Donald Trump's presidential campaign has been so openly racist, nationalist, sexist, and Islamophobic, so absent the customary dog whistles that certain politicians use to temper their vile messages, that the only thing surprising about Hillary Clinton's dead-on accurate statement that many of his supporters belong in a "basket of deplorables" is that it took her so long. But it is Trump's love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin that has taken this campaign the rest of the way through the looking glass.
Putin is a monster, plain and simple, and not coincidentally like Trump also is comfortable in his hatreds. But in the last few days of what can be appropriately labeled the Looking Glass Campaign, this inconvenient truth has fallen by the wayside like a used condom as an increasing number of Republicans -- desperate to recapture the White House even if it means ceding it to a sociopath who would gravely endanger national security -- have bucked up and hunkered down.
The only vaguely comparable example is Sarah Palin in 2008, and there is a large helping of irony slathered on this particular excrement sandwich. This is because the emergence of the former half-term governor from Alaska onto the national stage, who like Trump was utterly unqualified to be in the same room with the nuclear football, and the arm's length embrace of her by diehard Republicans desperate to keep their Oval Office hegemony intact greased the skids for the nomination of the Cheeto Jesus eight years later.
So the bar already was pretty low. But that only begins to explain why Trump's repeated declarations that Putin is a stronger leader than President Obama gives Republicans an opening to rationalize rather than condemn the henchman of the former Soviet Union, who deals with his opponents by having them assassinated and is a mere stone's throw from Trump suggesting that his gun-hugging supporters shoot Clinton is she is elected.
There has been little discernible backlash to the Trump-Putin bromance. That ready-to-pounce-on-cue backlash apparently was being reserved for Clinton's truth-telling remark about "deplorables," and so what should be viewed as an outrage -- a cozy relationship between an American psycho and a Russian authoritarian -- is now being rationalized as smart politics because, Republicans say with astonishing panache, Trump's feeding of Putin's equally monstrous ego could pay dividends when he becomes president.
Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host whose comfort zone extends well into the darkest corners on the far side of the looking glass, spoke for too many Republicans when he said the other day that Putin is "an evil man" who . . . (and you know there was going to be a qualifier) . . . had nonetheless "served his country's national interest better" than has Obama.
I'll spare you the Mao and Hitler analogies, let alone that it was a mere four years ago that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared Russia to be the U.S.'s "number one geopolitical foe" and called Putin a thug to glowing press accounts and wide approval. After all, abnormal is the new normal and Republicans are desperate for anything that will help them rationalize Trump.
And so on our way through the looking glass, we have role reversals right, left and center, including conservative Fox News mouthpiece Sean Hannity rolling out the red carpet for left-wing Putin pal Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame because he might have the goods on Clinton and the progressive The Nation defending Trump against the "neo-McCarthyism" of liberals like myself. And perhaps you, as well.
Max Boot, a reliably conservative foreign policy analyst and former Romney national security advisor, is aghast, saying that "there's no precedent for what Trump is saying."
"George McGovern was not running around saying, 'What a wonderful guy Ho Chi Minh is!' " Boot said. "It has never been the view of one of the leaders of our two dominant parties that an anti-American foreign leader was preferable to our president."
Trump's embrace of Putin, his bring-it-on endorsement of Russian intelligence hacking of U.S. government and Democratic computer servers and refusal to address his longstanding business ties with the former Soviet Union are uncomfortable reminders of what even the most slavishly pro-Trump Republican leaders will not dare utter: their nominee is out of control.
Of all the damage Trump can do to the conservative movement, "making it pro-Putin rather than pro-freedom could be the most serious," bemoaned Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and Trump foe last Friday morning. As if on cue, several hours later National Policy Institute head Richard Spencer, in introducing "alt right" white nationalist organization leaders to reporters at a Washington news conference, declared that Russia is "the sole white power in the world" and Americans need to embrace the way Putin defends his country's interests.
(Meanwhile, in pondering imponderables, how is it that the Louisiana Republican State Committee can condemn former KKK Wizard David Duke as "a hate-filled fraud" but Trump gets a pass from the Republican National Committee?)
Clinton's "deplorables" remark is being viewed by many pundits as a gaffe on par with Romney's "47 percent" comment. Candidates are, as a rule, better off when they attack campaigns and not supporters, but while Clinton may have overgeneralized, she has done all of us a ginormous favor. And guess what? None of the Trumpkins pushing back against the remark have tried to defend his supporters as not being hate filled, while the racial animus of many of them has been copiously documented. Besides which, Romney dismissed the importance of poor people with his "47 percent" remark while Clinton dismissed bigots.
As "gaffes" go, Trump is the hands-down champion, of course, be it his characterization of Mexicans, of Muslims, of former POW John McCain, of a federal judge, of a Gold Star family, of the generals advising the president, or his refusal to back down from his birther claims despite assertions by his surrogates that he now accepts that Obama was born in the U.S.
The "basket of deplorables" part of Clinton's remarks have been endlessly sound bited (sound bitten?), but she actually mentioned a second basket, as well.
What she said next has been overlooked although it is far more pertinent: That her supporters should not automatically dismiss Trump's supporters as irredeemable. That they are worthy of empathy and understanding. "But that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're desperate for change."
In the meantime, there is no question that the reporters covering Trump know a big part of what makes him attractive is that he is a flaming bigot, but they are too chicken to say so. There also is no question that Clinton will be president-elect when we come out of the other side of the looking glass, as battered as we may be, as well as much diminished as a people and a nation for the experience.
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.
© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN.