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Blutarsky for President: A Vulgarian at the Gate
- By RICHARD STEIER
'THE JERK YOU WENT TO COLLEGE WITH': Donald Trump's creeping ever closer to the Republican nomination for President has confounded political pros including former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer (center) and consultant Maureen Connelly, although both think it's still likely his run will be halted in the general election if no new problems befall Hillary Clinton. 'He's the jerk you went to college with but he's not that harmless,' Mr. Ferrer said, while Ms. Connelly asserted the developer had rallied GOP voters to his camp
by 'appealing to their hatreds and fears and not their aspirations.'
At the end of "Animal House," the boisterous, lecherous college student played by John Belushi is dressed as a pirate in a car with the object of his lust when a "Where are they now" caption appears onscreen proclaiming them "Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky."
Laughter rippled through movie theaters in the summer of 1978 at that point in this slightly racist, more-than-slightly sexist but generally hilarious film, in part because not long before that large, unsightly middle-aged Members of Congress like Wayne Hays and Wilbur Mills were exposed as having affairs with women they prized for something besides their intellects. And so it seemed entirely plausible that "Bluto" Blutarsky could wind up among those distinguished gentlemen.
We have now reached the point in real life when a more-than-slightly sexist and racist but far-less-endearing version of "Senator Blutarsky" stands on the verge of capturing his party's nomination for President. "Animal House" has justifiably been blamed for spawning a series of grosser but less-clever movies of the same genre, but it is probably unfair to say that it is responsible for dumbing-down the culture so much that it enabled Donald Trump's march to this point.
Don't Know Much About History
While it's true that the heavy favorite for the Republican nomination following his successes in the Super Tuesday primaries shares the Belushi character's shaky grasp of history ("Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"), in other respects Mr. Trump seems like even more of a caricature.
"Never saw anything like this," former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer said of the Trump phenomenon the day after Sideshow Don's successes in primaries from the Deep South to Massachusetts left him in position to put a hammerlock on the Republican nomination if he could knock off favorite sons Marco Rubio in the Florida primary and John Kasich in Ohio March 15.
"But," he continued, "he's the jerk you went to college with but he's not that harmless. The racist, bigoted, misogynist stuff that comes out of his mouth, you pay a price for."
Except that this hasn't happened yet. Mr. Ferrer's surmise as to how Mr. Trump has done so well to this point is, "He speaks for a very angry and alienated part of the Republican Party. He's getting those votes from somewhere."
It's not a warm place, he continued. "There are people who obviously believe what he's saying. It's just the next generation of stuff we've been hearing virtually from the time that Obama became President. The hatred for him is so virulent, [and] much of what Trump has been saying is largely race-based."
Based on his "brief dealings" in the past with the developer, "He's no dope. He's not insane. So he's obviously a pretty cynical guy. I think it fits into his personal world-view."
Mr. Ferrer was among those astonished by the lack of damage done to Mr. Trump by his refusal on the Sunday morning talk shows just before Super Tuesday to renounce the near endorsement he had gotten from former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, and his later claim that he hadn't been more responsive on the issue during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper because he listened to the question through "a bad ear-piece."
GOP's Down-Low Road
For decades GOP candidates for President have used the race card openly or on the down-low, from Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" to Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 general-election campaign in the Mississippi county where three civil-rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier to Lee Atwater's Willie Horton ads that helped George Bush the Elder defeat Michael Dukakis. Mr. Trump, while directing his venom against Mexicans and Muslims, has gone a step further, using a bullhorn rather than a dog whistle, to the point where he has brought people from Mr. Duke to neo-Nazi and other white-supremacist groups out of the shadows to sing his praises publicly, urging their followers to vote for him so that they can seize the moment.
His campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," once would have stirred resentment in those who would have taken it as a smack at the country. Today, those people rally behind it from their belief that Mr. Obama has caused a national decline, rather than doing what he could amid Republican obstructionism throughout his seven-plus years in office to restore equilibrium after George W. Bush's bad decisions destabilized the Middle East and created a national economic crisis.
"He is appealing to their hatreds and fears and not their aspirations," political consultant Maureen Connelly, who played key roles in electing both Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg as Mayor, said in trying to explain what has propelled Mr. Trump. "He's not burdened by the truth or consistency."
But his continued success, she said, would damage the Republican Party and, if Mr. Trump won the general election, "it would also be damaging to the country."
