It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump's comments about John McCain's military career and the Vietnam War in general will prove to be the "jump the shark" moment of Trump's presidential campaign. Last weekend Trump dismissed McCain's credibility on military and veterans' issues, remarking that the Senator was considered a hero "because he was captured" and implicitly only because he'd been captured. Yet again the self-styled billionaire was dogpiled by the media and most of his Republican rivals, with Hillary Clinton jumping on top of the pile to defend McCain's honor. Trump has since tried to clarify his position without apologizing to McCain, while continuing to feud with McCain's protege, Sen. Graham. As I understand it, Trump feels that the soldiers who weren't captured were as much heroes as McCain, but don't get the attention they deserve from either the Department of Veterans Affairs or Sen. McCain. Interestingly, his negative comments about the entire war have been virtually overlooked in comparison with the firestorm over his seemingly more personal comments about McCain. Now 69, Trump was of fighting age during the war but won deferments and had some problem with one of his feet -- he doesn't remember which one. On top of that, he says he "wasn't a big fan" of the war, which he considers a "disaster." I can't recall whether Bill Clinton expressed his opinion of the war as starkly while he was running for or serving as President. Many people hope this controversy will be the beginning of Trump's end, but I wouldn't be too sure.
It's very possible that Trump's target constituencies share his opinion of McCain, if not of the Vietnam War. After all, right-wing Republicans themselves have said ever since McCain lost to Sen. Obama in 2008 that much of their imagined hidden majority stayed home on Election Day because they found McCain uninspiring as a politician and unconvincing as a true conservative. Doubts about McCain's heroism as a prisoner were aired openly, and not only by Democrats, and reported on this blog. If Trump is after the Tea Party vote, it should be recalled that, however Islamophobic they are, they are also, at least reportedly, more ambivalent about military adventurism than many in the GOP establishment, particularly the neocons identified with McCain. These potential Trump voters may not have the Rambo view of Vietnam many might expect of them, even if those old enough to remember still hate hippies. Whether Trump's record on Vietnam will hurt him with these voters is questionable, and for younger voters it will hardly matter. In any event, Trump owes his current prominence in opinion polls partly to his position on illegal immigration and partly to a personal style that appeals to many who may have little clue where he stands on any other issue. People who like Donald Trump say they like him because he "speaks his mind" and/or "tells it like it is" and doesn't care who he offends by doing so. He appeals to people who think tough talk and action are necessary to save the country, and their measure of tough talk, at least, is the expressions of offense felt by those thought to need at least a rhetorical slap in the face. The potential Trump voter is likely to feel that someone who offends so many people must be doing something right, since their gut feeling seems to be that effective solutions will offend many of us. Even if they think John McCain was a hero in captivity, or that Vietnam was a noble cause worth the effort, they may forgive Trump for not backing down or apologizing if his refusal to do so reveals a character they deem necessary in the next President. If I read them right, I doubt that this week's furor will hurt Trump much. But I won't assume that Trump is invulnerable just yet, if only because the other candidates have not yet really begun to fight. Trump's real test -- and the test for his fans -- will come when his rivals start running ads about him.