The Democratic Party, as it did after Hubert Humphrey’s close loss in 1968, seems still to be misdiagnosing its 2016 defeat.
Democrats see too little identity politics rather than too much as their trouble, and thus are redoubling on what has been slowly shrinking the party into coastal enclaves.
Promoting Black Lives Matter and open borders, promising free tuition and tax hikes, opposing fracking and pipeline construction, pushing single-payer health care and an ever-expanding transgender agenda as well as abortion—these are not majority positions. Neither will embracing Hollywood, the media, or the NFL protests win over voters. Thinking (or hoping) that President Trump will implode, quit, be jailed, sicken, die, or be impeached is not an agenda.
Trump Compared to What?
When Trump promises to restore Christmas nomenclature, to build a border wall, or to bark back against the NFL, he bets that 51 percent of the voting public is likely on his side. Trump’s tweets may be cul de sacs. And they may diminish the traditional stature of the presidency, but they are rarely on the wrong side of public opinion.
The same holds true when in suicidal fashion he alienates those of his own party, many of them seemingly essential to his legislative agenda. Yet what is the logic of temporizing Republican senators who recently got reelected by blasting the Iran Deal, open borders, and Obamacare—apparently on the premise that their posturing votes would never really matter, given the likelihood of a liberal vetoing president? So far a Bob Corker, Jeff Flake or John McCain has not proven that he is more popular in his own state than is Donald Trump.
The issue is never just Trump’s outbursts or tweets in isolation but, rather, the comparisons between them and his targets. Again, attacking NFL players may not be presidential, but Trump’s pushback is often judged by many voters on the basis of its intent—in other words, an effort to oppose the growing trend of multimillionaire athletes refusing to stand for the National Anthem. If we have never seen a president stoop to fight with the NFL, we have also never seen the NFL kneel to self-destruct by offending millions of its fans. If the president cannot defend a national tradition of standing in honor during the National Anthem, who else could?
Pollsters, pundits, and the media have vastly underestimated how many in America loathe multimillionaire celebrities, pampered athletes, and triangulating politicians—the usual targets of Trump’s invective
Reactive Not Preemptive
Take a sampling of Trump’s most infamous tweets and adolescent outbursts—attacks on Bob Corker’s height, referencing Rex Tillerson’s IQ, the creepy description of blood oozing from a supposedly irate Megyn Kelly, or deprecating the capture and imprisonment of John McCain—and the common denominator is not just puerility and cruelty, but also retaliation. All had first attacked Trump and sometimes quite viciously. Corker had claimed that Trump’s White House was chaos, a reality show, and in danger of prompting World War III—a virtual charge that Trump was nuts. Anonymous sources accused Tillerson of calling Trump a moron or, at least, implying it—and the secretary did not explicitly deny the charge, although he deplored the climate in which such accusations were made. Kelly hijacked her own debate question and turned it into a scripted rant about Trump’s alleged misogyny. McCain arrogantly wrote off Trump’s supporters as “crazies”—a forgotten precursor to Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” and “irredeemables.”
We assume that “he started it” is an immature defense. And it is, of course. But people do still distinguish a defender from an attacker. Collate Trump’s tweets and they are 24/7 responses to preemptive attacks by his critics.
What can possibly be Trump’s purpose in appearing so thin-skinned and petty?
Likely it is twofold. Most obviously he seeks to reestablish deterrence: don’t dare attack Trump unless you are willing to be dragged down with him into a netherworld whose rules he has mastered. Just ask Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, or Lyin’ Ted.
Second, he knows the politicians, media hacks, and celebrities who attack him are sanctimonious bullies by nature. Their professions traffic in self-righteous invective, with the expectation that they will be never be attacked in kind.
But the public enjoys seeing them taken down a notch. It is inexplicable but also eerie to chart the subsequent downward career trajectories of those who sought to engage Trump in a mud-slinging contest.
It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own
Trump is not avoiding controversial or substantive issues, but often he is shrugging that the problem was not his—and thus may belong to others to solve. DACA was illegal; even honest Obama supporters concede that. Trump wants it reformed and clarified—but by the Congress that alone should have had the legal authority to pass or reject the law.
