Wayne Barrett on Trump’s Debate Performance: ‘He Was Trying Too Hard’


Perhaps no one is as intimately acquainted with Donald Trump’s particular brand of crazy as Wayne Barrett, the former Village Voice reporter who has been chronicling the big orange menace since the late 1970s. He did some of the earliest investigative work into Trump-the-developer when he first came onto the scene in that era, and went on to write the definitive — and decidedly unauthorized — biography of the man, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.

After Monday night’s debate, we caught up with Barrett — who accepted the Urban Journalism Award from City Limits, a publication started by Village Voice alumni in the late Seventies, a few hours before the candidates hit the stage — to get his thoughts on the debate and what it might mean for the remainder of the campaign. Like many students of Trump, Barrett isn’t expecting the candidate’s poor performance to throw his loyal supporters.

“As long as he makes it clear that he is gonna screw black people, he’s got a core base that will never leave him,” Barrett says.

Barrett estimates that Trump will carry 40 percent of the electorate on the strength of his race baiting, combined with a certain percentage of party loyalists who will go with the Republican candidate in any election. And no amount of grimacing or interrupting or incoherent debate responses will undermine that.

“I mean,the only gaffe that could make an impact on his core base is to say, you know, we’re really shafting minorities in this country, and we’ve got to give them more in terms of resources and help,” Barrett says. “That’s the only thing that I think could hurt him with his base. Because the sometimes explicit, and always implicit, message of the campaign has race at the very core. That’s where his appeal is.”

A certain number of undecided voters — a demographic that inexplicably seems to still exist — and potential third-party voters might be swayed, he said. Not just by Trump’s poor performance but by Hillary Clinton’s relatively forceful one. But he doesn’t expect Trump’s numbers to fall much below the floor of bigots and GOP stalwarts.

When we talked to Barrett about Trump’s candidacy in July of 2015, he thought Trump was probably as surprised as anyone by his viability; what had begun as a branding exercise was suddenly something more.

“It started out as whatever it was, a scam, a flirtation, but when you’ve just narrowed a very large national gap, you’ve got to believe this is within your grasp,” Barrett says. “He has reached a point where he can feel this in his hands…and I think last night was, strangely enough, a perfect demonstration of that, because he was trying too hard.”

If nothing else, Barrett adds, becoming president would do wonders for the Trump brand. It would be almost impossible to sort through the web of business entities that make up the Trump organization, and almost impossible to track down the myriad ways in which favor could be sought with a President Trump.

After reporting on the guy for the better part of forty years, Barrett says Bruce Springsteen might have captured his motivations just right. Quoting “Badlands,” Barrett says, ” ‘Poor man want to be rich, rich man want to be king, king ain’t satisfied till he runs everything.’ I think he’s not going to be satisfied unless he is, you know, the emperor.”

Whether Trump can do better next time is an open question, Barrett says. On some level, he seems unable to resist personal attacks, and lets any substantive point he might have fall by the wayside in favor of vitriol and an almost pathological need to respond to any perceived slight.

“He would shout over Lester Holt, and he would insist on getting the last word in,” Barrett says. “But when he would get the last word in, he would just repeat something he’d already said. It wasn’t even like he had something meaningful to add. He was just being belligerent.”

The focus on ad hominem kept him from invoking even the boilerplate positions that have gotten him this far. “He just disintegrated and didn’t raise the issues that can actually help him win an election.”

The smart play, Barrett says, is to keep harping on the idea of Trump as change agent. Simply point out that Clinton represents the old guard establishment, and what he has to offer, more than anything, is a break from the past.

“I mean, it’s a fallacious argument, but it has a chance of winning. But you can’t keep saying that for ninety minutes. So he’s got to say other things, and almost everything else he says is damaging.”