WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump stood at a podium last fall and called protester Sam Capradae “seriously overweight” as Capradae was being ejected from a rally in Worcester, the 29-year-old teacher was unfazed.
“I was a fat kid. I’m used to bullies with bad hair picking on my weight,” Capradae said Thursday. “He’s a bully. . . . He’s completely unrestrained.”
Trump’s rude behavior directed at women, and some men, whom he deems overweight has been a major topic of the campaign this week after Hillary Clinton at Monday’s debate called attention to Trump’s history of such remarks. His campaign has been unable to formulate an effective response.
With 80-plus million Americans tuned in to the debate, Clinton described how Trump called former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy’’ because she gained weight after winning her crown. On Wednesday, Trump himself fueled more negative attention when he said in a TV interview that Machado “gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.’’
On Thursday in New Hampshire, Trump also declared the presidential debate a “rigged deal.’’
Deriding people for their appearance and weight is an example of Trump using his soapbox and trademark blunt style to belittle people with less power. Clinton and her allies, in a carefully choreographed assault, are stoking the narrative that such behavior makes him a mean-spirited boor, a character assault they hope will sway voters against him, especially suburban women.
The Democrats are hoping this week marks a turning point in the campaign, as Clinton tries to stop Trump’s momentum in the polls.
Even fellow Republicans have expressed dismay that Trump didn’t let the Machado issue drop.
“His strategy, in the sense there is one, flies in the face of the Washington norms,” said Hogan Gidley, a longtime Republican consultant. “Cardinal sin, you never repeat the charge. You pivot and move on to something else.
“For Republicans frustrated by the way Trump is handling this, he’s taking the spotlight off of Hillary Clinton,” Gidley added. “She has so much baggage and so many mistakes to highlight, and a record a mile long of failure, and [instead] we’re talking about Machado. Talk about Hillary.”
To divert attention from Machado and his comments, including the time he called her an “eating machine,’’ Trump has sent out talking points to surrogates asking them to bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions.
The episode fits a pattern: Trump seems unable to look past an insult or criticism aimed at him, even when it would be in his best interest to stay mum.
Two months ago he ridiculed the Khan family, whose son died in Iraq, because they spoke out at the Democratic National Convention about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Earlier in the summer he attacked a Hispanic judge hearing a civil case against Trump University, asserting the judge could not be fair because of his ethnicity. Two weeks ago, he criticized a black minister who interrupted Trump to tell him an event in Michigan wasn’t meant to be political.
Clinton, in the debate, also mentioned an architect who said Trump stiffed him on a $100,000 fee for designing the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, in New York’s Westchester County. “Maybe he didn’t do a very good job, and I was unsatisfied with his work,” Trump said in response.
Now the Clinton campaign is featuring the architect, Andrew Tesoro, in campaign videos.
“It almost put me out of business,” Tesoro says in the video. “Because I was the little guy, he was winning. . . . His definition of winning is making sure the other guy loses.’’
But it is Trump’s negative statements about women that seem to be getting the most attention from Democrats.
An outside group supporting Clinton, Correct the Record, has featured Rhonda Noggle, a former beauty queen who told the Globe in April that Trump was insensitive to women while he was involved in a calendar girl competition.
Trump spent years in the beauty pageant world, where women are judged on their bodies. He would often show up as a VIP guest at pageants put on by Hawaiian Tropic, a suntan lotion company that sponsored bikini competitions in Hawaii and Las Vegas. For a year, he was involved in a pin-up competition called American Dream Calendar Girls, an experience that resulted in allegations of aggressive sexual behavior leveled by one of the organizers in a civil suit that was later dropped.
He also owned the Miss Universe competition for nearly 20 years. The Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday that Trump demanded one of his golf courses fire women that he found unattractive.
Clinton is now running an ad in key swing states that shows young girls looking into the mirror as Trump is heard making disparaging comments about female physiques.
“Is this the president we want for our daughters?” it asks.
Trump has a well-documented history of ridiculing women based on their weight. One of his employees told the New York Times that he said, “You like your candy,” to remind her of her weight. Another employee told the Washington Post that Trump kept a “fat picture” in his desk, showing it to her when she did something he didn’t like.
He called Rosie O’Donnell a “big, fat pig,” a “fat pig,” and an “animal” in 2006, after O’Donnell criticized his handling of a Miss USA contestant who had been caught drinking underage.
And in 1997 interviews he called Machado, who gained weight after winning the Miss Universe contest, “an eating machine” who could “eat the whole gymnasium.”
During a press conference held with a personal trainer, as Machado sat at an exercise bike, Trump looked at the reporters around him.
“A lot of you folks have weight problems, I hate to tell you,” he said. “A lot of you folks that I’m looking at right now are not in the greatest of shape. And I’m not meaning that you’re too skinny.”
During the presidential debate, Trump dismissed suggestions that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Convention. Why?
“It could also be someone sitting on their bed,” Trump said, “that weighs 400 pounds. OK?”
In May, he stood on a stage with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has a long history of struggling with weight.
“You’re not eating Oreos anymore,” Trump told him. “No more Oreos.”
“For either of us, Chris,” he added. “Don’t feel bad. For either of us.”
It was last November when Capradae went with a friend to Trump’s rally in Worcester, curious about what it would be like. When he heard what he described as racial invective coming from someone seated behind him, he was taken aback. When Trump began criticizing food stamps, he became angry.
He said he hadn’t planned to protest, but thought of some of the low-income students he’d taught who relied on government assistance. He began shouting. Police showed up to escort him out.
“You know, it’s amazing,” Trump said into the microphone. “I mention food stamps and that guy who’s seriously overweight went crazy.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.