You heard it here first: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has officially jumped the shark. Or, if you want to put it in more modern terms, his political campaign has “pulled a Richonne” or “put Cookie in a cage.” No matter how you put it, when Trump loses to Hillary Clinton in the November election, we will all look back at early June as the beginning of the end. We will see it as the moment when Trump slapped on some water skis and slowly but surely sailed into irrelevance.
But the Trump campaign will not fail because this week was his peak in attacking and insulting important political constituent groups, offending media, or even making national tragedies about himself. He will inevitably lose because this is the week when we as Americans began to expect him to say and do something offensive and foolish.
When Trump is no longer shocking or interesting, he ceases to be a real challenge to win the White House.
I have never been part of the chorus of people who found Trump’s rise as the Republican presidential nominee surprising. Last year when he insulted Vietnam veterans, a disabled reporter and most Mexicans, I didn’t think these things would prevent him from winning the nomination. There are lots of Americans who enjoy the kind of puckish South Park racism that Trump espoused last summer.
Besides, his behavior was fresh and new. America had never heard a presidential candidate talk like that. Combine his shock jock rhetoric and unvarnished racism with the ability to earn more free media than a missing plane, and Trump was the hottest thing in 2015 politics. Nobody knew what Trump would say next, and networks couldn’t wait to post his tweets or have him call in live like an ’80s talk show. However, for Trump, as with all insult comics, there is a point at which the shock and novelty wear off. That has pretty much started happening this week.
Since locking up the GOP nomination, Trump has been on a bipartisan tear, attacking every Hispanic public official, woman or former GOP candidate he can think of. These attacks have almost become expected, but what’s new is the responses. Hillary Clinton ethered Trump in a long policy speech, then Elizabeth Warren took the mic and hit Trump with a “Back to Back,” and a few days later Clinton’s “Delete your account” tweet went viral.
Trump’s response to these revved-up attacks? The same old lines, weak sauce, Meek Mill-ish blather, nothing worth writing or talking about. This is the Trump whose one-liners a month ago made Marco Rubio question his manhood. Now? His tweeted responses barely got any news coverage. If Trump claps back on Twitter and no one retweets it, is it still a clapback?
The examples of Trump’s slow shark-jumping decline are even more prominent as the new cycle revs up for the general election. Last February, when he suggested that the Bush family was involved in 9/11, everyone was shocked and the story dominated 24-hours news for a week. When Trump suggested last month that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the story was chewed over on the Sunday talk shows. Today? When Trump suggests that Obama was involved in the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.—there’s barely a shoulder shrug.
Why is this happening? Because we all know what’s coming. We all know that no matter what the event, Trump is going to say something rude, racist, offensive or self-aggrandizing. His terrible behavior hasn’t become normalized, as some pundits feared. He has become something much more dangerous to a presidential campaign: Donald Trump has become … boring.
Oh, you can’t see it entirely now, but it’s happening. Like your favorite TV show that slowly moves from appointment television to DVR’d to “Maybe I’ll binge-watch it some weekend” to finally you just clear it out to make space for Penny Dreadful. Trump knows he’s losing America’s attention, too. Why do you think he’s suddenly switched up his slogan? Twice—in the last 72 hours.
Trump’s greatest strength, what made him a compelling political character, was his ability to shock, surprise and, to a certain extent, entertain the American people. He has been compared to everything from a NASCAR race to a human internet comments section. You tune in and support him because something crazy is going to happen and you don’t want to miss it. But after a while, the shock wears off. Then what do you have left?
He doesn’t really have a second act full of compelling policy. Trump will always have his supporters, but as his antics become more predictable and less shocking, the polls are starting to shift. You can’t put too much stock in individual polls this early in the campaign season, but the trend in polls over the last several weeks shows Trump support petering out, while Clinton’s lead is surging.
The greatest enemy of the carnival barker isn’t that people don’t listen; it’s when they say, “I’ve seen that already.” The greatest enemy of the insult comic isn’t that people don’t laugh at the jokes; it’s when the audience finishes the punch line before the man onstage. Donald Trump has used up his best material, but he’s got no one else to shock, offend or insult, and there are five months of airtime left to fill before the election.
Trump has perhaps one or two more big splashes to garner public attention: when he picks his running mate and when he gives his likely rambling acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. In the meantime, he’ll be Tila Tequila or Ann Coulter or Andrew Dice Clay circa 1997—a desperate blowhard clinging to the hope that he can shock the public into making him relevant to the news cycle again.
When mainstream-media political panels can’t muster up the strength to get offended over Trump’s Orlando comments, you know he’s looking over those shark-infested waters. The only question now is, will the series drag on to a shocking but predictable conclusion this fall, or will it whimper out, mostly forgotten by all but a few diehard fans? The clock is ticking on the Trump campaign, and the viewers are already starting to get bored.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.