There comes a moment in the political life of every big-personality, more-sizzle-than-steak candidate when they step across the line of legitimacy, or illegitimacy (depending on your perspective), even for media addicted to the high ratings these candidate-entertainers provide. That moment for Sarah Palin was her Katie Couric interview in 2008 -- the hockey-mom-has-no-clothes revealing from which she, and the McCain campaign, never recovered. In Donald Trump's candidacy -- which The Huffington Post is appropriately covering in our Entertainment section -- the equivalent moment might have just happened.
It was not the moment in the second Republican debate when Carly Fiorina carved him up like an Easter ham with her withering "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said" zinger. That drew blood (as did the dramatic 12 seconds she remained silent after her response), but it wasn't fatal. No, historians looking back will peg the beginning of the end of the Trump show to his New Hampshire moment last week. Taking questions at a town hall event in Rochester, Trump listened as an audience member asserted that President Obama is a Muslim, "not even an American." Trump looked the man square in the eye, and declared: "No ... He's a decent family man [and] a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."
Just kidding. That was actually what John McCain -- the one Trump said is "not a war hero" -- said to a woman at a campaign rally in 2008 who claimed that President Obama was an Arab. What Trump really said was, well, pretty much nothing: "We are going to be looking at a lot of different things and, you know, a lot of people are saying that."
There are few things as absolute in damning a candidate as a refusal to acknowledge simple reality -- especially a candidate who says he'll be tough with our enemies but refuses to even stand up to his own supporters. Refusing to acknowledge that Obama was born in this country is the equivalent of refusing to say that the earth is round. Even Trump's own supporters are embarrassed. Mark Cuban on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday had to scramble for cover by categorically stating that the candidate he's supporting for president "is not gonna win. He's got no chance... none."
So when will the media be embarrassed enough to refuse to continue to give Trump the large megaphone they are giving him? Not because he's the front-runner -- come on, let's stop pretending that's the reason -- but because of the ratings he fuels as the entertainer he undoubtedly is.
As Sarah Palin demonstrated, even the ratings-crazed media are capable of falling out of love with a big-ratings stunt candidate. With Trump, you can already see it happening. The cracks are beginning to show. And when the media fall out of love they fall out of love very quickly.
Here's Chuck Todd, on NBC Nightly News just hours after Trump's New Hampshire town hall:
It means a slow fall. ... over time, I think this is the week we're going to look back on and say, "maybe this was the beginning of the end of Trump '16." We'll find out.
Indeed we will. Already, Todd's oft-replayed interview on Trump's private plane now seems a distant memory.
And here is George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, repeatedly asking the candidate to answer whether President Obama was born in the United States, a question that had the straight talker dodging, ducking and twisting:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So for the record, was President Obama born in the United States?
TRUMP: Well, you know, I don't get into it, George. I think about jobs. I'm talking about the military. I don't get into it. I mean they ask that question and I just want to talk about the things, because frankly, it's of no longer interest to me. We're beyond that. And it's just something I don't talk about.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the way to get beyond it is to answer yes or no.
Do you believe this...
TRUMP: Well, that's -- that's possible, but I don't get into it and I just don't talk about it.
And on and on it went.
Trump's perceived strength is that he's a straight talker, willing to say what everyone else is thinking but no one dares to say. But what his New Hampshire moment reveals is the opposite of straight talk. He could have answered yes or no to Stephanopoulos in the same way he could have corrected the questioner. He could have even just distanced himself from the racist, hateful, untruthful message -- anything to show that he did not implicitly agree with the notion that President Obama is a secret, foreign-born Muslim and that all Muslims are, as the questioner said, "a problem" to be gotten rid of. Instead, he chose to say nothing.
Trump's Sarah Palin moment reveals that he's living in another reality. His failure to set the record straight at one of his own campaign events isn't a matter of opinion; it's a matter of sanity and leadership. And anytime the media refuse to call out and hold a candidate accountable for such fundamental and incontrovertible untruths, that's irresponsible. Trump certainly provides plenty to work with: According to Politifact, he has made exactly zero "true" statements. So the New Hampshire moment will also, we hope, mark the moment the media have begun, at last, to do their job. So far Trump has been allowed to play by his own rules -- using the same standards for a presidential campaign as he brought to his career as an entertainer and reality show star -- and the media have given him a pass. He's been treated as an exception -- even allowed to phone in to the morning shows (even the Sunday ones) whenever he wants to air his ridiculous views -- which has only fueled the media mania surrounding his run.
But the mania is starting to fade. Cracks are appearing in Trump's latest Trump-branded edifice -- because this one never actually had a foundation. The only surprise is that the unraveling of Trump, the candidate who can't stop talking, came not from something he said, but something he didn't say.