Via the Daily Rushbo, this is a highly plausible argument but my reaction to it is complicated by the fact that I just don’t trust Rush anymore to level with his audience if he spies bad news somewhere for Trump. The guiding principle of his show over the past year has been “Don’t piss off the Trumpers.” There are too many of them among his audience to risk alienating. He can get away with criticizing Trump only if it’s done delicately and slathered with lots of praise and qualifiers. So for instance, during the primaries, Rush took care to say that Ted Cruz was the closest thing to Reagan since Reagan and was the obvious choice for president if you’re into conservatism. Implicit in that is the idea that if you’re a Trumper who’s not so much into conservatism anymore, then hey, that’s cool. Stick with your guy. Don’t piss off the Trumpers.
Realistically, then, Trump would have had to soil himself onstage for Rush to pronounce the debate a setback this morning. If Trump had nailed it, with cogent policy answers and crisp attacks on Hillary for the full 90 minutes, Rush would have declared that he had passed the “presidential test” and proclaimed the election over. (And he might have been right.) If Trump didn’t nail it, Rush was destined to fall back on the usual damage control that Trump is playing a game the political class simply doesn’t understand but The People do, and therefore anything that might seem like a setback isn’t necessarily a setback. The virtue of that logic from the standpoint of not pissing off the Trumpers is that it not only spares Trump from criticism — Rush briefly allows that he missed a few “hanging curveballs” — but it’s mostly unfalsifiable. Unless Trump’s polls completely tank next week, there’ll be no immediate proof that he did himself any damage in the last low-energy hour of the debate. “He’s not of the system” is a way to reassure Trump fans at moments when he seems to have screwed up that there’s simply no way to gauge whether he screwed up or not — even if they secretly think he has. (And some of them do think that.)
Just because Rush has his own reasons for treading lightly around criticism of Trump, though, doesn’t make him wrong. A lot of big media types are going to listen to the clip below, recall how many times they made the stinkface during one of Trump’s primary debates, and then muse that Trump never seemed to suffer in the polls despite showing himself to be the least informed candidate onstage. Anti-Trumpers left, right, and center are roundly spooked at this point that not being prepared on policy really doesn’t seem to matter to voters — or at least, not to Republican voters. Matthew Continetti made the same point Rush did in a debate recap at the Free Beacon last night:
The first minutes of the debate were subdued. But very quickly Donald Trump reverted to form. He interrupted. He heckled. He boasted, exaggerated, delivered his miasma of phrase and verbiage. Many of the things he said were untrue or, as Trump put it, “semi-exact.” But he also struck to the theme of his candidacy: the political system is broken, and only an outsider, proven in the business world, can fix it. Throughout the debate Trump referred to Clinton’s long history on the public stage. He needled her, mocked her, and in some cases—trade most significantly—passionately made the case against the bipartisan consensus that has ruled foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Clinton displayed the qualities that have brought her to this point: detailed knowledge of policy, fluency in speech, polished delivery of canned attack lines (some more effective than others)…
But he has a strategy. He is the outsider against the establishment. It’s the same play he made in the GOP primary. Trump would be the first president not to have held public office or been a general. He turned that fact into an asset because the Republican electorate so detests the status quo…
One must say he has the perfect foil. Hillary Clinton delivered her well-rehearsed lines well. But it is true that she has been in the public eye forever, for longer than some voters have been alive. And that she represents the current power structure at a time—the end of a second presidential term—when the electorate has historically opted for change.
We’ve entered the “Trump zone,” says Continetti, a zone in which a guy whom the public itself views in poll after poll as unqualified for the job might nonetheless be chosen over a candidate who is seen as qualified because she embodies a political establishment they’ve come to despise. That’s not supposed to happen with an office that involves command of nuclear weapons, but here we are. “One thing came through crystal clear last night: Donald Trump showed everybody and reminded many that he is not of the system,” says Rush below, echoing the point. “He is not a Washington insider, and he is not responsible for any of the mess or messes that exist today. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton showed that that is exactly who she is.” That’s what you’d say if you wanted to reassure Trump fans that the last hour of the debate didn’t matter much. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
If you’re a Democrat, the best you can do with all of that is to tell yourself that general-election swing voters are different from Republican primary voters, which is true but not so true as to prevent this race from being a dead heat with less than two months to go. Actually, the best Democrats can do to buoy morale is probably to remind themselves that this is now a “base election” and that Clinton will win if she can get more of her base to the polls than Trump can get of his. Dems seemed please with Hillary’s performance last night; if that helps them get their side ready to vote then it achieved something notwithstanding the unpredictable “Trump zone” effect. Here are two clips of Rush, one of him making the point about the system and then a much longer clip of his entire reaction to the debate. (It’ll be quicker to read the transcript.) In the course of today’s monologue, he also noted in passing that, er, lots of online polls showed Trump winning even though the scientific polls didn’t, which is a sad turn for a smart man who surely understands polling after 30 years of commenting on it. You know the motto, though: Don’t piss off the Trumpers.