David Carlson: Throwing out the playbook


All of us who are interested in presidential politics must admit that Donald Trump has thrown out the playbook on how to get elected. It is stunning how many of the time-honored taboos that all previous candidates had to avoid have been ignored by Trump.

Not that long ago, even the hint of sexual impropriety was enough to sink a candidate’s chances.

Ask Gary Hart, who was once a front-running Democratic presidential candidate in the ’80s until a photo emerged of him with a woman other than his wife sitting on his lap.

His campaign folded in a week.

Ask Al Gore, whose chances to winning in 2000 were crippled by Bill Clinton’s shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office.

Yet, Trump’s convictions for sexual harassment and payments to porn stars have hardly made a dent in his support.

Even divorce was a liability for a presidential candidate, with Ronald Reagan being the only divorced president until Trump.

And Reagan was divorced only once, while Trump is on his third marriage.

Another taboo every recent presidential candidate had to avoid was being considered soft on Communism, the Soviet Union, China and North Korea.

Consider Gerald Ford, who committed a major faux pas by stating in a debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976 that no Eastern European nation was under Soviet domination.

But Trump seems cozier with Putin, a high-ranking KGB officer in the Soviet period, than with democratically elected allies.

A third taboo all presidential candidates once had to avoid was appearing soft on law and order.

The perception that women aren’t as tough on crime as men is probably one of the main reasons a female candidate has yet to win the presidency.

Trump, however, in the wake of the deadly confrontation in Charlottesville in 2017, described racist vigilantes as “very fine people.”

And what candidate or president in the past could have avoided jail if he’d instigated a coup attempt on our nation’s Capitol?

Not that Trump has learned his lesson.

Recently in Ohio, he said there could be a “bloodbath” if he loses in November, though his campaign says that referred to losing jobs in the auto industry, not human lives.

Also crippling for presidential candidates in the past was being exposed for lying to the American people.

This is not to deny that presidents in the past have lied — consider Nixon — but never so blatantly and repeatedly as Trump.

He is fine defending obvious disinformation as “freedom of speech.”

So, up can be down, the world is flat, injecting bleach might be a way to fight COVID, and climate change is a hoax.

There is no truth, just unfounded opinion.

How will future presidential historians evaluate Trump and those on the “Trump train?”

Will he be remembered as the candidate who was intent on destroying democracy, as a cult leader, as a clever showman? How he’ll be remembered will depend on whether Trump is an anomaly or if he is the first of subsequent candidates who will also “throw out the playbook.”

One thing is clear.

Going by previous standards, Trump has done everything in his power to be dismissed as a candidate. That he isn’t being dismissed says a lot about him, but it says more about us.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].