The true hold of the Donald Trump campaign, especially on the media, has not been about how he might win but in what kind of conflagration or hapless meltdown of ritual and propriety he would lose. Contrary to any political common sense, he has not been chastened by each of his many crises but, to the absolute amazement of the media - in every respect morally and institutionally against him - has doubled down.
It has sometimes seemed as if he were actually planning all this, that the media was cannily set up to be the predictable and dopey foil to his unapologetic and inexplicable comebacks. Over the course of almost 18 months, the media's horror and transfixed attention and Trump's defiance and belligerence have become locked in place.
And the train, moving toward its certain crash, has barreled on.
Last week, after the airing of the Access Hollywood outtakes, much of the media (along with Trump's other foils: the Republican establishment and the liberal elite) was once again convinced that the wreck was happening - in awesome slow motion. Forget the fact that Trump had won the nomination both handily and fair and square, he would have to go, booted by the exact Republican establishment that he had heretofore vanquished.
Then, failing once more to get the memo, Trump, angry and remorseless, stepped on to Sunday night's debate stage ever-more resolute and preposterous - incoherent, but unyielding and savage - in his Trumpness. Contrition is bunk. And while this would surely not win him the election, it would, rallying the faithful, once more make clear the large and peculiar nature of the threat he presented in American life and, accordingly, stoke the media's apoplexy. Another media seizure would again give Trump the opportunity to use it as a foil. His legitimacy - pussy talk and all - was the media's uncontrollable aversion to him.
The Trump base - a moving number but, on a bad day for Trump, probably still as much as 35 percent to 40 percent of the electorate - likely knew exactly who he was. The media, once more shocked and appalled, was the Johnny-come-lately to the party.
The Access Hollywood outtakes may have been archived and unavailable, but the Howard Stern interviews - suddenly another exhibit in the furious coverage of Trump's vulgarity, and in their way vastly more jaw dropping than even the bus banter - were always easily searchable. Perhaps the political press was too busy tweeting to look. Or too confounded to understand: The Trump secret sauce, the Trump charisma (for those who obviously think he has charisma, of, apparently, an irresistible kind) is vulgarity - crudeness, impudence and tastelessness.
In the search for Trump's origins, and how to explain him, there's few better places to examine than Stern and the shock jocks - including Bubba the Love Sponge, Opie and Anthony and Johnny Dare - sexual nasties and incorrigibles who, along with political shock jocks, defined a new segment of sensibility in the '80s and '90s. Curiously, the answer to the question, asked repeatedly and with incredulity in the past few days, "Who talks like this?" is probably: very few, beyond drunks and people in prison. But entertainers talk like this all the time. Sexual hyperbole became the language of rappers, male comedy club performers, guy gross-out comedy movies and now, arguably, Amy Schumer. (To the extent hers is a takedown of the former it is also an adoption of it.)
So it's a particular sort of disconnect when a righteous Jake Tapper - once a glamour-boy news star, now portly and grave - unrestrained in his open disgust for Trump, confronts Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani about the Access Hollywood video, calling Trump's description of his behavior "sexual assault." And Tapper was hardly the only media person to turn vulgarity into criminal violence. (This is part of the skirmish that has taken place throughout the campaign on the real meaning of Trump's utterances. Was Trump truly inviting Russia to hack Hillary Clinton? Was he really urging Second Amendment nuts to shoot her? Does he really grab unsuspecting women by, as Tapper helpfully translated, the vagina?)
So? Is Trump a sociopath or a blowhard? Or is there any reason to make that distinction? And how do you deal with this in analytic terms if it is the precise attribute - this elemental blasphemy - that makes him credible as an anti-establishment voice to the 40 percent? (Is saying "pussy" something like saying "no new taxes"?) After all, this was precisely the sort of aging lothario comedy routine that helped keep Silvio Berlusconi in power in Italy and to distinguish him from everybody else in public life.
To say that the media is confounded by Trump - repulsed and mesmerized - is of course an understatement. To say that its panic has increased with every advance he's made, every time he overcomes its dismissal of him, is as obvious. To say that the mainstream media has collapsed its own methods and standards in telling the Trump story is as clear.
Curiously, it may be NBC, arguably the most conflicted of media outlets, which has tried to walk a careful, or anyway self-conscious line, that has been most vilified. NBC helped created Trump with The Apprentice - but that was under Jeff Zucker, now CNN's chief. NBC News, now under Andy Lack, who led the division before in the 1990s, and who is perhaps the last representative of a judicious network news (or at least the memory of it), lost its position in the primary debates this winter because Trump accused its sister channel, CNBC (not run by Lack), of biased questioning.
