“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That was the response of Larry Sabato, my mentor and old professor from the University of Virginia, when I asked him during a radio interview to put the last week of the 2016 presidential campaign in context. Sabato has been writing about American campaign politics since the 1970s; there is little or nothing he hasn’t seen, heard of or directly experienced when it comes to American elections. Yet even he was dumbfounded to think of another week in presidential campaign history when a candidate shot himself in the foot and mouth and threw himself under his own bus as badly as Donald Trump has in the last seven days.
Democrats are thrilled to see Trump implode so soon after the Democratic National Convention, but it’s actually not such a good thing for Americans as a whole. Trump’s gobbling up the news with his sheer lunacy means that Hillary Clinton’s own weaknesses barely get covered at all. Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of fallen soldier Humayun Khan, have been one of the single dumbest and most self-defeating things a candidate has ever done while running for president. Usually it's opposition research that sinks nominees. Mitt Romney got taped insulting the 47 percent, John Kerry got “swift-boated” and Sarah Palin got … interviewed.
By the time candidates have gone through a primary, they usually have enough discipline and common sense not to sabotage their own chances. Clearly, no one in the Trump campaign realized that lobbing a racist Twitter attack against a Gold Star military family was a horrible idea. It’s almost as if the Clinton campaign hired an FBI profiler to come up with the perfect speaker to bait Trump into saying something stupid. Forget a tweet—an American Muslim family questioning Trump’s sacrifices and knowledge of the Constitution? Trump jumped at that bait like a toupeed catfish. The fact that the Khans are warm, sincere people with a family backstory that would win awards at the Sundance Film Festival only makes Trump’s behavior all the more horrific.
However, attacking the family of a military hero wasn’t enough for Donald Trump. He had to dig deep and do worse. Earlier this week—in a move straight out of a Will Ferrell movie—Trump kicked a baby out of a campaign rally. A baby … seriously. He had a baby thrown out of a campaign event. Let that marinate for a minute.
Then the GOP nominee refused to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as well as former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who are in tight primary races. Big-time GOP donor and former candidate for governor of California Meg Whitman just announced that she will be fundraising for Hillary Clinton this fall and called Trump a “demagogue.” The vice presidential picks that Trump left at the altar are coming for him publicly. As for his actual VP pick, Mike Pence is contradicting Trump right and left in moves that can only be interpreted as laying the groundwork for a 2020 run. It’s one thing for morale to be low, but there are various reports that the Trump campaign staff is “frustrated,” “phoning it in” and “suicidal.”
This has all occurred in the last seven days, which might explain why Hillary Clinton has had one of the biggest postconvention bounces of any candidate in the last 20 years, and why she is suddenly competitive in blood-red states like Utah and Arizona. Meanwhile, Clinton’s lying about her emails during a Fox interview on Sunday, her continued struggle with Bernie Sanders supporters and still historically low approval ratings are wiped off the news crawl. Thanks to Trump’s repeated steps into avoidable potholes, Clinton is slowly but surely surviving her own campaign challenges unscathed.
It’s a good thing we have photographic evidence of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump being in the same room at the same time. Otherwise you could really convince me that after a blowout electoral loss on Nov. 8, "Trump" will walk onstage and pull off a rubber Scooby-Doo-type mask to reveal that it was really Bill Clinton all along, acting like the dumbest candidate in the world, just to guarantee that Hillary Clinton got into the White House. The real Donald Trump is somewhere tied up in a Brooklyn, N.Y., basement, guarded 24-7 by Clinton surrogates, wondering why he’s allowed food and drink but no access to Twitter.
That's more believable than the idea that out of all of their options, Republicans nominated a Gold Star-family-attacking, non-party-endorsing, baby-kicker-outer to face off against an ethically challenged policy wonk who barely connects to her own party’s base.
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.