The explanation for the rhetorical success of Donald Trump today lies in a column written 43 years ago — Watergate: The Phony-Tough Meet the Crazy-Brave — by the late Washington Post writer Stewart Alsop.
Arguably one of the finest columns ever written, it outlines two subsets of how the reasonable, decent "phony-toughs" (those who act tough as nails while privately living in abject fear) in the Nixon administration were mystified by the "crazy-brave" (those who are irresponsibly afraid of nothing and act on their fearlessness), far right outsiders such as G. Gordon Liddy, who support doomed-to-fail policies, such as those represented in the general label of "Watergate."
Alsop said the crazy-brave "exercise a kind of hex or double whammy on the phony-tough, and they keep getting the phony-tough into terrible trouble."
Fast forward to 2015-2016, and you have the crazy-brave personification of Donald Trump who's always doing crazy things that ought to get him in trouble, but don't — much like Alsop's crazy-braves.
What makes Mr. Trump unusual among crazy-brave principals are his falsifiable claims, such as his maintaining that he never supported the Iraq War, despite a widely seen video of a 2003 Howard Stern show wherein he says just that. The same with his alleged Libyan war opposition, despite the fact that he said on Piers Morgan's show on March 28, 2011, "And at this point, if you don't get rid of Gadhafi, it's a major, major black eye for this country."
What is the effect on Mr. Trump's public support when such indisputable contradictions (and others) are iterated? He contemporaneously rises in the polls vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton. This automatic rise may have recently been attenuated by his Captain Queeg-like pursuit of a former Miss Universe and the revelation of a 2005 video in which Mr. Trump — in shocking profanity — brags of his sexual prowess, uses obscene references to women's body parts and follows up with the current-day disingenuous apology: "I apologize if anyone was offended." Even crazy-braves can go too far.
Mr. Trump's willingness before the second debate Sunday to put together a news conference with alleged sexual assault victims of Bill Clinton, plus his reference to such during the debate, certainly were acts that only a crazy-brave would dare.
At a January political campaign rally, one of Mr. Trump's most revealing quotes — one that also did not cause a problem for Mr. Trump with his followers or team — was "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." When CNN asked him to elaborate on his remarks, like any charismatic politician, Mr. Trump refused to do so. Such political figures do not self de-mystify.
Kellyanne Conway, the relatively new Trump campaign manager, periodically faces hostile media incredulous at what Mr. Trump has said. When initially Mr. Trump refused to retract his birther statement that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, Ms. Conway stated unequivocally that Mr. Trump did not in fact believe the president was foreign born. Mr. Trump's support, again, increased. Ms. Conway displayed no embarrassment or discomfort, and Mr. Trump issued a general statement that some of his supporters may disagree with him from time to time, but that's OK.
Mr. Trump does not care if his messages are inconsistent or even contradictory. As long as his acolytes, like Spokeswoman Conway, remain loyal, they have job security even if their message sometimes is at odds with their Pied Piper.
The crazy-brave are so magical to their followers that they largely succeed until they get power and indisputably fail, by which time their phony-tough supporters are left to say, "no one could see this coming." For Mr. Trump, that would come only after he becomes president.
Of the Nixon phony-toughs involved peripherally in the Watergate scandal, Alsop asked: "How could people who were clearly not morons have been such goddam fools?"
It is all due to the ability of crazy-braves to mystifyingly succeed and avoid consequences (for a time) wherein the rest of us would have failed and suffered. With the latest revelations, however, crazy-brave Donald Trump may be de-mystified before he has a chance to take office.