Despite what you may have been told in high-school civics class, American presidential campaigns are no strangers to weirdness. Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest as he prepared to give a speech in 1912, but refused to go to the hospital until he delivered his entire 50-page oration. Ross Perot dropped out of the 1992 election for months because, he said, Republicans were about to use the CIA to steal his money and loot his bank account. The fate of the 2000 election turned on the difference between hanging chads, bulging chads and pregnant chads.
But — seriously, now — could anybody ever have imagined that, three weeks before the first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, the hottest political story would be a Twitter war between a tiny but murderous Mexican narcotrafficker and a badly toupeed beauty-pageant producer?
“All presidential campaigns are weird, but this one is out of control,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, his voice thick with disbelief.
Wednesday actually marked a truce, however brief, in the vituperative Twitter barrages between Republican candidate Donald Trump, who owns the Miss Universe/Miss USA pageants and, if his own financial filings are to be believed, much of the rest of North America, and Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman, whose diminutive 5-foot-6 height (hence his nickname, El Chapo, Shorty) somehow seems taller when considered in conjunction with the 2,000 to 3,000 murders he claims to have committed.
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Trump was busy filing a financial statement required by federal law — which, he complained, didn’t have enough space for a detailed description of his $10 billion fortune. (“This report was not designed for a man of Mr. Trump's massive wealth,” sniffed a press release issued by his campaign.) Guzman was presumably busy finding a new hideout after escaping a supposedly maximum-security Mexican prison through an air-conditioned mile-and-a-quarter tunnel under his cell toilet.
The two men began their cyber-square-off on Sunday, after Trump, who for a couple of weeks has been giving speeches complaining that Mexican immigrants to the United States are mostly criminals and deadbeats, latched on to El Chapo’s Saturday prison break.
“The U.S. will invite El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord who just escaped prison, to become a U.S. citizen because our “leaders” can't say no!” the candidate tweeted. “Trump, however, would kick his ass!”
El Chapo, who’s had his own Twitter account since 2012, even though he’s been in prison that whole time (the account is widely believed to be handled by one of his adult sons), replied with a fabulously imaginative homosexual slur of Trump that no amount of bleeping could render fit for a family newspaper, even if the family was the Mansons. And, it added: “Keep screwing around and I’m going to make you swallow your [fornicating] words.”
Viewed one way, the tweets were an interesting professional exchange between two famously hardball businessmen; Trump, on his TV show The Apprentice always barked at losers, “You’re fired!” while El Chapo more typically shot them in the head. But Trump decided this was no time to be comparing business models and called the feds.
“The FBI is fully aware of the situation and is actively investigating this threat against Mr. Trump,” campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks told the Miami Herald. She added a statement from Trump: “I'm fighting for much more than myself. I'm fighting for the future of our country which is being overrun by criminals. You can't be intimidated. This is too important.”
So far, at least, the wrangle has been has been a public-relations bonanza for both men. Trump’s popularity has dramatically soared past that of the 16 other candidates in the Republican race, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday show 57 percent of Republicans view him favorably, a precipitous leap from late May, when 65 percent of party members viewed him unfavorably.
El Chapo, meanwhile, has amassed a remarkable 465,000 Twitter followers, though he was undoubtedly disappointed by Wednesday’s news from Rewards for Justice, a U.S. agency that posts bounties for fugitives around the globe. It turns out the $3.8 million bounty on El Chapo’s head makes him only about the 59th-most-wanted man in the world.
What this all means for American democracy is less clear. Veteran Fort Lauderdale campaign consultant Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s and head of his presidential exploratory committee in 2000, says Trump’s abrupt leap in the polls is a sign that politicians and political institutions have fallen into disrepute among voters.
“So when somebody who doesn’t come from a political discipline blurts out hard truths, people like to hear it,” Stone says.
There are already plenty of signs of disaffection or maybe just plain craziness among the voters. At one Republican campaign event, a member of the audience complained to nonplussed candidate Rick Santorum that the Obama administration had tried to obliterate Charleston, S.C., with a nuclear device, and fired all the military officers who wouldn’t go along with the plan.
At another, a voter asked Jeb Bush about the possibility of the earth being devastated by an electromagnetic pulse from outer space. Ordinarily questions about existential threats from outer space remind candidates that they’re due at a meeting somewhere else. Bush, though, replied that he’s researched electromagnetic pulses and “it scared me to no end.” So many odd events like this have occurred that Bloomberg news service has begun a regular feature titled “Whoa, if True” to catalog them.
Not all political scientists agree that the 2016 campaign is significantly more Twilight Zonish than previous editions. “We’ve often had flamboyant figures in American politics prior to Trump,” said Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.
“Teddy Roosevelt was shot going into a campaign rally and gave his speech before seeing a doctor. [The speech may have saved him; the bullet went through his 50-page script and stopped short of his heart.] When Grover Cleveland ran for president, his opponents gathered at his rallies and chanted ‘Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House ha-ha-ha’ because he supposedly had fathered an illegitimate child — though actually the father was a married friend of his and Cleveland was just trying to help the woman out by giving her some money.”
Maybe. But next month’s debate among Republican candidates could be an event for the ages. Many Republicans are already cantankerous about the debate, set for Cleveland, which will exclude the seven GOP candidates at the bottom of the polls. Trump’s ascendance will only raise the temperature.
“If they really do keep it to 10 candidates, you can count on the ones cut out trying to make a scene,” says Sabato. “Somebody will try something. They’ll try to barge in. Or maybe they’ll place some supporters inside the room to shout out their names. It will be the first debate ever that’s truly must-see TV.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.