Will Trump Benefit from Outrage Fatigue?

The George W. Bush years were hard on liberal activists and writers. Shortly after 9/11 there was a worry that outspoken critics of the Bush Administration would be targeted for surveillance and retribution. But as time wore on, the incompetence and corruption created a different problem: it was hard to keep up with all of the weekly outrages and scandals from the minor and bizarre (remember Jeff Gannon?) to the massive and impeachable (Downing Street Memo, Scooter Libby, Gonzales’ Justice Department, etc.) How could one hold the Bush Administration accountable when each new effrontery eclipsed the last?

A similar dynamic is occurring with the Trump campaign. But the outrage cycle isn’t from week to week but rather from day to day. Look away from the news for but a few hours, and the observer will probably miss two or three emanations from the Donald that by themselves might be enough to sink any other campaign.

Just yesterday, for instance, Trump extended his assaults on American allies to include Japan, bizarrely insulting them for “watching Sony TVs” and claiming they would do nothing to defend America if it were attacked:

“You know we have a treaty with Japan, where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States,” he said.

“If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?”

Mr Trump added that the United States protects Japan, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia and other nations, and “they don’t pay anything near what it costs”.

It goes without saying that any student of history would realize that a non-aggressive Japan dependent for resources on trade rather than conquest is in the interest of a peaceful Pacific sphere. It also goes without saying that in the event of a frankly inconceivable attack on America by Russia or China, Japan would already have been overwhelmed in the process, rendering Trump’s complaint moot. Even Trump’s insistence on making other countries take up more of a military burden undermines his own campaign slogan of wanting to make America “win again,” as the U.S. commitment to use military might to defend allies’ interests abroad expands the American sphere of influence–as many a critic of American imperialism has often pointed out. If Trump’s goal is to reduce the military budget in order to spend more on domestic priorities, all he need do is reduce the military budget without going out of his way to insult U.S. allies–assuming he can get Congress to go along with the plan. In short, Trump’s continued insistence on belittling American allies is crazy, stupid and destabilizing on many fronts.

Meanwhile, in a sudden and dramatic turnabout Trump endorsed Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, just days after refusing to do so and a day after he was contradicted by his own vice-presidential pick. In making the endorsement, Trump bizarrely read from obviously scripted notes as if he were encountering them for the first time. It’s still unclear why he refused to endorse them before, nor is it clear why he’s endorsing them now.

Also news from yesterday? Trump now apparently sees even legal immigrants as a security threat, essentially doubling down on his policy of preventing all immigration entirely from certain countries:

At a rally in Portland, Maine, on Thursday afternoon, Trump provided a lengthy explanation of why he thinks the United States needs to be skeptical of immigrants from many countries, even if they follow the legal process…

“We’re letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed because you can’t vet them,” Trump said. “There’s no way of vetting them. You have no idea who they are. This could be the great Trojan horse of all time.”

As if all of that weren’t enough, Trump is bringing on billionaire advisers in contradiction to his populist message; his economic advisory team consists solely of men; Melania Trump may have lied about being married prior to her marriage to Donald in order to get a green card for immigration; and apparently it is surfacing that Trump at one point tried to get his female employees to pose for Playboy.

Keep in mind that all of this is in one 24-hour news cycle. How are even political writers, campaign strategists and pundits supposed to keep up with all of this, much less the public at large? Outrage fatigue starts to set in.

The question is what effect this will have on the electorate. Trump does seem to be tanking in the polls even as speculation grows that he might not even finish the campaign. The weight of all of this insanity does seem to be dragging him down. But observers with memories of past campaigns know that all it would take is one major gaffe from Clinton or a single surprising debate performance to change the dynamics of the race and help the Republican nominee regain his footing. At that point would each of these crazy stories be just so much water under the bridge, or would they still do damage?

In the case of the Bush Administration, the constant series of scandals has largely disappeared into the collective memory hole. At worst people remember the Bush Administration as incompetent bunglers who made mistakes in the Middle East, New Orleans and Wall Street, rather than as the reckless and arrogant criminals they really were. It would be easy for the same syndrome to occur at a micro-level with Trump and his funhouse mirror campaign.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.