A collage of three photos of Trump. In the background there are disapproval and approval ratings for him.

Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

Donald Trump

Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

Don’t Rely on Trump to Self-Sabotage

Magical thinking isn't going to get us out of this mess.

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We all have that kind of moment. You know the one: You’re in a conversation, and the other person says something particularly clever or biting, and it’s not until after you’ve left the scene, not until, perhaps, you’re in the shower the next morning, that you realize what you should have said. The French philosopher Denis Diderot referred to this phenomenon as l’esprit d’escalier, or “staircase wit,” after he was rendered speechless in an exchange with Jacques Necker and failed to think of a good response until he was at the bottom of the staircase exiting the host’s home, the party abandoned and the moment lost.

Hindsight in American politics is particularly cruel. It is the ultimate crowdsourcing of the peanut gallery, and every Regular Joe/Jane is an expert in addition to the folks who are literally experts. Errors made by national politicians are forever enshrined on the tongues of ordinary citizens who are convinced they could have done better in that situation because they fail to realize that the wealth of facts present long after resolution were not so apparent at the time of deliberation.

Of course, what’s remarkable about Donald Trump and company is the sheer amount of unforced errors that emanate from this White House, seemingly on a daily basis. These are mistakes that are so painfully obvious in conception that hindsight is rendered moot instantaneously, banished to some other time and place in our memory when leaders demonstrated a modicum of reasoning in their decision making.

The bar for the Trump administration is so low that any accidental lapse of incompetency is hailed as a Presidential Moment. Who could forget when CNN political commentator Van Jones infamously remarked that “[Trump] became President of the United States in that moment, period,” following his address to Congress in March in the wake of the disastrous Yemen raid?

That dynamic makes our country’s present situation all the more precarious; we seemingly expected Barack Obama to invent time travel and were disappointed when he only managed to make the trains in this dimension run on time, but if Trump exceeds the dirt-low expectations set by his past behavior, members of the press appear suddenly stricken with amnesia and are laudatory when Trump successfully manages to avoid destroying the trains altogether.

In fact, such is the media’s flailing effort to rationalize Trump’s behavior that the “Madman Theory”—that he is somehow playing three-dimensional chess, distracting us all with buffoonery while in fact effectively passing the GOP agenda—is now flung about like a dead fish on the national discourse. Once used to describe Richard Nixon’s awful (albeit fascinating) strategy of negotiating the Vietnam War through psychological tactics, i.e. “floating” the idea of a nuclear attack on the small Southeast Asian country, the Madman Theory is now bizarrely applied to Trump’s bombastic tweet diplomacy towards North Korea, even if merely worked by the hands of advisors who take advantage of Trump’s lack of measured thought.

And so, it is curious to observe that Trump and his acolytes have failed to notice this enormous advantage they possess. Low expectations may be humbling, but they are also rare opportunities to control the narrative. Take Charlottesville, for instance. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the importance of making a strong statement against the KKK and Nazis—you can still placated fragile white voters who struggle with the enduring shame of slavery. All Trump really needed was a halfway sensitive speechwriter—which is to say, anyone but Stephen Miller—who could strike this balance. If he had immediately and forcefully, in a carefully worded speech, condemned racism and those who marched with torches but pivoted the conversation to a need to respect history, he would have won the day. It doesn’t matter if he believes it. It doesn’t matter if there are harder truths about race that should be acknowledged. Those are the responsibilities of someone for whom we have high expectations. That’s playing the game on Obama Mode.

Remember: This isn’t about placating liberals. It’s about playing to moderates. If Trump is loudly calling out the David Dukes and Richard Spencers of the world while also praising southern heritage and history, cable news would have fallen all over themselves casting Trump in a redemption narrative. It’s not about fairness but perception.

“He was misunderstood”, they would say. “He found his stride, his Presidential Voice.”

It’s why I give thanks for Donald Trump being an incompetent clown, and it’s why I am dreading that moment when this terrible excuse for a human being wakes up and discovers his true superpower: converting skeptics by doing the bare minimum. It’s the Straight White Guy Pass on steroids, a ticker tape parade simply for showing up.

If he had a fraction of the savvy possessed by Barack Obama, his approval ratings would be sky-high and those cruel and fascistic policy initiatives—repealing DACA, defunding healthcare, building a wall, rolling back civil rights—would pass with barely a hiccup from political media. Propaganda only works with good branding, and Trump, self-proclaimed master of branding, appears to be lost in the sauce. His penchant for snatching devastating and humiliating defeats from the low-standard jaws of victory is a sight to behold. It is our greatest asset.

And that is scary, folks, because in due time, regardless of how Robert Mueller’s investigation progresses (and whatever fallout may occur), Trump will get marginally savvier. It won’t take a lot. My bet is on something inconsequential to the vast majority of Americans but incredibly visible, such as, say, transgender service members or the new effort to ban “bump stocks” on semi-automatic rifles. If Trump does a 180-degree turn on a few of these issues, gives a grand, eloquent speech, cuts a backroom deal with social conservatives in exchange for their support, we’re in big trouble. He—or more accurately his appointees and handlers—have already managed to take agencies like the EPA and the State Department decades back in time. It just takes a few big popularity wins to cloud the criticism and enable Trump and Republicans to ram through bigger priorities.

We are operating on borrowed time. The window is closing, and Trump will not always be this socially incompetent. The need to take back either the House or Senate is imperative. If we fail to mobilize every rational voter in this country, if we fail to give our everything to winning back Congress, 2019 will make 2017 look like an average rainy day.


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