It was worse in 1828, when Andrew Jackson blamed political slander for the apparent heart attack that killed his wife, but by August the 2016 election had become one of the nastiest in American history. Already the negative campaigning had filtered into at least two obituaries. "In lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Hillary Clinton," said the notice for Elaine Fydrych, 63, of Runnemede, New Jersey. In Pittsburgh, 70-year-old Jeffrey Cohen made the opposite wish: "Jeffrey would ask that in lieu of flowers, please do not vote for Donald Trump."
Both candidates infuriated Bill Bryant Jr., a retired Army officer in Marietta, Georgia. He was young for 87, fond of a terrier named Jewel and the Honda Accord he still drove to the grocery store. But he wasn't sure he could take three more months of Clinton and Trump—much less whichever presidency came next.
"I'm done with it," he told his third son, Alan. "I'm ready to go. I don't even want to see what happens."
What happened from late July through the first half of August was unusual even for Trump. He had a pile of grenades and he wanted to see them explode, anywhere, everywhere, no matter the damage to others or himself. He was feeling boxed in by his campaign chairman, and he wanted the world to know that Paul Manafort was not the boss of Donald Trump. Quite the opposite. If Manafort was leaking stories about the new Trump, the old Trump had to work twice as hard to prove him wrong. Kaboom, kaboom. Did he really want to be president? Yes, if he could also hold a news conference the day after his convention and threaten to punish John Kasich and Ted Cruz by funding a super PAC to prevent their re-election. Sure, as long as everyone knew he didn't want Cruz's endorsement, and would reject said endorsement if offered, and oh, by the way, he still thought Cruz's father might have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination.
Trump might have moved past the Khizr Khan story by offering a few well-chosen words of gratitude and condolence. But he couldn't, or wouldn't. He once told biographer Michael D'Antonio, "When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I'm basically the same." Khan hit him first, and Trump hit back.
"I'd like to hear his wife say something," he told Maureen Dowd of The New York Times the day after Khan's convention speech. Trump liked to drop hints, to make disturbing implications that his surrogates could recast if politically necessary. Now he made that impossible. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, he said, "If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."
She told him. In The Washington Post, Ghazala Khan explained her silence at the Democratic convention. Twelve years after his death, she still cried for her son every day. "I cannot walk into a room with pictures of Humayun," she wrote. "For all these years, I haven't been able to clean the closet where his things are—I had to ask my daughter-in-law to do it. Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could?"
Trump seemed incredulous about the growing uproar. "I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention," he tweeted. "Am I not allowed to respond?" He was allowed, of course, just as the Khans were allowed to respond to his responses, and their dialogue sustained a narrative that was unequivocally horrible for Trump.
Clinton operatives debated how to respond. According to Teddy Goff, her chief digital strategist, "That weekend I've got people on my team chomping at the bit to do a video, do an ad, and it was (policy adviser) Jake Sullivan who said, ‘Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.' We're just going to let him do what he's going to do." And so, Goff said in an interview, they "let him dig his own grave."
One prominent Republican after another took the Khans' side. Dozens abandoned Trump altogether. Richard Hanna, a Republican congressman from New York, took it a step further: He said he would vote for Hillary Clinton.
Trump felt more besieged than ever, and his solution was more grenades. He blasted a fire marshal in Colorado for limiting admission to his rally. He offended Purple Heart recipients by casually saying he had always wanted one. When a baby cried at a rally in Virginia, he said, "You can get the baby out of here." Speaking on condition of anonymity to CNN's Jim Acosta, a Republican fundraiser asked, "Why doesn't he kick a puppy and call it a day?"
Not even Trump could insult a Gold Star mother without some cost to himself. Some polls from early August showed him behind Clinton by double digits, both nationally and in swing states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania. One even showed him trailing narrowly in Georgia, which had not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1992.
Yes, it could get worse. One day Trump hinted about what "Second Amendment people" might do to stop the next President Clinton from taking their guns. The next day he called President Obama the "founder of ISIS." When reporters disputed this claim, his response defied interpretation: "Obviously I'm being sarcastic, but not so sarcastic, to be honest." Anyway, he explained, it was all the media's fault. His fans at a rally in Florida agreed. They turned to reporters in the press pen and chanted, LOCK THEM UP!
No one did, because this was not Russia, and the media struck again on August 14. The New York Times reported that Ukrainian investigators had discovered evidence that Manafort and others might have received millions in illegal payments from Ukraine's former pro-Russia ruling party. Manafort, who worked for the former Ukrainian president as a consultant before joining the Trump campaign, denied the allegations, but the controversy gave Trump one more reason to let him go. By week's end, Manafort had resigned. Campaign adviser Kellyanne Conway had been promoted to campaign manager. And Trump had brought on a new chief executive who also liked throwing grenades: Stephen Bannon, former chairman of the pro-Trump website Breitbart. The site had recently published a headline calling Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, a "renegade Jew."
