Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, October 9, 2016.
This October, Turner Classic Movies—the only television station I watch with some frequency—is devoting its Sunday evenings to old Frankenstein films. When last night’s Clinton-Trump debate was done, I switched to TCM, which was in the last half hour of The House of Frankenstein, and suddenly, a question lurking in the back of my mind as I’d watched the debate—who does Donald Trump remind me of?—found its answer.
Because, let’s face it: Trump is looking progressively weirder as the campaign drags on. Up until now, his affect has been more Mussolini than anyone else: upraised chin (so as to obscure any senior sag), sneering mouth, increasingly rigid facial and body motion. But last night, as he stalked around the stage, his face a scowling rectangle, his hair a horizontal blob, his motions stiff, his sense of direction shaky, his form looming suddenly and menacingly over the shorter Clinton—he bore a distinct resemblance to Karloff’s monster.
Would the monstrosities were only visual. In vowing to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton should he win, Trump’s assault on the way that democracies conduct their business plumbed new depths. It was also, however, just the latest iteration of the right’s nearly 25-year habit of criminalizing Democrats for the crime of winning elections. The frantic and well-funded search for some scandal to bring down Bill Clinton after he had the temerity to be elected president went on for years until the right finally impeached him for getting a blowjob in the Oval Office. The public’s response was to hand congressional Republicans a resounding defeat in the 1998 elections and to boost Clinton’s polling to an all-time high.
Confronted with the even greater gall that Barack Obama exhibited by being elected president while black, the right in general and Trump in particular peddled the story that he’d actually been born in Kenya. And now that Hillary Clinton appears to be just a month away from her own presidential victory, Trump is falling back on the stories of Bill’s sexual predations (and this time around, Hillary’s not readily apparent role in them) that the right’s handpicked special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, believed so insubstantial he refused to include them in his 1998 bill of particulars. He still brings up Benghazi, even though eight Republican congressional investigations found nothing to suggest any Hillary misconduct, and her emails, even though the FBI also found nothing to suggest anything remotely criminal.
And just to make sure the right wouldn’t waver at a moment when his campaign is falling apart, Trump provided the topper last night: Threatening Clinton with jail should he win. For what, exactly, she’d be prosecuted, convicted, and thrown in the clink, Trump failed to specify, nor did he need to: This is just what the deplorables—the term, while imprecise, is not inaccurate—who get their news from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart and their ilk, needed to hear to pledge their fealty, yet again, to the Donald.
Did this, or anything else Trump said, convince any swing voters to swing his way after last night’s debate? There’s no evidence that it did. By leveling over-the-top attacks that only resonate if viewers subscribe to Breitbart’s fictitious reality, Trump wasn’t even really attempting to persuade the undecideds. Rather, he was sounding a mating call to the yahoos who constituted a large enough slice of Republican ranks to win him the nomination, and who constitute a large enough slice of Republican ranks to give second thoughts to any more GOP elected officials who are contemplating un-endorsing Trump, as so many did over the weekend. But as for actually persuading voters more anchored in reality than the Breitbartians to come his way—didn’t happen.
Then there’s all that onstage stalking and lurking. After the airing of the pussy-grabbing tape, the image of a Frankensteinian hulk looming over Clinton doesn’t seem likely to assure women voters, on a subliminal level and some not-so-subliminal, that Trump is a safe guy to be around—much less a safe guy to vest with state power. Besides, not even the Monster went after his political enemies.