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LOL Things Can Matter at the Margin

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This is a good piece by Brian Beutler pushing back against the idea that it wouldn’t matter at all if a tape of Trump using the n-word surfaced. In particular, the assertion that because of the (highly contingent) outcome of the election the Access Hollywood tape therefore wasn’t a net negative for Trump is obviously specious:

Here is a story about three tapes: one that does exist, one that might exist, and one that doesn’t.

The first one, the Access Hollywood tape, cemented the foundational myth of Donald Trump’s presidency—that he is invulnerable to political scandals of his own making.

Trump explained on that tape that he exploits his star power to “grab [women] by the pussy” with impunity, and one month after it surfaced, he became president (hat tip: Julian Assange*, James Comey*).

It became commonplace after that experience for jaded liberals and savvy politicos alike to either ascribe Trump mystical political powers or imagine that the 63 million people who voted for him were all hopelessly brainwashed or vile. If that tape didn’t matter, then nothing could possibly matter.

There are many asterisks to this story, including the two above, because a simpler telling clashes with the awful reality that he is still the president. On the day the Access Hollywood footage came to light, Trump’s support in the polls was falling, and it fell further once voters processed what they saw. No, it didn’t cost him the presidency, but it has in many ways defined it: Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin. He entered office not just historically unpopular, but widely and rightly loathed. That antipathy inspired a vast, worldwide protest the day after his inauguration and has fueled the largest social justice movements the country has seen in decades. He has never escaped the taint of that tape. Anger over it persists both for the obvious reason, and because the majority of the country is concerned about the knock-on effect for our culture that a man could confess to serial sexual assault, maintain a frothing political base, and be rewarded with high office.

Had the director of the FBI not decided to imply that Trump’s opponent was a crook based on redundant and immaterial emails less than two weeks before the election, Trump probably loses, and the Access Hollywood tape may well have provided the margin. And while it’s impossible to measure the impact of the Podesta inbox being dumped on the same day as the Billy Bush tape, it is very likely that the endless parade of stories implying scandalous behavior on the part of Clinton they produced blunted its impact.  (Indeed, one perverse impact of the Access Hollywood tape was to encourage editors to send their reporters on more Clinton snipe hunts by cementing the perception that the election was over.) At any rate, the outcome of the election doesn’t mean that the Access Hollywood tape wasn’t a net negative for Trump; it is far more likely that it was a net negative but was ultimately swamped by other factors. If an n-word tape drops, though, it will do so in a very different context, where’s there’s no single Democratic piñata to switch attention to.

It is also true, but irrelevant, that as evidence of racism goes the tape of Trump using a racial slur would be redundant. The strong presumption of white racial innocence isn’t just for Republican Supreme Court justices, you know. While in a rational universe the case for Trump’s racism would widely be considered to be settled, in the one we actually live in an ESPN anchor was suspended in part for tweeting that Trump was a white nationalist, and Trump declaring that exonerated African-American men he had called on to be lynched were still guilty was not considered news by an organization that considered Neera Tanden’s feelings about David Brock news. A tape of Trump using a racial slur crosses these implicit lines.

And we’ve been through this before, but it is also true and irrelevant that this won’t affect Trump with “his base.” Indeed it won’t. It also won’t lead to Trump resigning, or cause the Republican conference to start investigating him or vote against his judicial nominees. But elections are decided at the margin. Republicans are already staring at a wave in 2018, and losing even a point on the generic ballot would be a big deal. And Trump has almost no votes so spare; anything that accelerates the exodus of educated suburbanites from the GOP or motivates people of color or young people to come to he polls is a serious problem even if the effects are relatively small. The lesson of an election decided by less than 100,000 votes in three states in which a lot of things broke right for Trump at the end is not, in fact, “LOL nothing can ever matter.”

Trump clearly thinks the release of a tape with him saying the n-word wouldn’t be in his interests. He’s right.

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