Last month, near the end of the first presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton laid a masterful trap for her Republican rival. Reminding viewers of Donald Trump’s frequent crude comments about women, she mentioned “a woman in a beauty contest,” and then unpacked the story of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Clinton paused, waited, and revealed her name.
“Where did you find this? Where did you find this?” Trump sputtered, to which Clinton countered with a kicker: “She has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
A more conventional candidate than The Donald might have spent that night and the next day carefully prying the jaws of the bear trap off his leg and licking his wounds, but Clinton and her coterie knew their opponent well. No doubt stung by his overall poor performance and a wave of withering criticism over his treatment of Machado two decades earlier, Trump figured out a way to squeeze his other leg into the vice grip of that metal maw. As Machado and the Clinton campaign carried out a masterfully orchestrated media blitz, the Republican hopeful went on Fox News to double down. “She gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem,” he told the seemingly shell-shocked hosts of Fox and Friends.
Days later, the story was still going strong, garnering media attention, generating headlines, and prompting discussions about everything from Trump’s own weight (five pounds shy of clinical obesity) to his past comments about the size of a pregnant Kim Kardashian culminating in an early morning Twitter storm last Friday.
This is American politics today: crude, crass, freewheeling, and tending toward the frivolous. America has had sexist, misogynist presidents, of course. Some have been astonishingly lewd and crude. I’m looking at you, LBJ!
Lyndon Baines Johnson may have been an incorrigible bully and inveterate womanizer — to say nothing of the copious amounts of Vietnamese blood on his hands — but his 1964 campaign featured a nuclear war-themed political attack ad that, though only aired once, is still lodged in the American consciousness.
At the end of that so-called Daisy ad, as a mushroom cloud rises onscreen, we hear Johnson’s voice: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” The implication was clear. Johnson’s Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was too dangerous to entrust with America’s nuclear arsenal.
Clinton has made a similar point about Trump. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she’s said — a suitable enough line but without a Daisy punch. Barring a Trump win and a resulting nuclear exchange, don’t expect people to remember it 50 years from now. Don’t even hold your breath about whether it might affect a single news cycle between now and Election Day or morph into the kind of substantive discussion of nuclear policy that spawns 100 headlines and a million tweets. There have been many scandals deserving of mention during this long presidential campaign, many controversies demanding attention, many travesties deserving of discussion but as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, observes today, the biggest travesty may be that an issue with the potential to end life as we know it on this planet can’t compete with one candidate’s seemingly hysterical obsession with publicly criticizing women’s bodies.