Over and over, pundits have decried Trump’s outlandish, unprecedented, and uncouth behavior with some version of this headline:
Every time, Trump has moved on. Neither gaining nor losing support. Simply maintaining. More often than not, a new Trump scandal shoves the previous Trump outrage aside. Trump’s critics are left red-faced, looking like blowhards who can’t decide where to direct their anger
(Maintaining is too neutral a term for how Trump governs, but it’s hard to argue that his methods of destruction are anything less than consistent.)
In the five years since he brought his made-for-reality TV circus to the Beltway, Trump has shown himself to be the Bozo Bop Bag of Presidents. Regardless of what terrible, horrible, unthinkable, career-sinkable thing he’s done or said (usually said), the death ship that is the Trump Administration sails madly on. And really, that’s all he cares about: continuing.
His presidency typifies the raw thirst for power, for power’s sake. (To him, this is “winning.”)
Amoral, apolitical, and yet perpetually apoplectic — this is Donald J. Trump.
Stop calling Trump a politician — and stop evaluating him as one.
At this point, in the spring of 2020, can we agree that it’s high time to put the alarmist, self-congratulatory headlines to bed? That, although Titanic in its missteps, the Trump Administration will never sink from colliding with any standard political icebergs?
Amoral, apolitical, and apoplectic — this is Donald J. Trump
We can agree on this without attributing his ruling resiliency to anything approaching political genius. There’s not some secret, quasi-sophisticated strategy or formula to crack. Trump’s opponents keep spinning their wheels, trying to parse answers to pressing questions — Why does he insist on “punching down?” Surely this is what finally brings him down? What the hell will he destroy next? And: how will he manage to get away with it?
The answer — all the answers — come down to one simple, unwavering fact: Trump is a bully.
Always has been, always will be.
Trump punches down at a perceived adversary. Again.
The headline referenced at the beginning of this article addressed a recent outburst — on Twitter, late at night, as is so often the case — from our shitposter-in-chief. This particular tirade took aim at the Lincoln Project, a campaign outfit of some GOP-in-exile Never Trumpers. The CCN article decries Trump’s onslaught as unwise, its critique centering on how Trump went out of his way to denounce a much less prominent ‘rival’. And that, by doing so, he gives the subject of his attacks an avalanche of free publicity.
Trump has, by Cilizza’s estimation, again pulled out his megaphone — the big, fancy one, with the Presidential seal and everything — but he’s yelling into the wrong end and giving all the amplifying power to his opponent.
The headline claims he’s violated some cardinal rule, implicitly indicating some sort of political consequences. Of course, by now, we all know that won’t happen.
Cilizza’s assertion that a Lincoln Project attack ad — the particular thorn which aggravated Trump’s Twitter finger — isn’t wrong, but it does miss the point about Trump and about why he’s still President. About how he’s weathered innumerable indecencies, offensive outbursts, credible claims of sexual assault, and a litany of actions proving he’s unfit for leadership. It misses why he’s run afoul of the law, demonstrated permanently un-Presidential character, and yet remains President.
Trump is a bully.
It’s not politics. It’s personal.
Politicians don’t punch down irrationally. Politicians don’t give free press to insignificant opponents. They don’t go out of their way to repeat or highlight negative messages about themselves — even if they have strong, credible counterpoints to the negative statements. Their reasoning is simple: the public is distracted, and you can’t control what someone’s attention will fixate on. The more you elevate or acknowledge a critique — even in negation — the greater runway you’re giving it, and the more likely it is to take off and fly out of (your) control.
Politicians don’t act this way. But bullies do.
For a bully — and for a bully’s enablers — Trump’s assault on the Lincoln Project makes perfect sense. As do his assaults on Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and John McCain. His fearful loathing of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. His vilification of a Gold Star family, of an audience member with disabilities, of CNN, of women, of Democrats, of anyone who’s criticized him or been perceived as disloyal. Trump perpetually rewrites the old adage: the smaller they are, the harder he falls on them.
Trump’s rages range from Quixotic lunges at imagined, inflated enemies to bumbling barrages on American institutions, but they all have one thing in common: they’re personal, not political.
How to knock Trump off the bully pulpit
His attacks are personal, because Donald J. Trump is not a politician. That’s the platform he ran on, and it’s the one campaign plank where he’s stood firm.
A politician warrants thoughtful consideration, rational examination of their stance on issues, and well-reasoned debate. But not a bully.
You don’t debate a bully. You don’t waste breath declaring their actions rude or unreasonable. The bully won’t defend their actions rationally. They’ll puff up their chest, flex their muscles, and possibly issue some scathing takedown. Things like: “Oh, boohoo!” Or: “Look at the crybaby!” Or, to quote our 45th President, “Mental basketcase!”
Real heady stuff.
The who cheer on — or elect — the bully love this kind of thing. Appealing to their reason or their decency won’t win them to your side. It’s not that they don’t possess either of these traits, but the bully appeals to a much different part of their psyches. Until you dismantle the bully’s support at its source, no rational argument will lessen their fans’ fervor.
As anyone who’s been raised on Disney tropes and a steady diet of American teen media can tell you, there are three simple ways to confront and defeat a bully:
- Fight them — and show everyone you’re tougher than they are.
- Ignore them — and show everyone you’re not afraid of them.
- Give them a hug — and show them the empathy and acceptance they crave.
Across Trump’s wide-ranging opponents and past victims, I can imagine long lines behind each of the first two methods. The third may find few adherents, but it’s a possible response as well.
I’ll leave the details to seasoned strategists. People like Taylor Swift, the Karate Kid, and that one kid with curly hair and glasses who sat behind you in middle school. (From my own childhood, I’d recommend consulting with the Olsen Twins and referring to the films sent up in Not Another Teen Movie.)
But, in all seriousness, let’s avoid 2016 missteps. Let’s stop responding to each of Trump’s outbursts, each outrageous action, and each out-of-office excursion to a MAGA rally or Mar-a-Lago.
It’s tough. It’s so tempting — it looks so easy, like surely, this time, he’s really done it! But it’s time to confront — and to defeat — Trump as a bully, not a politician.
While we’re here, declaring Trump tropes off-limits, can we also please retire the sentence starter “Trump tweets…” from anything remotely presented as “News”? Trump, tweeting hatefully and thoughtlessly, is no longer news. Even if he happens to be POTUS; even if he happens to share it with millions of Twitter followers. What an old man does during his toilet time is his business. Let’s keep it that way.