Dana Milbank: Trump's act is wearing thin
ASHBURN, Va. — Maybe this is how it ends for Donald Trump: not with a bang but with a child's whimper.
The Republican presidential nominee, rallying supporters in a high school auditorium here, was talking about Chinese currency manipulation when an infant began to cry.
"Don't worry about that baby. I love babies," he said. "Don't worry. The mom's running around like -- don't worry about it, you know. It's young and beautiful and healthy, and that's what we want."
It was an unexpected moment of tenderness from the strongman — and it lasted precisely 55 seconds.
"Actually, I was only kidding: You can get the baby out of here," he said when the child continued to cry. "I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I'm speaking. That's OK. People don't understand, that's OK."
There were murmurs and some uncomfortable laughter.
After attacking prisoners of war, virtually every racial minority in the United States and even the parents of a fallen U.S. soldier, it was perhaps just a matter of time until Trump got around to attacking a mother and her baby.
It was all part of an hour-long show in which Trump called the country a disaster; described Hillary Clinton as a "thief," a "crook" and the "Devil"; celebrated his own golf course ("I have tremendous acreage"); praised Vladimir Putin; renewed the bogus charge that the Islamic State "stole our passport machine"; and continued on while event staff escorted out silent protesters who wore T-shirts that said "Black Lives Matter" and "Islam is Peace" and who did nothing more than make peace signs with their fingers.
Before the event, a group of local college-age kids had stocked up on "Hillary for Prison" T-shirts and Trump baseball caps. After the event, the previously Trump-leaning kids pronounced themselves unimpressed.
"That was a waste of time," said Davis Rosser.
"I learned he really likes himself," said John McDermott.
"And he has a golf course," added Andrew Celio.
So would they vote for Trump?
"I'm less inclined," said Celio.
"I'll grudgingly vote for Hillary," said Rosser.
Add those straws in the wind to the massive blowback now building against Trump's candidacy. He has for his entire campaign operated under the theory that all publicity is good publicity, that he'll dominate at the polls if he can dominate each news cycle with his latest outrage.
But the act is wearing thin. He has faced building criticism from conservatives and fellow Republicans for encouraging Russia to hack Clinton's emails, for apparently being unaware of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and for senselessly and repeatedly attacking the Muslim parents of a slain American soldier. His refusal Tuesday to support Paul Ryan or John McCain in their primaries (both men are supporting him) will surely heighten the criticism.
Polls show Clinton rebuilding the substantial lead she had before the conventions and before the FBI director's scalding comments on her emails. And Trump, for the first time, appears to be contemplating the possibility of defeat.
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, in an interview with Breitbart broadcast Friday, said Trump should begin talking about voter fraud, suggesting "this election will be illegitimate." Sure enough, on Monday, Trump told a crowd that "I'm afraid the election's gonna be rigged." He resumed the theme here on Tuesday, saying "we're running against a rigged system," which was also "rigged against Bernie Sanders."
At the high school here he brought onstage a veteran who offered Trump his Purple Heart. "I always wanted to get the Purple Heart," said Trump, whose multiple deferments kept him out of Vietnam. "This was much easier."
There are signs that Trump's paranoia and vindictiveness are losing their power, even among insiders. When I arrived at the media entrance here, I expected to be turned away, because Trump's nominal blacklist of The Washington Post remains in effect. (He later granted an interview to the Post's Philip Rucker, during which he refused to support Ryan and McCain.)
To my surprise, an event staffer handed me a credential -- apparently this person's regard for the First Amendment exceeded his regard for Trump -- and I was safely seated in the press section before a Trump aide, in the vain hope of evicting me, came to tell me I was admitted "in error."
No. The error was Trump's belief that, in a free society, you can ban news organizations from public events. It's welcome to see Republicans, conservatives and even some Trump supporters tiring of his assaults on democracy and decency.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post.