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Sixteen years ago, MTV launched a television series called Jackass. It featured ill-advised stunts, obnoxious but funny practical jokes, and generally rude behavior aimed at entertaining a largely male audience ravenous for ridicule. Sound familiar?
Fourteen years after the show was taken off the air, we may finally be seeing a sequel: Jackass, the Political Cycle.
It's not all from Donald Trump either, although he's certainly setting the tone. Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban, who hinted earlier that he might be amenable to accepting a running-mate bid from either Trump or Hillary Clinton, endorsed the Democratic nominee this weekend when no such offer was forthcoming. In doing so, though, the Dallas Mavericks owner called Trump a "jagoff" during his speech at a Clinton appearance in Pittsburgh, using an insult common in western Pennsylvania slang. "Jagoff," Salena Zito helpfully explains, descends to us from Scots-Irish immigrants from almost 400 years ago to describe an annoying person.
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The media isn't doing much better. Fareed Zakaria described Donald Trump as a "bullshit artist" on air during CNN's Situation Room on Monday to respond to the Republican nominee's shifting stances on Crimea. HBO's John Oliver descended further in wit by referring to Trump as a "f---ing asshole" while criticizing Trump for his attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan. The New York Post went the full New York Post over the weekend, finding and publishing two-decade-old modeling photographs of Melania Trump in the nude, including on its front page, with as little pixelation as necessary to avoid a brown-paper wrapper for newsstands.
The gold medal in coarsening dialogue in this cycle, though, goes to Trump. From the beginning, Trump has engaged in oddly personal attacks on his opponents with nicknames like "Lying Ted" Cruz and "Little Marco" Rubio, seizing for some reason on Rubio's height. He ridiculed Carly Fiorina's face, to much puzzlement, and at one time suggested that Dr. Ben Carson might be an undiagnosed psychopath. Jeb Bush managed to escape by just being called "low energy," but Trump refers to his general-election opponent as "Crooked Hillary" at every chance.
Trump has aimed his barbs at the media as well. Early in the cycle, he seemed obsessed by Fox's Megyn Kelly, but has since expanded his target list significantly. Trump also performed his impression of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski while news cameras rolled at a rally, which the Clinton campaign fashioned into a recent television spot.
Trump's attacks on opponents and the media have done nothing to dim his popularity — until possibly the past few days. His choice of targets had at least some standing for ridicule, but his repeated attacks on the Khans defy any political sense or logic.
Granted, as participants in the Democratic National Convention who sharply criticized Trump from a prime-time speaking slot, they made themselves into political combatants. Clinton's rebuke of Trump for criticizing retired United States Marine Corps. Gen. John Allen for his lack of success against ISIS rings hollow for that same reason. If Allen can't take criticism, then he shouldn't have gotten up on the convention stage at all. As Harry Truman once put it, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."
The Khans, however, are not anywhere near the target level of Trump's political opponents, national media figures, or "the establishment." They are the grieving parents of a U.S. Army officer killed while serving in Iraq — fighting the same radical Islamist terrorists Trump says he wants to defeat. As such, the Khans occupy a moral ground in American popular culture that makes their position unassailable, even when engaging in political debate.
At the same time, their entry into national politics would have been entirely brief and quickly eclipsed by other events, if Trump had not turned them into the biggest political story of the conventions. It's a classic example of "punching down" — elevating an opponent out of your league by loaning them your own platform. Fighting them only makes Trump look like a bully, not a fighter for the masses of populists who back him. The potential upside is also so small as to be nonexistent. Thanks to Trump's inability to ignore their remarks or shrug them off with a respectful note about their son's service, the Khans have become regular guests on every cable network.
In a normal cycle, nearly all of this would be fatal to a campaign. In a Jackass cycle, though, who knows? Rush Limbaugh theorized that the nude pictures of Mrs. Trump "might wrap up the LGBT vote for Trump," thanks to one picture showing her with another nude female model. Limbaugh comes closer to the mark with a comparison to pop culture. "Isn't this the kind of stuff that makes people big stars today on Twitter and Facebook, TMZ?" he asked. "I mean, this is just the Kardashians … it's relatable."
The attack on the Khans will likely do some damage — a point to which Trump himself appeared to awaken, as he suddenly stopped talking and tweeting about them Monday. The rest of the vulgarities — the name calling, the outrageous statements, and the clear descent of national media to the same level — might serve to reach low-engagement voters even more than Barack Obama's media strategy in 2012 succeeded in doing so. It's the Kardashians, indeed. At least, it's become clear that Team Trump is counting on that strategy just as much for the general election as they did in the primaries. And the media may be counting on it too, for their own purposes.
Word has it that the producers and cast of the Jackass films might consider making another sequel. It might take a lot to convince some of us that the 2016 election cycle isn't it.
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