The Donald Trump - Roger Stone show: Birth Harder
Every time Donald Trump steps in another pile of crazy racist conspiracy dogshit, the sane-and-happy demographic throws up its hands and asks, “Does he really believe what he’s saying? He can’t be serious!”
The answer is that it depends what you mean by “serious.” If you’re trying to get inside his mind like an armchair Freud, then good luck with that. But if you mean “politically serious” then it’s easier to answer.
“Yes” is the answer to that trick question, by the way—because Trump is an opportunist. And Islamophobia, Mexican- bashing and conspiracy-mongering are all yuuuge underexploited opportunities in the Republican primaries.
All this came up in a conversation I had recently with an old friend of mine who asked me what role Trump’s longtime partner-in-political-crime Roger Stone played in 2011, when Trump came out of nowhere to lead the Birther movement. It’s a good question to ask, because until Trump’s late conversion to Birtherism, he was mostly known as a kind of “liberal Republican” jerk, rather than a fringe-right Republican jerk.
As it turns out, a look back at the 2011 record shows that Trump’s lobbyist/political adviser/dirty trickster, Roger Stone, was all over The Donald’s Birther conversion. Which shouldn’t be a surprise.
A quick reminder about Roger Stone: Trump’s political adviser and lobbyist for nearly three decades until this past summer, when the two parted ways under unclear circumstances, Stone is a longtime GOP political operator who got his start as a Nixon dirty trickster in the early 70s. Since then, Stone has taken credit for illegally fixing New York state’s 1980 presidential elections to hand the state’s electoral votes to Reagan; organizing the Miami “yuppie riot” in 2000 on behalf of George W Bush to stop the vote recount; paying Al Sharpton to enter the 2004 Democratic Party primary campaign in order to smear antiwar candidate Howard Dean as a racist; and other assorted shenanigans. Trump and Stone have teamed up together since the early 1980s on everything from casino lobbying to political dirty tricks on behalf of the GOP —in 2000, Stone and Trump worked together to destroy Ross Perot’s Reform Party and Pat Buchanan’s political career, the two biggest outsider threats to a Bush-Cheney victory. And it was Trump who brought Al Sharpton to Roger Stone’s lair, setting in motion Stone’s deployment of Sharpton in 2004 to smear the antiwar movement’s leader as a racist.
Stone’s specialty has long been fracturing the opposition to the Establishment GOP candidate for president, and exploiting anti-mainstream politics for pretty much the same purpose. The end game, of course, is money—usually in the form of casinos for Trump, and casino lobbying favors and influence for Roger Stone’s lobbying business. (After helping Bush-Cheney win the 2000 election, Stone was put in charge of appointing the Bush-Cheney administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, giving his casino lobbying business a major boost). You can read that whole sordid story in my earlier piece for Pando, “Behind the Scenes of the Donald Trump-Roger Stone show.”
Which brings me back to Donald Trump’s most recent incarnation as a Birther conspiracist, anti-vaxxer, immigrant-basher and Islamophobe. That “transformation” took place in 2011, when Trump took a lot of people by surprise demanding that Obama produce his birth certificate, stealing the movement away from loonball Orly Taitz.
And as you can guess by now, Roger Stone’s slime trails were all over Trump’s conversion to Birtherism. While Trump used his celebrity status and cash to make headlines about sending hired PIs to Hawaii to hunt down Obama’s birth certificate, Roger Stone worked his many DC media connections, selling Trump’s Birther politics as brilliant political opportunism.
In March 2011, shortly after Trump first came out as a Birther, the rightwing Daily Caller quoted Stone calling Trump’s move “brilliant base-building”:
“There’s a very clear niche in the Republican primary,” said longtime political consultant Roger Stone. “It’s a brilliant base-building move. There’s a very active, fervent subset of voters interested in this.” Stone, who has worked for Trump in years past, says he has no paid role in Trump’s current campaign, though he does allow that the two continue to “talk politics from time to time.”
The bit about Stone merely chatting with Trump “from time to time” allows Stone to pretend to be an impartial expert, and allows Stone’s media conduits to appear to be doing their job rather than acting as his PR-For-Trump stenographers.
Shortly after Stone’s Daily Caller interview, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith—at the time still with Politico—reported this email exchange with Stone about Trump’s strategy, headlined “Trump’s Birther Play”. Introducing Stone as heading up an “unofficial ‘Draft Trump’ effort,” Smith wrote,
I asked longtime Donald Trump advisor Roger Stone, who is working on the unofficial “Draft Trump” effort, rather than the attempts at an official campaign, why Trump would embrace discredited theories about Obama's birth.
Stone emails with five reasons:
1) He believes he is raising a legitimate question. If there is nothing wrong why doesn't the Prez simply release his birth certificate?
2) Notice Trump makes no allegation--- he is merely asking a question.
3) A solid plurality of Republican primary voters AGREE with Trump. In a split field with 5-6 candidates they are a significant group
4) Personally I think it is brilliant. It's base building. It gives voice to a concern shared by many on the right.
5) The media immediately tries to marginalize any one who raises questions about the lack of proof that Obama was born in the US. No other potential candidate has dared to speak up on the issue----politics abhors a vacuum. Trump's poll ratings in the Republican primaries will go UP.
Indeed a poll taken in February 2011, just weeks before Trump went Birther, revealed that a majority of likely Republican primary voters, 51 percent, said they did not believe Obama was born in the United States, while only 28 percent said they did believe their president was born in the US. That poll also showed that the Birther majority leaned for Huckabee and Palin, while the non-birther minority favored the mainstream candidate, Romney.
In other words, the opportunity was huge.