Trump did not make the Iran Deal; but he knows that it is a de facto treaty that was never ratified by the Senate and could not be today. If it is such a good deal, then the bipartisan Senate now can either reform and resubmit it, or ratify it as is or reject it. Ditto the Paris Climate Accord. Cannot Chuck Schumer introduce a bill to reclassify the accord properly as a treaty and see it passed by the Senate with a necessary two-thirds majority?
The same is true of Obamacare, the Korean nuclear crisis, and ISIS. Trump loudly announces he will solve the crises that others caused. But if he is prevented by legislative logjams and the courts, then nature will take its course: Obamacare will fall by its own weight, more quickly once its Obama-era illegal executive orders are removed; any sane country will eventually have to shoot down an incoming Korean missile and do what is necessary to protect its people; and as ISIS grew and immigration to the West exploded, Trump simply understood, when faced with the real threat of an ISIS caliphate, the Western world would drop its past insistence on Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement.
Trump never really enjoyed a Republican majority in Congress, given the large number of purple-state and NeverTrump senators. He is also not a reflective and sedentary president. Tweeting, attacking, and arguing reflect motion quite in contrast to sending bills to Congress, waiting for them to be sandbagged at the 11th hour by John McCain or Susan Collins, and then being once again written off as a failed president by the media.
Barack Obama both weaponized and exempted Trump with the precedent of “pen and phone” executive orders and sermonizing on social and cultural issues and doing pop culture, from Ferguson and Trayvon Martin to the Final Four and GloZell. Trump wades into a controversy, tweets, outrages, and then moves on to the next day’s “controversy” or supposedly career-ending spat.
Fresh episodic targeting serves two purposes. Trump is a sort of Road Runner: gone to reply to the next provocation by the time his Wile E. Coyote critics can put their hands around his long-gone neck. The pushback against him is usually yesterday’s news drowned out by tomorrow’s new melodrama.
Unprecedented Subordinate Power
Trump’s forte is his invective and brawling. He is not a Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton wonk, who micromanages even the smallest details. The result is that his cabinet secretaries, generals, and high appointees enjoy more latitude than during any administration in memory.
Trump on the parapets not only means that others to the rear are freer to make and administer rules without much presidential oversight, but also that Trump, not themselves, is the controversy. That exemption means that a cabinet official has wide parameters, with less worry that he must fight the media and his political opponents.
One of the reasons why the luminaries of Trump’s team do not resign after his supposedly embarrassing outbursts is that they realize Trump’s outrageousness allows them to play the good-cop, adult in the room role, usually with media sympathy. And when a president is doing downfield blocking, others are relieved of the interference. A Trump secretary of defense or national security advisor exercises power and influence in ways unimaginable in comparison to most earlier counterparts.
It apparently is as important how, as what, Trump speaks, tweets or does. Half the country got tired of sober and judicious platitudes that gussied up careerist agendas. To listen in the past to an EPA director or sitting U.S. senator was a lesson in empty gobbledygook, designed to say to the listener, “I am smart enough to make you think that I am doing something for you.”
Trump in contrast, in gesture, accent, vocabulary, and rashness, sounds like a cigar-chomping blue-collar machinist out of our past who is said to be outrageous in his crudity only because he is condemned by those who are far more outrageous in their mannered sobriety. In some sense, Trump welcomes wounds in order to inflict greater ones on the proverbial establishment.
When will the public tire of Trump’s imbroglios?
Likely when a few of several scenarios happen: he gets into a major optional war that bogs down; he so insults his own appointees that we finally see four or five marquee cabinet sequential resignations; he does not build the wall, reform health care, or achieve a middle class tax cut and so loses his base; or he cannot achieve 3 percent annual economic growth or is plagued by a recession or return to stagflation.
A final thought: either Trump’s spats and tweets are IEDs that go off so often that his accumulated wounds finally prove politically lethal—or his invectives are mini-preemptive explosions that clear minefields ahead and help ensure that we will not get into a war, that his team sees no reason to resign, that he tries to do what he promised, and that he achieves 3 percent growth in GDP.
Either way, the Trump presidency is moving at a speed likely unmatched by his predecessors, and he is getting somewhere fast.