News analysis: US Elections 2016

Trump lowers bar for election campaigns

Critics fear future candidates may think they can get away with lying and making racist remarks

WASHINGTON • When Mr Donald Trump descended on the capital last Friday, he was expected to finally concede that the racially tinged falsehood he had propagated, that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States, had in fact been a lie. But before he got around to what was a grudging admission, which itself included a falsehood about the provenance of birtherism, he had some business to tend to.

"Nice hotel," said the Republican nominee for president, delighting in his newest property and the opportunity to plug it for free on live television. He was holding his news conference at his new hotel in the Old Post Office building in Pennsylvania Avenue, which, he promised, is "going to be something very special". He seemed untroubled in using an ostensible campaign event just a few blocks from the White House to promote his commercial interests 52 days before the election.

In fact, this past week offered a vivid illustration of how little regard Mr Trump has for the long-held expectations of America's leaders. He is not only breaking the country's political traditions, he and his campaign aides are now all but mocking them. Besides using his campaign as a platform to make money on a new hotel, Mr Trump levelled an untrue assertion that Mrs Hillary Clinton had been the first to claim Mr Obama was born abroad. He also boasted about his health on television while releasing just his testosterone levels and a few other details about his well-being.

Mr Trump also continued to flout 40 years of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, a decision that his eldest son admitted last week was not based on an audit, as Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed, but on a desire not to "distract" from the campaign's "main message".

Beyond his handling of personal information, he casually accused the chairman of the Federal Reserve of corruption, claimed that the bipartisan national debate commission was rigged against him, and stated that Mrs Clinton had not proposed a childcare plan. (She has, and did so a year before he did.) He also mocked an African-American pastor who had just welcomed him to her church, and referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who once said she had Native American roots, as "Pocahontas". And that was all before Friday night, when Mr Trump hinted at violence against Mrs Clinton by inviting her Secret Service detail to disarm "and see what happens to her".

Routine falsehoods, unfounded claims and inflammatory language have long been staples of Mr Trump's anything-goes campaign. But as the polls tighten and November nears, his behaviour, and the implications for the country should he become president, are alarming veteran political observers - and leaving them deeply worried about the precedent being set, regardless of who wins the White House.

Mr Trump arriving in Colorado for a campaign rally on Saturday. Routine falsehoods, unfounded claims and inflammatory language have long been staples of his anything-goes campaign.
Mr Trump arriving in Colorado for a campaign rally on Saturday. Routine falsehoods, unfounded claims and inflammatory language have long been staples of his anything-goes campaign. PHOTO: REUTERS

"Our politics, because of him, is descending to the level of a Third World country. There's just nothing beneath him. And I don't know why we would think he would change if he became President," said Mr Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman.

Mr Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, could not even contemplate the prospect of Mr Trump as commander-in-chief.

"He's the most profoundly ignorant man I've ever seen at this level in terms of understanding the American presidency," Mr Hess said. "And, even more troubling, he makes no effort to learn anything."

Mr Trump's advocates insist that the critics are missing the larger impact of his candidacy and how his campaign and presidency could be a force for good. As a New York Times-CBS poll released recently indicated, voters see him as more likely to aggressively confront what they see as a rotten political system, even if they recognise Mr Trump as a risky choice.

"He will in some clumsy way force real change," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is an adviser to Mr Trump. "Washington won't be the same when he's done."

But that is what is so worrisome to many observers of Mr Trump's rise. His critics fear that his norm-breaking campaign portends a political future in which candidates pay no penalty for telling untruths, disregarding the public's right to know, and lobbing racially charged accusations.

"I worry that if those of us in politics and the media don't do a lot of soul-searching after this election, a slightly smarter Trump will succeed in the future," said Mr Jon Favreau, Mr Obama's former chief speechwriter.

"For some politicians and consultants, the takeaway from this election will be that they can get away with almost anything."

The only salvation this year, argue Mr Trump's detractors, is that he is a singular figure in US life, and his would-be successors will not be able to skirt accountability in the fashion of the celebrity provocateur. But while there may not be another Trump, he does seem to have thrust the country into a new era.

"Trump is reflecting a culture that is more crass, more accepting of vulgarity and more attuned to pop culture," said Mr Matt Lewis, a conservative writer. "The bar has been lowered where going on Dr Oz is perfectly acceptable and maybe even cutting-edge."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Trump lowers bar for election campaigns'. Print Edition | Subscribe