Trump Time Capsule #17,352: A Short Break

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The candidate waves goodbye for the moment, and so does one of his chroniclers. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

The pace of uninformed, embarrassing, and objectively disqualifying statements from Donald Trump is picking up. The most recent tiny example that would be huge for anyone else: last night in Dallas, Trump spoke to a crowd at Gilley’s, a country-music bar and dance hall so famous that there was a whole movie about it back in the 1980s. That was Urban Cowboy, with John Travolta and Debra Winger, set in the original Gilley’s, near Houston. That site is now closed, but there’s a new Gilley’s in Dallas. The movie was based on an Aaron Latham story in Esquire about Gilley’s and the oil-boom culture of that era.

Debra Winger on the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy. Or, as the presumptive GOP nominee put it, on “the horse.” (Here’s a clip of the scene on YouTube.)

One of the things that made Gilley’s famous was its “mechanical bull” that daring riders, male and female, would try to stay aboard as it bucked and reared. It was such a central part of the Gilley’s saga that a dramatic climax of the Urban Cowboy was Winger doing an ostentatiously sexy ride aboard the bull while Travolta looked on and steamed. That was a long time ago, but it was during Trump’s conscious lifetime, and if he had ever heard of Gilley’s, he had heard of the bull.

Thus the oddity of Trump telling the crowd at Gilley’s that he was excited to ride “that horse.” As Mac McCann writes today in the Dallas Morning News:

Trump is laugh-out-loud funny. Referring to Gilley’s mechanical bull, Trump suggested he ride “that horse,” but added, “The problem is, even if I make it, they’ll say I fell off the horse and it was terrible.”…  He asked the crowd, “Do we have fun at Trump rallies?” And the crowd erupted in the affirmative.

It was fun. It wasn’t politics.

The whole column is worth reading, but just to stick with the “horse”: Of course it doesn’t matter at all. But similar tiny notes of being out of touch with pop culture became big problems for other candidates. One example was incumbent President George H.W. Bush apparently not knowing what a scanner was when he visited a grocery store. Another was presidential candidate John Kerry being ridiculed for something he apparently never even said: “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?”

Suppose Kerry — or Dan Quayle or Al Gore or either of the Bushes — had made the bull/horse mixup? The mocking op-ed columns practically write themselves, with a different angle appropriate for each politician. (Gore and Kerry: out of touch elitists. The elder Bush: fake Texan? The younger one: “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” Quayle: potatoe. Etc). But with Trump, it’s just the 19th-oddest event of a normal campaign day.

***

Because Trump’s outlier status is becoming better established, I’m going to slow the pace of documenting the examples, even as the examples start piling up faster. His special status is beginning to sink in. I recommend two columns today on this point. One is by Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, looking back on why he so badly underestimated Trump’s chances. (I’ve gone through the same exercise, but Drezner reckons with the man we’re seeing in the general election campaign.)

The other is by Matthew Continetti in Washington Free Beacon, on the “Self Immolation of the Republican Party.” Continetti is conservative, and so is the WFB. Here’s part of the case he makes:

If Republican voters had nominated a typical candidate, a governor or former governor who had won office in a big state by straddling the center and the right, that man would be ahead of Hillary Clinton right now.

But instead the voters went for Trump, who has never run for nor held office, dodged the draft, and spent the last year insulting Mexicans, P.O.W.s, women, the disabled, Muslims, you name it, while saying George W. Bush lied us into war with Iraq and implying Ted Cruz’s dad had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. Then there was the part where he bragged about his genitals before ranting that he would order soldiers to commit war crimes and “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” This week he cast the troops in Iraq as thieves, threw his support behind an unconstitutional proposal to deny Second Amendment rights to citizens on the no fly list, invited Kim Jong Un to Washington, hinted that President Obama supported ISIS, denied press credentials to the Washington Post after the paper reported this insinuation, and then turned around and tweeted that a Breitbart.com article proved he was right about Obama all along.

This is not a good man. This is not a stable man. It is in the self-interest of no rational person to have him near the situation room.

***

Again, the point is beginning to register: the GOP is preparing to nominate a historically unprecedented, and totally unfit, candidate for the presidency. As that becomes conventional wisdom, I’ll record more selective highlights and less of the daily scrum.

The bright side of the change is that I’m off to report on more encouraging topics for a while, starting in Kansas and Texas. See you in this space as circumstances warrant, or if Trump somehow starts to become “normalized.”

Update For reasons presumably related to the pace of posting from the road, in this case Powderly, Kentucky, the original version of this post somehow was missing the explanation of why it was strange for Trump to talk about a “horse”  — and why if you were  a non-Texan who had ever heard of Gilley’s you would have heard of it for the mechanical bull. That explanation is now back in.