If an establishment Republican said something like this about his high-school experience, particularly after having obtained four separate deferments from the draft during Vietnam, bloggers would have a three-day binge of easy content to feast on with readers cheering the whole way. (A week if it was Boehner or McConnell.) Because it’s Trump, it’s a two-hour story with half the comments destined to run along the lines of, “He was just describing his feelings” or “High-school marching drills are closer to the military than Jeb Bush ever got.” Reminds me of what Leon Wolf wrote a few weeks back about how Trump’s public remarks are like fighter jets expelling “chaff” to try to confuse the enemy’s heat-seeking missiles. There’s so much bright shiny nonsense already out there in the sky to hone in on, including previous belittlement of others’ military service, that you can’t spend too much time on any one part of it.
Besides, in its own strange way, Trump’s willingness to say stuff like this does a service to the party.
He arrived at the military academy — where tuition now reaches $31,000 a year — for eighth grade in 1959 and remained for high school. Like all students at the Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., campus, he wore a uniform, participated in marching drills and was expected to conform to a hierarchy imposed by instructors, some of whom had served in the military.
Despite sitting out Vietnam because of deferments followed by a high draft lottery number of 356 out of 366, Mr. Trump said that he endured the rigors of real military life.
“My number was so incredible and it was a very high draft number. Anyway so I never had to do that, but I felt that I was in the military in the true sense because I dealt with those people,” he told Mr. D’Antonio.
The author seemed taken aback by this claim. Not many of the academy’s alumni “would compare military school with actual military service,” he wrote. “But the assertion was consistent with the self-image Trump often expressed.”
One Trump fan in the Headlines thread for this story claimed that what he said about being in the military is really no different really from someone saying “The mall was a war zone this afternoon,” which isn’t remotely true — Trump’s not speaking figuratively in the excerpt — but gives you a sense of the any-weapon-to-hand desperation with which he’ll be defended. Anyway, how is this good for the party? Well, first have a look at the most interesting result from that YouGov poll over the weekend showing Trump leading second-place Ben Carson by 25 points.
Thirty-six percent of Republicans are backing him for president — but nearly twice that many think his candidacy’s been good for the GOP rather than bad. I’m in that latter group. Trump’s candidacy might end up being bad for the party if Latinos start holding the rest of the field responsible for his “Mexican rapists” etc rhetoric, but there’s no evidence yet that they have. In the meantime, he’s put GOP leaders on notice that they’d better not dare make a terrible deal with Democrats on amnesty anytime soon. He’s also demonstrated to the donor class in an earth-shaking way that their personal policy bugaboos, like keeping taxes on the rich low, aren’t necessarily shared by the GOP’s blue-collar base. If Trump forces the party to reorient itself more towards the average joe and away from the business class, he’ll have done good work. Trump’s personal style on the stump, emphasizing candor to the point of stream-of-consciousness, is also good for Republicans in showing them there’s a market for less-scripted, mechanical pols.
But there’s one other important way Trumpmania is useful, and it’s gotten overlooked in the attention to all of the other benefits I just listed: Trump has clarified how many of the outrages that sweep conservative media from day to day are based on true outrage and how many are purely opportunistic, seized on only because they’re useful in making a disfavored figure squirm. Whether it’s a major gaffe to demean the hardships experienced by soldiers by comparing them to your rich-kid teenaged years at boarding school depends almost entirely on how establishment or populist you are, not on whether the comments themselves are offensive. If Jeb Bush had said this? Firestorm. If Scott Walker had said it? Big trouble, although more of the “why can’t Walker get it together?” variety than the “this guy has utterly belittled America’s finest” sort, and that’s purely because Walker is still well liked on the right. If Ted Cruz had said it? Actually, it’s hard to imagine a speaker who chooses his words as carefully as Cruz saying something this absurd, but Cruz would be largely absolved just as Trump will be because he’s an outspoken populist. He’s useful to the grassroots, therefore he gets a pass. The whole “outrage” game is being exposed as a fraud by Trump, a guy who’s already committed — and been absolved of — more conservative heresies than a much-loathed RINO like Mitt Romney could commit in two lifetimes. That’s good for the movement too. American politics, especially as practiced on the Internet, needs a higher tolerance for outrages. Maybe Trump will help generate that.