In a recent Trump-Clinton forum, Matt Lauer was roasted by the rest of the media for being too tough on Clinton. Last week, learning that its show Access Hollywood had the Trump video, and believing that ownership gave it control, and hence the time of its choosing to release it, NBC debated the ethics and liabilities of airing the video (and, undoubtedly, the damage to Billy Bush, Trump's hapless interlocutor and a rising star at NBC's Today show before his recent suspension), long enough to get scooped by a leak to the Washington Post, which has been especially aggressive in its prosecution of Trump's vileness.
The old-fashionedness of the way NBC seems to have reflexively seen the story - an important story that needed to be vetted, versus a story that could kill Donald Trump; hesitating because you might destroy someone's chance to be president versus rushing precisely because you can destroy his chance - might be hard to explain to an anti-Trump generation of reporters.
The reasonable lesson here for any news operation is that the Trump story can only be told hotly. Trying to rise above the conflict risks losing the story. Being part of the conflict is the story.
Most outlets have by a de facto policy forsaken on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other. That's been replaced by the new rationale of " equivalency." You can't compare Trump against the norm (in this instance, however bizarre to the 40 percent, Hillary Clinton). This, then, is exactly the card that Trump repeatedly plays. If he didn't pay taxes, she deleted 33,000 emails. Or, if he might have spoken crudely, Clinton's husband has actually been accused of rape, abetted by her help in whitewashing those charges.
This is a particular confusing piece of media and political theater. On some level playing field, Trump is certainly right. He's gross, but Bill Clinton, in many instances, is as gross, or even fractionally grosser - and has benefited a lot more from having Hillary defend him than Trump has benefited from Melania. The media shock at Trump's reprise of the Clinton sex years reflects its Clinton bias and also its belief that this is a lose-lose strategy - it won't help him at all with women.
Trump's blunt-instrument strategy - the lineup of grim and damaged victims positioned up front in Sunday's debate - was intended to highlight the media's refusal to entertain that there are two dogs (at least!), with similar proclivities, at the apex of American political life. ("Yes, Bill Clinton had affairs. But there's a world of difference between consensual sex, however inappropriate, and abuse of power to force those less powerful to accept your urges," says Paul Krugman in the Times, circumlocuting the Clinton legacy in curiously Victorian language.) This, Trump understands, resonates with a 40 percent that thinks the Clintons are as morally sickening and sick as the other side thinks he is.
But then again, this too is confounding for the media and the establishment, both Democratic and Republican. It's perhaps the most confounding part. Why would you do something that only speaks to 40 percent? What's that going to get you? This is what is so hard to grasp. Everything he does guarantees he will lose. The train is sure to crash. How do you analyze willful self-destruction in horse-race political terms?
Of course, it's technically possible for him to win. There are black swan events (and there could - still could be - a terrorist attack, a Hillary blackout, a spectacular email revelation, but even here the reversal would require a perfect tsunami). Other than a few weeks' frisson of close polling in September, there has never been any actual alarm that he might really be elected. The reason no newspaper has endorsed him, no major CEO has contributed to him, and why important parts of the Republican hierarchy have publicly rejected him, is as much because he is unelectable as because he shouldn't be elected.
So what is he doing? What's the point? Why doesn't he just quit?
Because politics is really only analyzed in traditional win-lose political terms, everybody (read: the media) fails to appreciate the astonishing success he's had even if he loses. Never has somebody with so little come as close to being president as Donald Trump has. In celebrity terms, his accomplishment is off the charts. Now, it is true that the only way he has gotten this far is to behave in a way that guarantees he can't actually go any further. But you can't have everything.
What's he's gotten is a massive market share anyway. It is unlikely that the Trump base is, post defeat, going to contentedly return to more traditional political figures. No, he's got them, maybe for keeps, if he wants them - and if he doesn't try to become a politician reaching for 51 percent. All he has to do is continue to stand tall for, well … vulgarity, among other things.
But what is he going to do with them, with the great unwashed, the deplorables? That's the real question, not whether he's going to win or lose the presidency. In fact, in its way, it's almost as unsettling a question as what would happen if he actually won. That's a role that would likely hem him in. Being outside, standing with his huge aggrieved portion of the electorate, might be much more threatening.
The media, in its amusement, created him. The media, in its horror, propels him on, supplying the conflict that sustains him.
The Trump era, despite the cocksure certainly of nearly every tweeting journalist, is not ending. It has just begun.