Finally, Clinton and Trump agreed on something.
"There is no new Donald Trump," she said.
"I am who I am," he said.
The mudslinging continued. Around mid-August, Bill Bryant Jr. drove his Honda to the grocery store. Back at home he tried to carry too many bags up the stairs, and he fell and suffered a concussion. One bad thing led to another, the way it sometimes does when you're 87. A kidney stone, an infection, a decision to enter hospice care. Bryant kept saying he didn't want to see how it ended. He died on September 10, fifty-nine days before the election.
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By now, Americans understood that future generations would judge them for what they did in the time of Trump. Many signed open letters, if only to memorialize their dissent. There were writers against Trump, historians against Trump, technology leaders against Trump. He drove the conversation, demanded a response, and those who found him hateful were tempted to respond with hate. Thus, when the pro-Trump author Ann Coulter appeared at the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe, one celebrity after another turned viciously on Coulter. (Her many provocations included a call for Trump to deport Nikki Haley, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina.) The retired quarterback Peyton Manning mocked Coulter's appearance. The comedian Jimmy Carr suggested she kill herself. The comedian Nikki Glaser told her, "The only person you will ever make happy is the Mexican who digs your grave." It went on like that. When an anarchist group installed a statue of a naked Trump at Union Square Park in New York, assistant parks commissioner Sam Biederman made an official statement that belittled the statue's anatomy. What did people do in the time of Trump? Some accidentally followed his example.
It fell to Clinton to actually stop Trump, and on a bus tour after her convention she struck at the vulnerable heart of his candidacy.
"The only thing he makes in America are bankruptcies," she said in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, at a factory owned by the company that brought the production of Lincoln Logs from China back home to the United States. This line of attack might have stopped Trump in 2015 if the other Republicans had used it more often. The man who wanted to punish corporations for outsourcing jobs had outsourced production of his own Donald J. Trump clothing line to such places as Honduras and Bangladesh, where the average factory worker earned thirty-three cents an hour. Clinton drove home the point the next day by repeatedly advertising the American-made plaid shirt her husband wore as he sat behind her, chewing his gum and occasionally clapping.
Crossing hostile territory in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton deftly avoided standard Democratic talking points on race, guns and abortion. Instead she talked about football, hot peppers, jobs, jobs, jobs. It was time to widen the tent. She made her supporters wait for hours on July 30, blaming thunderstorms, not mentioning the late start she got in Harrisburg on account of a rare interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. She made them wait so long the next afternoon in Columbus that dozens were treated for heat-related illness. What were they going to do? Vote for Trump? He could barely persuade the Republicans.
In early August, Clinton stepped aside and let Trump inflict his own wounds. No need to interfere with his self-destruction. She held fewer rallies and gave fewer public speeches. Instead she went on a fundraising blitz, headlining thirty-seven events that month and taking in close to $70 million. Her celebrity friends turned out in force. When Leonardo DiCaprio had to cancel a fundraiser because of a scheduling conflict involving his climate-change documentary, he called for backup. Yes, Justin Timberlake and his wife, Jessica Biel, would host the event at their house in the Hollywood Hills; and yes, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Aniston would be there. During a swing through the Hamptons later in August, Sir Paul McCartney asked Clinton to dance while Jimmy Buffett played "Cheeseburger in Paradise." McCartney also played a few, including "Can't Buy Me Love."
"This is the first time I've paid to hear myself sing," he said.
Clinton did make a notable speech on August 25 in Reno, Nevada. It was supposed to be about small business, but now something else was on her mind. "Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia," she said. "He is taking hate groups mainstream." She talked about racial discrimination in previous decades at Trump apartments and casinos, the racist ideology of the pro-Trump "alt-right" movement and the wild conspiracy theories encouraged by Trump himself. None of these charges moved the polls in her favor. In a competing speech that day, Trump called them "the oldest play in the Democratic playbook." A few weeks later, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, an undecided female voter at an AARP focus group made a similar point:
"Respectfully, the public has heard for thirty years that the media, not all the media, but from a significant portion of you, that every single Republican who has run is the dumbest, least honest, most racist whatever that has ever run for office.…So when an actual stupid, crazy, dishonest racist showed up, no one believed you."
To win in November, Clinton would need to mobilize women, minorities, college-educated whites and Democrats. "Voters want to vote for something," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "Particularly women, and particularly our base…When we're doing the negative messaging, sometimes we solidify their base."
Her Republican counterpart and occasional collaborator agreed. "With the exception of 1972, we as a nation voted for the most positive, optimistic, forward-looking, pleasant candidate," Kellyanne Conway said in an interview before she became Trump's campaign manager. "When you look at the polling, you will quickly find people go for the more optimistic candidate—particularly females."
