In this classic episode of The Simpsons, local villain Montgomery Burns goes to the doctor and receives what should be devastating news. “You are the sickest man in the United States,” his doctor informs him. “You have everything,” including pneumonia, juvenile diabetes, and a little bit of hysterical pregnancy, as well as “several diseases that have just been discovered in you.” Mr. Burns replies that “this sounds like bad news.” But it turns out that while any one of his ailments could be fatal on its own, having them all at once is life-saving; there are so many diseases trying to take over Burns’ body that none of them can get through. Burns leaves the doctor’s office gloating that he is “indestructible.”
Medically speaking, this diagnosis doesn’t make much sense. But when it comes to the 2016 election, there’s some truth to it.
In this analogy, Donald Trump is, of course, Mr. Burns. Trump has said and done innumerable things that, individually, would normally derail a presidential candidate. But the sheer volume of Trump’s problematic positions, actions, and statements actually works to inoculate him from all of them.
In a campaign, each side tries to construct a coherent narrative about the other that will resonate with voters. In 2008, Barack Obama convinced voters that John McCain represented a third term of the unpopular President George W. Bush. In 2012, Obama won by successfully painting Mitt Romney as a millionaire who didn’t care about ordinary Americans.
This year, Trump has a simple narrative about Hillary Clinton: She is a crooked establishment politician. Her email scandal and the foreign ties of the Clinton Foundation play into this narrative. So does her extensive experience in government—something she tries to portray as her greatest strength, but that Trump has managed to use against her.
Meanwhile, Clinton has had so much ammunition to lob at Trump that she has ended up firing all over the place. There are just too many Trumps she has tried to take aim at. There’s the man who she claims is temperamentally unfit and unprepared to be president—who mocks the disabled and threatens to beat up protesters. There’s the candidate who espouses racially charged anti-immigrant policies and winks at his white nationalist fans. There’s the Trump who refuses to release his tax returns or divulge his foreign business connections—raising serious questions about whether he would put his business interests ahead of US foreign policy priorities and whether he is beholden to the foreign entities to whom he owes money. There’s the Trump whose response to terrorism would be an unconstitutional police state in the US, the use of torture for terrorist suspects, and even the targeted killing of the families of terrorists abroad. Finally, there is Trump the con artist, who uses his charitable foundation as a personal slush fund and whose business record includes stiffing small businesses he contracted with and tricking struggling Americans into paying for Trump University.
It’s been hard for the Clinton campaign to resist any of the above narratives. The result is that they all get muddied, and no one charge can seem to stick. Instead, Trump has evaded an overriding association with any of these stereotypes, and he’s pulling close in the polls. Like Mr. Burns’ diseases, all of Trump’s objectionable actions have effectively freed him from the consequences of any one of them. Maybe there’s something to the doctor’s theory after all.