Not Exactly Presidential
He has failed to display, she explained, "the temperament, the intelligence, the experience so far to be a serious candidate." And while Mr. Trump and his most-prominent supporter, Chris Christie, have mocked Senator Rubio as sounding robotic and scripted in some of his answers during the GOP debates, Ms. Connelly said it was Mr. Trump who had assiduously avoided laying out in specific detail how he would solve the problems he has identified.
"He's programmed to say, 'I'll make it great,' or 'huge' or 'I'm gonna build a wall,'" she said. "He has defied all expectations, and that is because no one believed voters would take him seriously."
But a sizable chunk of Republican-primary voters have, saying they appreciate him for "telling it like it is" or because his business accomplishments inspire confidence.
If his record and past statements were examined carefully, those perceptions of Mr. Trump would crumble. He changes positions by the day and lies about past stances, most notably with his claim that he was opposed to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq before it occurred. Mr. Ferrer described him as "a guy who has no obvious relationship with reality."
Mr. Trump also seems determined to keep his followers from getting too well-acquainted with the facts about his finances. His refusal to release his tax returns even as his opponents have done so has prompted speculation about what he is hiding, and whether it has to do with not being as wealthy as he claims to be--something Forbes Magazine previously stated to be the case, putting his net worth at about one-quarter of the $10-billion figure he has used--or there being something else equally damaging within those documents.
The Art of the Con
His four business bankruptcies would seem to undercut Mr. Trump's claims of being a brilliant entrepreneur. Combined with his now-defunct Trump University to teach people how to make millions in the real-estate industry, they suggest his real gift as a salesman--besides marketing himself--is in getting the gullible to buy hyperbole in bulk. But it was only during the past couple of weeks of the campaign that Mr. Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz made an issue of those failures both during the debates and on the stump, with "con man" now the stock description of Mr. Trump used by Mr. Rubio and his surrogates.
Mr. Trump's standard response when annoying facts are tossed in his path is to deny them while challenging the character of those making the accusations and reminding people how much more popular he is than them. Those are the tactics of a sixth-grade bully, and they still work to some degree for this aging man-child.
Mitt Romney March 3 held a press conference in which he urged fellow Republicans to head off Mr. Trump's march to the nomination, calling him unfit to be President. "He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants, he calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists," Mr. Romney said. "He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss."
Rather than rebutting any of those statements, Mr. Trump responded by saying that when he endorsed Mr. Romney for President in 2012, "I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees'--he would have dropped to his knees."
Impugns Trump U.
Perhaps the hardest blow Mr. Romney delivered came as he ran through his old supporter's failed business ventures and the fraud that helped launch some of them. "His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University," he said.
Mr. Rubio also looked to highlight this enterprise--which is the subject of an ongoing class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of 5,000 people who enrolled with the belief that it was the key to making their fortune selling real-estate--during the Fox News debate that evening. He said, "He's trying to do to the American people what he did to the people who signed up for this course."
Rather than address the lawsuit's charges, Mr. Trump responded by talking about the Florida Senator's frequent absences from Congress and the large lead he held in the polls over him. After he claimed that the university had gotten an A rating from the Better Business Bureau, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said that actually the last rating the BBB had given was a D-minus in 2010.
Earlier in the debate, fellow moderator Chris Wallace pointed out that while Mr. Trump had claimed he would save $300 billion in Medicare costs by negotiating on drug prices with pharmaceutical providers, that is nearly four times Medicare's actual budget.
Two developments that day created some stir during the debate. A letter signed by dozens of conservatives with a background in national security--including former Bush Administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff-- questioned his fitness for office while expressing concern that "he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world." And North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un directed his military to have nuclear warheads deployed so that they would be ready to fire.
A Sly Dig at Trump?
Mr. Cruz told the debate audience, "When you have a lunatic with nuclear weapons, to some extent it constrains your options." The remark was funny on two counts: his own previous threat to "carpet-bomb" ISIS, and the suspicion that he was slyly referring to Mr. Trump as well as the hot-tempered North Korean strongman.
John Oliver devoted his Feb. 28 HBO show to a close examination of other failed enterprises the Donald once promoted, from the Trump Shuttle to Trump Vodka and steaks bearing his name. He formed the Trump Mortgage Company in 2006, Mr. Oliver said, just before the bottom fell out of the housing market.
A fact-checking group found that 76 percent of Mr. Trump's campaign statements had been "demonstrably false," Mr. Oliver noted, adding, "I'm not even sure he knows he's lying. I think he just doesn't care what the truth is."