Smith admits at the end of his post that Stone’s (and Trump’s) opportunism wasn’t misplaced—it was just vile. That vileness was why the opportunity was there for Trump’s taking—who else would pick it up and run with it?
And in fact, Going Birther did work just as Stone said it would. In mid-April 2011, just a month after Trump went Birther, a CNN poll put him in first place in the Republican race, tied with Mike Huckabee at 19 percent. Romney polled fourth place with 11 percent.
So there’s a cold practical consistency in Trump’s strategy, it’s just not being reported on much, because, well, it doesn’t reflect well on John Q Public, and no one really likes being reminded what gullible savages they are.
Trump eventually decided not to run, but the lesson was not lost on him or on Roger Stone. The Republican primary voter base holds some pretty loathsome views that no self-respecting GOP donor wants to be associated with, so their handpicked candidates have had to dance around popular positions like Mexican-bashing and Birther conspiracies in ways that Trump, the wealthy self-funded opportunist, doesn’t have to. And so Scott Walker, who waffled on immigrant-bashing, saw his lead in Iowa vanish, while Trump soared to the top by shamelessly pitching mass deportation of brown foreigners—the most popular position among Iowa’s likely caucus voters.
For Trump, it’s nothing personal (against undocumented Latino immigrants), Sonny—it’s just (opportunism). And if you look at Trump’s every move through the cynical, practical lens of political opportunism, it all makes an ugly sense.
Opportunism also helps give some insight into what Trump’s end game might be. As I wrote about in my piece on the Donald Trump-Roger Stone Show, everything Stone (and Trump) have done in the past in politics has been about exploiting anti-establishment politics on behalf of the Establishment GOP candidate—Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr and Dubya. Going by what they’ve done in the past, one could speculate that Trump’s purpose this time around would be to sink Jeb Bush’s competition among the Koch-anointed libertarians, starting with Scott Walker on down the line to Rand Paul. If that was one of the original “dirty tricks” purposes of putting Trump in the race—sucking out all the crazy oxygen from the Koch-backed candidates, so that they don’t dominate this primary news cycle the way they did in the 2012 primaries—then the Trump-Stone Show has worked wonders. Even the New York Times reported that “allies of Mr. Bush [argue] that Mr. Trump helps the former Florida governor by stealing voters and attention from other anti-establishment candidates.”
But Stone says he quit Trump’s campaign a couple of months ago, and Trump has so far not been helping Jeb Bush the way he’s been hurting the Koch-backed anti-establishment candidates. If we try to make sense of Trump’s end game based on his knack for opportunism, not simply based on past political shenanigans, it’s entirely possible that for Trump, the opportunities changed this summer—and so have his calculations. Who knows if he really expected to be the frontrunner and drawing such massive crowds like this, but now that he has—the opportunity has changed. I still have a hard time believing Trump actually wants to be president, but he clearly wants to maximize his opportunities that being a frontrunner this long offer, rather than playing wingman/chump for the Bush family like in 2000.
One last Trump note, only marginally related: Someone needs to call out all the conservative/libertarian voices who sang Sarah Palin’s praises in 2008 but are now sanctimoniously trashing Donald Trump as some kind of abomination of everything decent Americans hold sacred. As if Trump and Palin occupy opposite ends of the “qualified to be president” spectrum. Since no one is calling this out, please allow me to give it a kickstart...
I’ve compiled a very incomplete list here, I’m sure I’m missing a lot of big names.
First, there’s the New York Times’ gravitas-conservative, Ross Douthat, who back in 2008 raved about Sarah Palin shortly after she was picked as McCain’s nominee. Douthat got all “real America” populist in his praise, writing that he was “wildly stoked” about Palin, describing her as “one of his favorite rising GOP stars,” offering to “mount the barricades in her defense.”
With Trump, however, there is none of Douthat’s populist enthusiasm—just ye olde school Burkeian cultural gloom:
Trump is a victim of the Great Stagnation. A robber baron reduced to hotel impresario. Deprived of the SPACE ELEVATORS he was born to build.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald vouched for Sarah Palin’s innate genius against the liberal media elites. According to Greenwald’s carefully considered judgment,
Sarah Palin isn't Dan Quayle. She is extremely smart — much smarter than the average media star who will eventually be interviewing her — and she is very politically skilled as well. She didn't go from obscure small-town city council member to Governor to Vice Presidential nominee by accident.
Anyone expecting her to fall on her face or be exposed as some drooling simpleton is going to be extremely disappointed.
When one of Greenwald’s incredulous fans objected to Greenwald’s description, he elaborated further:
It's a subjective assessment, admittedly. That's my strong impression from having seen her in several different contexts, including interviews. I think it will be a big mistake to create the impression that she's dumb, which she will easily defy and prosper as a result.
Proving again the Thomas Friedman Theorem that they don’t give out Pulitzer’s to dummies....
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko found much to cheer:
“[A]s a libertarian, there's plenty I like about Palin. . . . Her lack of experience doesn't bother me much at all. Washington's in desperate need of fresh blood and fresh ideas, not the promotion of another five-term senator who's found a permanent place in the Beltway morass.”
But as a libertarian, there’s apparently not much Balko likes about Palin’s polar opposite, Donald Trump:
Everything is terrible: Donald Trump gains 20 points in GOP primary poll.
Other libertarians had similar split reactions. Rand Paul, the self-styled Trump nemesis, swooned last year when Palin declared “I’m on Team Rand.” And libertarian brain bug/racial eugenics peddler Charles Murray, who recently denounced Trump as “beneath contempt on every dimension” similarly swooned over Sarah Palin in 2008, telling the New York Times,
“I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.”
The lesson is clear: Our establishment political class can still be trusted. We’re in good hands, folks.