“Handcuffed to a Hurricane”: Maureen Dowd and Carl Hulse on 2016

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and the Times’s chief Washington correspondent, Carl Hulse, joined Institute of Politics director David Axelrod on October 28 to discuss the winding road that has led the nation to the state in which it finds itself only eleven days before the presidential election.

Dowd and Hulse walked into the sunlit solarium of the Quadrangle Club sporting Chicago Cubs baseball caps in honor of the World Series game at Wrigley Field that evening. Hulse was quick to remove his cap and reveal that it had been signed by former Cubs player Ernie Banks. Soon, however, the talk turned from the World Series to a much more serious and historic competition.

Axelrod began the discussion by asking what makes this election year so dramatically different from all those that have preceded it. Dowd, who has covered nine presidential elections “in high heels and high dudgeon,” as she put it, suggested that this election may be unique in part because the populace has been hoping for a strong outsider like Donald Trump, so that even the self-destructive behavior that comes so naturally to Trump has not been enough to end his campaign. Supporting Trump, Dowd said, is “like being handcuffed to a hurricane.” She went on to compare Trump in the Republican primaries to a bank robber who enters a bank and finds the doors open and the safes unguarded, and suggested that he is just as surprised as many observers are to find himself as the Republican nominee for president.

The conversation then turned to the growing gulf between the Republican establishment and its constituency, from which, Hulse argued, Republican officials are becoming increasingly estranged.

“Some Republicans,” said Hulse, “are still discovering that they don’t understand their constituents.”

Upon withdrawing their support for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape was released, Hulse explained, several Republican politicians were surprised to find that their constituents were disappointed that they were no longer supporting the Republican nominee. Hulse suggested that this indicates a growing division between the right-wing establishment and its voters.

Another major point of discussion was the relationship between Trump and the media. During the Q&A session, one student posed a poignant question to both Dowd and Hulse, observing that Trump had been receiving high levels of coverage despite offering very little content to cover. Dowd defended the media’s treatment of what has been an extremely unconventional campaign, pointing out that any coverage of Trump would offer little in the way of factual content. “Part of the reason there isn’t much content in covering Trump is because he has no content—he’s post-substance,” she said. She also reminded the audience that much of Trump’s behavior as a candidate was unprecedented, giving the example of his unusual “emotional breakdown on the political stage.”

Hulse shared Dowd’s take on Trump and the media, explaining that the media has a responsibility to report information about Trump that it’s then up to the viewers to analyze. Dowd added that the problem isn’t simply that the media are exploiting the rise of Trump for ratings: Trump has a long history of exploiting the news media, from free advertising to taking reporters around his hotels to shoot what she deemed “infomercials.”

The conversation shifted towards Trump’s relation to traditional Republican ideals when a PhD student in political science asked about the evolution of Republican’s position on federalism and states’ rights. Hulse argued that the GOP has become an “of-the-moment” party with the evolution of politics. Trump’s campaign, he continued, has begun to adopt ideas that are traditionally “anathema” to the party, from consolidating executive power to nationalizing policing to opposing free trade.

Hulse added that Trump’s campaign has reversed traditional voting blocs by appropriating into the Republican Party the blue-collar electorate that had been part of the Democratic coalition since the New Deal—even as he drives college-educated voters towards the Democratic Party.

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