In 2000, he pointed out, after deciding against a run for President then, Mr. Trump described Mr. Duke as "a bigot, a racist," words that he seems to have put in storage now that the voters guided by the unreconstructed grand wizard could actually do him some good.
It's not that the other main Republican contenders are noticeably better, Mr. Ferrer said. "Cruz is just nuts. And Rubio--on abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration--if it's serious and important, then he'll scare the hell out of you."
Mr. Trump has countered criticism aimed at him by the Texas Senator by pointing out the lack of support for Mr. Cruz among his colleagues, with even fellow GOPers regarding him as a destructive force who pointlessly led a two-week shutdown of the Federal Government in 2013 in a doomed attempt to have President Obama's health-care law repealed. Mr. Cruz has attempted to portray Mr. Trump as a closet liberal for his past praise of Hillary Clinton and his failure to toe the hard-right line on matters like abortion, same-sex marriage and Social Security and Medicare.
But Ms. Connelly said that any notion that Mr. Trump's flexibility might allow him to get both parties to work together in the nation's best interests if he were elected was upended by the bellicosity with which he has conducted his campaign. She noted that besides demeaning and insulting his opponents, he last week threatened House Speaker Paul Ryan for implicitly criticizing his failure to disassociate himself from Mr. Duke and other white supremacists who have praised him as a kind of white men's champion. Not mentioning him by name, Mr. Ryan had said that anyone wanting to be the GOP standard-bearer "must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people's prejudices."
Get Along or 'Pay Price'
That claim is debatable based on past history, but that wasn't what prompted Mr. Trump to lash out in response. "Paul Ryan, I'm sure I'm going to get along great with him," he said. "And if I don't, he's going to have to pay a big price, okay?"
Sure, Ms. Connelly said, "He will end the gridlock in Washington. Yes--the Republicans and Democrats will unify against him--that's the secret strategy."
It appears likely that the candidate's more-outrageous positions will lead some Republican voters to stay home if he's the nominee, or even do the unthinkable and vote for Ms. Clinton, who widened her lead against Bernie Sanders by winning the more-delegate-rich Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday and is increasingly looking like she will capture her party's nomination without a life-and-death struggle.
Among GOP Members of Congress, a vote for Hillary isn't an option, but Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said that rather than back Mr. Trump if he became the Republican nominee, he would try to persuade a true conservative, "a constitutionalist," to mount a decidedly long-shot bid.
Will Bloomberg Jump In?
The emerging likelihood of a Trump/Clinton race would seem to dampen the chances that Michael Bloomberg--whose aides previously indicated he would get into the race if the Democratic nominee was Mr. Sanders and either Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz was the GOP candidate--would decide within the next couple of weeks to throw his bankroll into the ring.
One longtime acquaintance thinks the former Mayor may run regardless, citing two pieces of math: Mr. Bloomberg is 74 years old, and he could spend a billion dollars on the race and still have $39 billion left to tide him over through his golden years.
Mr. Ferrer scoffed at that rationale, saying that while he thought that "it must be driving Bloomberg nuts" that it was another billionaire who was extending his brand so audaciously, he believed his 2005 mayoral opponent understood the bigger stakes on the table. "If he wants to be responsible for the election of Donald Trump, be my guest," he said.
Ms. Connelly shared that appraisal, saying that Mr. Bloomberg if he ran "would damage Hillary," siphoning far more voters from her than from Mr. Trump.
Then again, when she was advising Mr. Bloomberg on a possible run for Mayor 15 years ago, until he actually declared, "I was positive he wasn't going to run."
No Cakewalk for Hillary
But she didn't rule out the possibility that Mr. Trump could win a head-to-head match-up with Ms. Clinton, who she believes is far-better qualified to be President but still has flaws as a candidate, carries significant baggage on the issue of trust, and could fall victim to "Clinton fatigue" among the voters. And, Ms. Connelly noted, Mr. Trump has been able to confound the political wisdom so far.
Then again, she said, even if Mr. Trump continues to dominate in the primaries, there is a slim possibility of an attempt to deny him the nomination at the Republican convention this summer if he hasn't locked up all 1,237 delegates needed to claim the prize. "Voters are only bound on the first ballots," Ms. Connelly noted. "After that, it's a jump ball."
Mr. Ferrer said he was also among those who believe a Trump nomination could result in a Clinton landslide but might also bring her a crushing defeat. But, he added, "My head tells me that the majority of Americans aren't crazy or stupid, and so Hillary becomes President."
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