The Democratic convention had made the affirmative case for Clinton. But in August, she did not press the case for herself. And in her frequent absence from the campaign trail, negative stories filled the void. On September 2, the FBI released documents from its investigation into her private email server. They indicated that Clinton told investigators at least thirty-nine times that she couldn't recall or remember something. They quoted an aide who took one of her old mobile devices and smashed it with a hammer. They said a civilian who managed her server admitted deleting her emails even after the House Benghazi Committee issued an order for their preservation. Clinton's email scandal just kept coming back. So did the last man between her and the presidency.
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The new Donald Trump first appeared in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 18. He was a lot like the old Trump—nearly identical, in fact—but he did something the old Trump never would have done.
"Sometimes, in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words," he said. "Or you say the wrong thing. I have done that."
He gave a knowing smile, a long pause. Laughter came from the audience.
"And believe it or not, I regret it," he said, still looking jovial. He paused again. His supporters filled the silence: TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! He smiled more broadly, gave a thumbs-up and finally turned somber.
"And I do regret it," he said. "Particularly where it may have caused personal pain."
He never said he was sorry. He did not specify an offense or a victim. But this vague and oddly cheerful half-apology was half an apology more than he'd previously given for any of the vast array of offenses he'd committed in his 429 days as a presidential candidate. It was something like progress. And it began an improbable recovery for a campaign that many observers had already pronounced dead.
It happened because Trump listened to a woman.
Kellyanne Conway was a Republican pollster who had known Trump for ten years, occasionally giving him political advice. She once co-wrote a book and ran her own business the same year she gave birth to twins. "That woman is unbelievable," said her co-author, Celinda Lake. "She gets more done by noon than most of us get done all day." Conway, 49, ran a super PAC for Ted Cruz during the primaries, occasionally slashing at Trump for his sins against conservatism, but she joined the Trump campaign as an adviser in early July. As the new campaign manager in mid-August, she could talk to Trump in a way that Manafort never could. When she made a suggestion, she had poll numbers to back it up. She tried to get him to stop insulting people not named Clinton (though her success at that was short-lived) and to start giving more Americans more reasons to vote for Trump.
The candidate who had often ridiculed opponents for using teleprompters now used them regularly. He held fewer news conferences and called in to fewer TV and radio shows, diminishing his chances to go off-message. After heavy rain in Louisiana caused the nation's worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, Trump handed out supplies and thanked the National Guard. He visited Mexico and made a surprisingly cordial joint appearance with President Enrique Peña Nieto. (Only later did they publicly contradict each other on who would pay for the border wall.) He visited an African-American church in Detroit and said, "The African-American faith community has been one of God's greatest gifts to America and its people."
The polls tightened. Trump kept making gaffes, or what would have been gaffes for anyone else, or what would have been gaffes in any other cycle, or what would have been gaffes if anyone could prove they actually diminished his chances of becoming president. Maybe they were not gaffes at all. Maybe enough voters were just angry enough with the status quo that they would forgive almost anything from a disrupter who temporarily refrained from denigrating Gold Star families. Or maybe he was altering standards of propriety in real time. When Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of the NBA star Dwyane Wade, was shot to death amid Chicago's most violent month since 1997, Trump tweeted, "Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!" When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, Trump said, "Maybe he should find a country that works better for him." Did he regret saying these things? Apparently not. The polls kept tightening.
In Castle Rock, Colorado, the anti-Trump activist Kendal Unruh tried to compromise with her fellow Republicans. She had been a precinct committeewoman since 1988, helping turn out as many as 98 percent of registered Republicans in previous elections, and now she offered to canvass for down-ballot candidates if she could just avoid canvassing for Trump. No deal, party leaders told her: Campaign for Trump or don't campaign at all. Which is why Unruh left the Republican Party. She had grown up in a religious cult, and Trump reminded her of a cult leader, and Trump's followers reminded her of cult members. Nothing would dissuade them. "They're in a pit," she said. "And you have to shine the light on the pit. And they have to come to the realization that they're in the pit. And they have to crawl out on their own."
If Trump said the sun was blue, someone would have believed him. At a rally in Connecticut in August, he kept telling camera operators to turn their lenses and show the crowd. And then a protester made a disruption, and Trump said, "Oh, look! The cameras are turned. Awww. Look. The cameras are turned. Wow. Oh, that's great. Those cameras never, ever turn unless there's a protester, because, see, a protester is considered a bad thing for Trump. ‘Oh, he had a protester.' So I didn't think they could turn, but when there's a protester, they're like pretzels."
The cameras had not turned. Trump simply made it up, and his supporters booed accordingly. Some even turned to look, and saw that no cameras had turned, and kept booing the media, and kept cheering Trump. No legion of fact-checkers could match that kind of power. After what could have been a ruinous month, Trump still had a chance. A national CNN/ORC poll on September 6 showed him in a virtual tie with Clinton. Sometimes he seemed invincible.