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Playing at being president

There’s good news for those who are trying to stop current GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump from getting the Republican nomination: Help is coming from an unlikely source — Donald Trump. The erratic candidate has just inflicted the most serious wound upon himself yet in the brief but gripping history of his campaign.

Trump was in Wisconsin ahead of Tuesday’s primary. Wisconsin is a progressive state, right up there with Massachusetts and Oregon. If there’s anywhere as a Republican candidate that you try not to say something off-the-wall and right-wing, it is in Wisconsin.

But Trump chose Wisconsin to mess up. Under the grilling of MSNBC veteran politico Chris Matthews, Trump revealed that there is even less to his policy positions than meets the eye.

In the end, according to CNN, Trump took three positions on abortion in three hours. Matthews pressed him 12 times to stop evading and take a stand on whether, assuming abortion is outlawed, there should be a penalty — and on whom.

Trump said there should be “some form of punishment.” Matthews pressed: Should the punishment apply to the woman? Trump said, “Yes.”

Trump has been boasting for weeks that he’s drawing support from all quarters of the electorate, and this comment certainly proved he could provoke all quarters. He was hit first, and hardest, by conservative, pro-life groups who have never, ever, in their history proposed punishing women for an abortion.

Democratic candidates weighed in quickly.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was tired of wondering out loud what universe Trump is living in. Hillary Clinton quoted Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

What Trump showed us is that he’s playing at being president. He has been the untouchable candidate to this point. He could say anything, no matter how outrageous, and his polling numbers would go up rather than fall. His secret — an open one — is that he has perfectly mirrored his supporters’ feelings. “Trump says what I think,” is a statement commonly heard by pollsters.

All along his supporters have assumed that, because he’s said the outrageous things they were thinking (Mexican immigrants are criminals, we should build a wall, Muslims should be banned from entering America, etc.), and stood by his comments, he was authentic — and one of them.

But Trump’s assertion that women should be punished for an abortion revealed how shallow his knowledge is of pro-life positions, and of his supporters’ deepest convictions. He quickly modified his “punish them” decree (in the absence of his campaign manager and chief strategist, who was arrested for assaulting a female reporter), to “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”

Another hour passed and Trump issued his third position in three hours, one that conforms with pro-life groups who he had just egregiously offended, saying, “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Even before he made such a stupid comment, Trump was in deep trouble with women voters. During the holiest days of the Christian calendar, Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest and toughest GOP opponent, had exchanged unseemly barbs over each other’s wives, while a spontaneous alliance of female commentators issued a joint letter saying Trump should fire his campaign manager.

Trump, who has had three wives and a reality show based on firing people for poor performance, shot back that he stands by his campaign manager. Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich did not stand by Trump. They have conservative pro-life positions, and unlike Trump, have held them for years, and acted on them. Kasich, for instance, as a congressman, voted to restrict abortion and to make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion.

Cruz is committed to appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that decriminalized abortions. Both Cruz and Kasich, however, focused on what the real story is here, namely that Trump winged it still again. Trump’s ad hoc answer is clear evidence (at long last) that he echoes what he’s been told his supporters want to hear, but has no personal knowledge of (nor has he even devoted thought to) the issues.

Having little knowledge about the moral positions, pro and con, on abortion is one thing. But Trump has shown (to no harm with his supporters) that he did not even know the U.S. has a triad nuclear defense policy. Just before the Brussels terror attacks, Trump called for lessening our commitment to NATO, the bulwark of our defense in Europe against Russia’s aggression. NATO has also been a key element the world over in our defense against terrorism.

Trump has retreated before when he’s taken an issue that, to his surprise, offended so wide a swath of the public that it threatened to tank his campaign. This time, Trump offended the GOP’s most vociferous political base. He has been the only person who could hurt himself. It makes you wonder if Trump knows that he’s not up to the job, and has a subconscious wish to fail. If he does, he seems to be working harder than ever on making that wish come true.

Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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