a guide for political propagandizing. "I am his friend," Davis said, "but I'm not Jewish."
That is Trump in a capsule. He is either lying or clueless or both, but he is not Hitler or Mussolini reborn. Could Trump, a less temperate man than George W. Bush or Barack Obama, make a mess of the unprecedented powers to invade civil liberties handed to the president after 9/11? Sure, but that is another story. Who would have guessed that the great civil libertarian Barack Obama would order drone strikes to kill unknown suspects in countries against which we have not declared war or a rebel leader with whom we were once allied, as he did in Pakistan last week?
Trump is an opportunist, but he is no more sinister than that.
All those disaffected Republicans who are appalled that Trump has opposed everything the modern GOP stands for have figured Trump out and are working through the necessary accommodations.
Trump knows he cannot openly surrender on the wall, the immigrant diaspora or the trade wars and still hold his passionate following, but he has sent enough signals that this is all just posturing. After all, Mitt Romney changed his position on every policy question of his time. Good Republicans will take their chances that President Trump won't repudiate the nation's debt or just print more money once his giant tax cuts for the rich send the debt soaring.For Democrats, the task is clear but harder. How do you persuade ordinary frustrated voters, if not the true believers, that you must not trust a habitual liar, however much you may like his rhetoric?
His dissembling extends to everything. Trump boasted that he opposed Bush's Iraq invasion, but he actually supported it until the U.S. got bogged down. He was a blistering critic of the National Rifle Association and an advocate of strong gun controls, although he said this month that he was always an NRA fan and a foe of any gun restraints. Now he goes beyond the fiercest abortion opponent by saying his government will punish every woman who has one, but not long ago he was an ardent defender of women's right to have an abortion — a position he sometimes still telegraphs by defending Planned Parenthood.
How do you know if he will slash rich people's taxes or raise them, wage war in the Middle East or be an isolationist, love Putin or isolate him, wage trade wars or support free trade or, for that matter, praise both Clintons or demonize them, because in every instance he's done both?
Make truth the issue. If facts no longer matter, we're lost anyway.