On Wednesday, Donald Trump managed to get through over a half hour of live television without saying anything obviously racist or referring to the size of his penis, and many in Washington's professional class were prepared to call it a success — perhaps even the legendary pivot to the general that's been prophesied by political soothsayers since their Cheeto Jesus burped his first post-primary self-congratulations. The occasion of his coming forth to Trump Tower was, according to his campaign, to set an official marker in his race against Clinton. In other words, it was a Red State comments section brought to life.
Bracketed by Teleprompters on either side, Trump gnawed at the text of the speech like a horse at a bit, baring his teeth frequently and producing bellows-like exhales through his nose. He visibly brightened every time he ad-libbed from the prepared lines, mostly inserting rhetorical flourishes of repetition or adding "really" and "amazing." That he mostly stuck to a script was enough for many commenters — CNN's David Gergen pronounced him "disciplined" and The Hill heralded this move into "presidential mode." Their eagerness to find redeeming qualities in Trump’s flat performance was pretty much the same desperate generosity of a Montessori school teacher trying not to give out an "F." (It's also reminiscent of how Trump supporter and itinerant Senate candidate Scott Brown admonished critics that poor Donald is new at this, OK? Of course, Brown has been defending Trump as "still learning" since February.)
To his credit, Trump really only introduced one single error into the speech: a casual butchering of a direct quote from the mother of one of those killed in Benghazi. (There were, of course, plenty of falsehoods baked right into the text.) On the other hand, it's emblematic of Trump's entire approach to the truth that he felt as free to embroider on something marked off in quotation marks as any other part of the speech. Such nonchalant frippery may be emblematic of his approach to everything: He truly believes that normal rules do not apply to him — not rules of grammar, or decorum, or politics, or even business.
Then again, Trump's brazen self-regard isn't just a part of Trump's persona, it's the entire definition of who he is. It's the sum total of every "policy" he's ever put forward: trade, defense, terrorism, healthcare, his own flat-footed path to the White House — whatever he deems a problem will be improved because... well, because Trump. The complete lack of "there" there is mostly lost in the klieg lights of the spectacle. Voters and commenters convince themselves of his ability to succeed despite there being no discernible plan in place for success because, look, hey, he's succeeding! If he wasn't, how would you explain all these cameras?
Faced with putting this toe-callous-shaped man at the top of the ticket, Republicans are in the process of buying into this mass delusion of death-spiral logic. Even the most reluctant among them seem resigned to defeat if not embrace, under the impression that Trump's primary victory itself (however ill-gained) is evidence that he is a superior foe, which is a face-saving maneuver familiar to golf players nationwide: "You beat me fair and square that round, Don; some day you'll have to tell me your secrets!" ::HEARTY WINK::
Republicans assumed that, having been played by Trump, they can play on the same team. This chagrin-turned-greed is, of course, the same thinking that brought people through the doors of Trump University. After all, the "billionaire" real estate mogul wasn't promising to teach people the humdrum realities of managing properties for slow and steady growth; they came for the shortcuts and tricks, the barely legal dodges and easily exploited loopholes. And that is what the GOP is expecting from Trump: "OK, you fooled us into buying some magic beans, now show us how to sell them to someone else."
What makes the Trump University scam so particularly pathetic is exactly what makes the Republicans' hopefulness hollow: It turns out that his real con wasn't taking students' money and then not teaching them anything, it's that he didn't really have anything to teach.
The hair-covered used-bubble-gum ball of the Trump persona, he keeps claiming, is wrapped around a $10b center. But we are now discovering that the cash at the center of the Trump myth is a lie. Reporters cannot find much more than a trace of his supposed millions donated to charities. His campaign has the operating funds of a race for city comptroller. He has only given money to his own campaign in the form of loans, not donations. [UPDATE 6/24/16, 9:18 a.m. ET: On Thursday afternoon, Trump announced he would be converting a $50 million loan to a donation after all.] And the campaign's largest single category of spending is to entities he profits from. He's lied about his net worth for years, but it's become apparent that the bank account at the core of the Trump legend only gives shape to the bubble gum because it's filled with air.
Now the Republican Party is learning that Trump's political skills are as insubstantial as the profits of Trump Vodka. The party surveyed the end of the primary contest and consoled themselves that, having been conned, they would now at least have their very own grifter. But Trump is not a David Mamet character; he's a second-string clown, giddy at the prospect of finally performing in the center ring. He has nothing to teach the GOP about winning elections — just an act that's getting old, fast. The greatest trick Trump ever pulled was convincing the world that a trick existed.