by Tom Gogola
In late July I interviewed U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman to get his take on the evolving 2016 presidential race. Huffman, the second-termer from Marin County who represents much of the North Bay, said that based on his read of the politics, he’d be supporting—if not endorsing—Hillary Clinton on the basis that she was the clear front-runner and the obvious eventual nominee.
Huffman credited Bernie Sanders with injecting the race with some bracingly populist rhetoric, but stood his ground on the Hillary eventuality. He now says that he wasn’t endorsing Clinton, merely prognosticating, and says there’s still a probability that she will be the nominee and eventual winner—despite Sanders’ dogged popularity and the distant possibility of a Joe Biden run. “But definitely,” Huffman says, “this could still take some twists.”
Speaking of, and almost as an aside, I asked Huffman in July who he’d like the GOP to nominate and without pause—except for a quick chuckle—Huffman said he was crossing his fingers and hoped Donald Trump got nominated by the opposition party. He noted that someone like Scott Walker was a more likely candidate to emerge from the primary process.
That was then, and this is now. Huffman was one of scores of Democrats who expressed their glee over the Trump run in its early days, when everyone wanted to believe that it couldn’t possibly last.
But since his mid-June announcement that he’d run for president on a revanchist bash-the-immigrant platform, Trump has surged in GOP polling from worst to first among the top contenders, and now owns something like a 30 percent support rating, leaps and bounds above the next also-ran. He’s forced most of the other GOP candidates to swing hard right on immigration.
But Trump’s GOP putsch quickly devolved into outright pugilism: Two men in Boston beat up a Mexican immigrant in Trump’s name in late August. A large and intimidating Trumptard got in Jorge Ramos’ face just the other day and told the Univision anchor to “Get out of my country,” even though Ramos is an American citizen who lives in Florida.
So: How many Mexicans have to get beaten up or otherwise bashed in Donald Trump’s name before Democrats move beyond their glee over the politics, which appear to favor their candidate in 2016?
Huffman gave me a ring earlier this week to talk about it. He says that when we spoke in July, Trump was a “humorous sideshow and a flash in the pan. We thought he’d be gone by now. Now that it’s clear that he’s not going anywhere, we need to re-evaluate. The toxic things that he is saying about immigrants, among other things, are taking root and gaining traction with a significant part of the Republican electorate.”
There’s two elements of that dynamic to consider, Huffman says. One is that “we don’t want our national debate to be cynical and divisive;” the other is that “we are also learning that this stuff was already out there and to some extent maybe it needed to be exposed, and maybe the GOP needed Trump as a sort of reality check so the responsible, thoughtful ones could take [the party] back from the crazies.”
Responsible and thoughtful Republicans, you say? Tell me more! Huffman cites Sen. Lindsey “I’m Quite Possibly Gay” Graham and former New York governor George “Nobody Cares Who I Am Anymore” Pataki, both of whose polling numbers essentially add up to “rounding errors,” but who have distanced themselves from the promised anti-immigrant violence of a Trump presidency.
As for the Trump surge in the polls, “It’s definitely more real and sinister than anyone could have previously thought, so it’s not something you flippantly joke about at this point,” Huffman says. “This is something that may well represent a majority of Republican voters at this point in time.”
I’m not sure that this development is all that surprising. Let’s not forget that Trump tried to hog the presidential spotlight in 2011 and thought he’d be able to gain traction in the 2012 race by jumping in with a two-fisted thrust of birther mongrelism.
People seem to have largely forgotten those televised images of the smug and smirking Trump as he carelessly hurled the reddest of red meat available to a paranoid, racist right that hated Barack Obama from day one and still sees him and his presidency as somehow less than legitimate. Not because he’s black or anything.
That pseudo-campaign was largely viewed as a ratings-boost gimmick by Trump, who then still had his ridiculous reality show on TV. Now he’s back and there’s no TV show to pimp—just some immigrants to pounce on, and Jimmy Fallon to help mainstream his message. On the latter point, Trump is scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show on 9/11, where, if history is any indication, he’ll be treated to a kid-glove interview from resident throne-sniffer Fallon, who never met a tough question he would actually dare ask. Perhaps he might see fit to ask about those undocumented immigrants who reportedly helped build Trump’s hotel empire. For starters.
Huffman says that he offered his quickie thought on Trump 2016 “somewhat tongue-in-cheek,” and that’s fair enough. But there’s no doubt about Democratic glee over Trump. Hell, just go type “Democrat,” “glee” and “Trump” into the Google search engine and you, too, will get millions of results.
It was safe to be gleeful when the mainstream media, already agog at the Trump phenomenon, had baked into the agreed-upon reporting cake the notion that a Trump campaign couldn’t possibly last. Mexicans are rapists? This can’t last. Megyn Kelly’s a bimbo? This can’t last! Enthusiastic endorsements from David Duke and other white supremacists? This can’t last?
Last week Time reported on a GOP focus group that was put together by messaging guru Frank Luntz. The upshot was that Trump has emerged as a Teflon Don whose most extreme positions are exactly what disfranchised Republicans are foaming after in 2016. Luntz told the magazine that he was freaked out at the realization of how far the establishment GOP had strayed from the desires of this most base of bases.
The Democratic Party is not, of course, responsible for the emergence of a Trumptard movement, and Rep. Huffman notes that “whether we are gleeful that Trump is tearing apart the party from within, or alarmed at the way he is activating bigotry and divisiveness, frankly, the way liberal Democrats in California see this is not going to decide the race.”
Huffman still believes that at some point Trump will flame out. The script called for Bernie Sanders to have flamed out by now, too—and yet, like Trump, his crowds get bigger with each passing week.
Now there is talk of a possible Joe Biden entrance in the race. Most of that chatter is premised on a sense of dread over the Entitled One: All this email mishegas will eventually grind Hillary Clinton right out of contention, again.
Yet it was none other than Hillary’s hubby Bill Clinton who may have put the wind in Trump’s presidential sails during a phone call that Clinton and Trump both deny they placed. The Washington Post reported on the conversation from early this year, where Clinton reportedly told his friend that if he did run, he’d really shake up the GOP establishment.
And that’s exactly what has happened. With Clinton’s counsel to Trump, we’ve now come full circle in the louche politics of the mutual American reach-around, where Trump emerges as a rolling “bimbo eruption” in his own right, while Bimbo Boy the Original is no doubt gleeful that Trump jumped into the race—you can practically hear the characteristic Clintonian snicker—since that’s good news for Hillary, or supposedly so.
In any case, Huffman maintains that there’s still a benefit to the Trump campaign insofar as it highlights the following: “There are a lot of racists in the Republican Party in 2015, a lot of bigots and a lot of haters, and I think we’ve allowed this narrative: It’s just the margins. Trump is revealing that it’s not just the margins—the Republican Party fundamentally has a character problem.”