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SAN PEDRO, Calif. — It had all the makings of A Moment.
On the eve of the second Republican presidential debate, set to take place Wednesday at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., GOP frontrunner Donald Trump boarded the mighty USS Iowa battleship in the Port of Los Angeles to deliver what his campaign billed as a “major national security speech.”
Directly behind Trump, tilted upward toward the pinkish Southern California sky, stood a trio of 66-foot-long Mark 7 naval guns. Directly to Trump’s right, across the main channel of the Port of Los Angeles, stood four 300-foot-tall shipping cranes.
Finally the time had come for Trump to “unveil,” as CNN put it earlier that day, “his foreign policy vision” — his “major” plans for trade and for the military. To show that he can distinguish between Iran’s Quds forces and the Kurdish people, which he failed to do in a recent interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. To demonstrate that he cares about the differences between Hezbollah and Hamas. To prove that he is prepared for the debate, at which Hewitt, who is one of the moderators, will likely ask him more questions about international affairs. To prove that he is prepared for the presidency.
Instead, Trump improvised for 13 minutes, and most of what he said sounded like this:
“We are going to make our country so great. We are going to make it strong. We are going to make it powerful.“
Ever since the tinsel-haired Manhattan real-estate mogul ascended to the top of the GOP polls earlier this summer, pundits have insisted that some sort of spectacular gaffe would incinerate him. First it was calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” Then it was dismissing John McCain’s military service. Then it was saying Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Most recently it was insulting Carly Fiorina’s face.
And yet each time, Trump’s numbers haven’t just held steady. They’ve climbed.
Trump probably won’t wind up winning the White House, or even the Republican nomination. As Jonathan Chait recently put it, “You can get rich being loved by a quarter of the country and hated by the rest. You can’t get elected president that way.”
But maybe the pundits are wrong about the nature of his demise. As I listened to the Donald speak aboard the USS Iowa, and as I talked to his fans, I began to realize that when he finally meets his inevitable end, he may not go out with a bang.
He’ll go out with a whimper.
Why? Because Trump’s greatest strength as a candidate is also his greatest weakness.
Donald Trump delivers what his campaign calls a “major national security speech” aboard the battleship USS Iowa in San Pedro, Calif. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Before the battleship event, I walked up and down the long line of ticket holders— an estimated 800 supporters paid as much as $1,000 to behold the candidate in the flesh — and asked a simple question: What do you like most about Trump? Everybody gave me the same answer. Each person phrased it differently, but it all basically boiled down to one thing — the single characteristic, more than wealth, fame or narcissism, that best defines the Donald.
Trump disrespects politics. He disrespects the process. He disrespects the rhetoric. He disrespects his fellow candidates. And his fans love that, because they really, really disrespect politics, too.
“It’s his frankness,” said Mark Gutierrez, a Marine Corp veteran and retired L.A. Water and Power employee. “He’s not worried about being politically correct. He’s just going to tell it like it is. The things that people are feeling, he’s saying.”
His wife, Darlene, nodded. “There’s too much political correctness,” she told me. “People are tired of listening to all these meek and regular promises that the candidates make every four years. Trump just says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’”
Further back in the line, a clothing designer named Gina Calabrase echoed what the Gutierrezes were saying. “Instead of being wishy-washy, Trump makes decisions,” Calabrase explained. “He’s saying things that a lot of people aren’t going to like. Usually, a politician would back off in that case. But Trump sticks to it. He owns it — like it or not.”
And then there were the Romaniellos: John, a muscular, tattooed fabricator from Gardena, and Jamie, a preschool teacher with a bleached ponytail and a cross around her neck. For a few minutes, they complained about the changing demographics — from white to black to Hispanic — of South Los Angeles.
“My mom is 77 years old,” Jamie said. “I’m afraid to let her go shopping by herself. It’s too lawless.”
“Gangs,” John said.
“It’s frightening,” Jamie added.
“And the hatred towards us,” John said. “From the illegals, the nonwhites…”
“Towards us,” Jamie chimed in.
I looked puzzled. “Towards Americans,” John clarified.
Jamie shook her head. “It’s unsafe to wear a shirt like this in my neighborhood,” she said, pointing to her black “Trump 16” tee.
“The other day I went into McDonald’s wearing a Trump shirt,” John recalled. “The illegals who work there were looking at me and talking back and forth. I thought they were going to spit in my food.”
“Somebody has to stand up and give us a chance,” Jamie concluded.
I asked why Trump was that somebody.
“Because he doesn’t play the game,” John said. “Those other Republicans, they’re all politicians. They’ll do more damage to the country — just like they’ve been doing my entire life.”
All of which is serving Trump well enough for now. The problem is that there’s more to politics than process, rhetoric and candidates. In an angsty age like ours, you can disrespect all that stuff and thrive.
Supporters paid up to $1,000 to hear Donald Trump speak on the USS Iowa. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
But politics is also about the voters. The minute you start to disrespect them — to patronize them, to condescend, to imply that they’re too dumb, or lazy, or prejudiced to care that you don’t know what you’re talking about — you’ve sealed your own fate.
And that’s what Trump began to do in his “major national security speech” Tuesday night aboard the USS Iowa.
Instead of laying out his plan to protect America from stateless terrorist threats, he simply insisted that “we’re going to make the military so strong, so great … I don’t think anybody is going to mess with us.”
Instead of describing how he would deal with Tehran and Moscow, he simply promised that with him, America is “going to have a president who is respected by Putin and respected by Iran.”
Instead of revealing how he is going to do away with our “$400 billion a year” trade deficit with China, he simply declared that “it’s not going to happen anymore.”
Instead of naming his foreign policy team, he said that “I have the smartest people in the country lined up.”
“I know they’re smart,” Trump added, “because they make good deals — like me!”
And instead of explaining why he will be able to bend the rest of the world to his will and his opponents won’t, he simply announced that “they’re never going to be able to do it. It’s an instinct. It’s something special.”
“They don’t have it,” Trump concluded. “Believe me.”
At the moment, Trump’s supporters believe him — and that’s enough for them. I also understand that withholding detail is nothing new for Trump. But the summer is ending, and the primary season is beginning. What if, with each passing week, all of Trump’s “major speeches” turn out to be more of the same old applause lines? What if every debate performance, every interview, provides more evidence that Trump doesn’t care to learn about the world he aspires to lead? And what if his endless insults begin to look less like passionate, un-PC outbursts than like a stale strategy to stay in the news? What then? You can only say everyone else is stupid so many times before the voters start to realize that you think they’re stupid, too.
Donald Trump, center, greets supporters in Los Angeles after telling them he’ll be respected by Russia and Iran. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/AP)
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump insisted that “people don’t care about seeing plans.” He may be right. The Gutierrezes and Calabrases and Romaniellos of the world may stick with him regardless. He may even win a few primaries or caucuses. But enough people do care about being disrespected that, eventually, after most of the 16 other GOP contenders have bailed and the rest of the base has begun to coalesce around another candidate, Trump will likely fade.
I could already see this happening, in a microscopic way, aboard the USS Iowa. As Trump took the stage with a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap atop his head, I shook hands with an Air Force veteran named Vicky Villalobos. She was the political equivalent of a unicorn: an informed swing voter who majored in international relations, who read the opinion pages “every day,” who “loved” Ronald Reagan, but who also wished Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein were running for president. And she was here, she said, “to give Donald Trump a chance — to see what he has to say about the issues.”
When the speech was done, I found Villalobos and asked what she thought.
She shook her head no. Then she walked off into the crowd.