Donald Trump, always at least knee deep in the fever swamps, is now drowning in them.
Still reeling from Monday’s widely panned debate performance, the Republican nominee has found refuge in a fringe media environment where his victory is assured, his setbacks are the result of shadowy plots, and his critics are humiliated by sordid revelations.
On Friday, he let loose with an early morning Twitter outburst against former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, escalating a feud with her that began at the debate over his past criticism of her weight — criticism he repeated on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?” Trump tweeted.
Machado responded on social media herself, accusing Trump of “trying to revive defamation and false accusations about my life” and adding that she became a citizen “because my daughter was born here and I wanted to exercise all my rights, among them, voting.”
Set aside for a moment the politics of a candidate already losing women and Latino voters by large margins then smearing a Venezuela-born actress over her sexual ethics and questioning her citizenship. (Yes, that again.) Set aside the hypocrisy of Trump — who once called venereal disease “my personal Vietnam” and has a long history of crude rhetoric and adulterous behavior — questioning Machado’s personal life. Even set aside the questions Trump’s behavior raises about his impulse control, which has become a central line of attack for his opponent Hillary Clinton.
Instead, let’s consider the voices to which Trump is listening.
The alleged Machado “sex tape” Trump cited appeared to be a hoax widely promoted in fringe pro-Trump outlets like Infowars. Other sites like Drudge Report have spread grainy stills of a love scene from a reality show Machado starred in. Radio host Rush Limbaugh called Machado “the porn-star Miss Piggy” this week. And Trump, desperate for encouragement after his debate, is huffing these sycophantic fumes like never before.
This is nothing new. Trump has a long history of championing conspiracy theories that target his opponents and turning to wacky supportive sources to confirm them — from birtherism to falsely tying Sen. Ted Cruz’s family to the JFK assassination.
Since the debate, though, his tendency to cocoon himself in an alternate reality of fawning commentary has both worsened and infected the rest of his campaign, creating a political crisis less than two weeks from the second presidential debate.
In recent days, Trump has accused plotters of rigging his microphone to undermine his debate performance. He’s accused Google of “suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton,” a debunked story that originated on a Russian propaganda site. And he’s obsessively pushed non-scientific fan surveys at sites like Breitbart to prove he won the debate, which his campaign insists are more reliable than rigorously conducted polls showing he lost the debate by a wide margin.
At the same time, Trump stopped doing press conferences two months ago and has largely confined himself to interviews with friendly conservative outlets, which further insulates from outside views. Even then, he seems unable to help himself: His post-debate rants about Machado’s weight this week came during easygoing interviews with Fox News hosts.
Meanwhile, campaign aides are left gently pleading with Trump via the press to come in from the cold and begin to acknowledge the damage he's done.
Dr. Ben Carson, a prominent supporter, told MSNBC on Friday Trump was following Clinton down a “rat hole” by attacking Machado over and over again.
“You know it’s going to be so much better when he begins to focus on the real issues,” he said.
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told the hosts of The View on Thursday that she had reprimanded Trump for his language toward women even as she defended his behavior toward Machado. Campaign sources complained to NBC News this week that Trump did not adequately prepare for the first debate and suffered a “disaster” as a result.
Trump, well aware of the campaign within his campaign to force him back to a more conventional message, lashed out against the press on Friday.
“Remember, don't believe ‘sources said’ by the VERY dishonest media,” he tweeted. “If they don't name the sources, the sources don't exist.”
There’s no small amount of irony here. As mentioned earlier, Trump regularly makes outlandish claims based on unnamed or nonexistent citations — whether it’s the “extremely credible source” who told him Obama’s birth certificate was forged, or his false claim that TV footage exists showing “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 terror attacks. He even defended tweeting fake crime statistics spread by white supremacists to smear blacks, telling Fox’s Bill O’Reilly the source — Twitter user @SeanSean252 — was “supposedly an expert.”
In the meantime, while Trump listens to fans tell him his misogynist attacks on Machado are on the verge of breaking through and winning him the election, the Clinton campaign seems all too eager to continue the conversation.
“What kind of man stays up all night to smear a woman with lies and conspiracy theories?” Clinton tweeted on Friday.