The Work: Trump 2020 Reveals Its Strategy
How many times are we going to watch this same process play out before we realize that it’s the same old script, just slightly tweaked?
Pro wrestling would call it a “worked shoot.” The “worked” part is where you plan it out, the “shoot” part is making it look organic and anything other than the scripted plan it is. And politics, friends, is full of works, shoots, and worked-shoots.
Let us go through the steps of the latest work, the foundation for the next 15 months of re-election drama. This latest version incorporates a heaping dose of real things, and the enthusiastic participation of folks whose own ambitions and goals lead them to run headlong into the work, but when examined in aggregate the strategy is very clearly planned, scripted, and executed for a reason.
Step 1: To be the good guy (especially if you aren’t really one), you need a villain/villains
For candidate Trump this one was easy. Through her own ambition, machinations, and the DNC clearing the field for her, Hillary Rodham Clinton was supposed to be the natural follow-up to Barack Obama. Having dutifully taken one for the team when Hope & Change upended her first presidential campaign, Team Clinton felt owed. Without rehashing it all, since we know how that worked out, it is important to remember the crucial point of the race: Hillary Clinton was a uniquely bad candidate to run against Donald J. Trump. Trump’s Trumpism works best when most of his rhetoric is a play on “What me? Look how bad X, Y, and Z are, they are terrible. Way worst. Yugely bigly worst!”
Want to bring up allegations of women, 30 years of living on the back page of tabloids, three wives, and his own admittance of being a womanizer? Can’t, with Mrs. Bill Clinton across the stage on the opposing ticket.
Want to bring up corruption, dirty money, shady business, and political influences? Good luck with that when there is a shiny building in Little Rock built with all kinds of illicit overseas funding.
Want to bring up espionage, hacking, emails, and assorted interference? Fair enough, but when you have a homebrewed server, deleted emails, and 30 years of Clinton-related scandals in the baggage train it’s a tough argument to make, even if you have a point.
It worked so well, that even after being elected, now-President Trump still could go to the Clinton wellhead for rhetorical water whenever he felt like it, and even said the quiet part out loud in an unguarded moment:
“Lock her up” still would poke its head up from time to time over the last few years. But with Hillary Clinton being so 2016 in 2019, someone or something else needs to be the big bad for Team Trump to offset their own awesomeness again. “Socialism” is well and good for stirring the base, but that is impersonal, and this work needs a face or two to really grab hold. Someone or something to be the perfect placeholder in the Trump Traveling Roadshow & Perpetual Campaign to keep the crowds chanting between now and whenever the Democratic nominee is revealed to step into the role next year.
Enter the new Hillary. Or as we know the them now, the “Squad” of four freshman congresswomen.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) all but jumped at the opportunity. All four women of color, all of a similar aggressive style of progressive, all convinced they are the vanguard of a revolution in both their party and the country as a whole. Having chaffed at their own parties leadership, and been outright hostile to their more moderate colleagues, they have dominated the coverage of this congress like few others before them. Whereas nominally the Speaker of the House is the voice of the party in power, Nancy Pelosi seems to be spending more time on camera on “squad” related matters in the press than anything else. With the senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unrelenting control, not much in the way of legislative accomplishments is possible, meaning infighting makes a very juicy headline with nothing much else going on.
President Trump is, of course, only too happy to exacerbate all of this. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s open embrace of Democratic socialism and Green New Deal, Rep. Omar’s controversial statements on Israel and other eyebrow raising comments, Rep Tlaib screaming “We’re going to impeach the motherf*cker” on tape, and Rep. Pressley’s comments on skin color matching the voices of the different demographics, there is plenty their own side loves and their opponents can us as ammo.
After nibbling at the edges, the president on Sunday went full-bore personal attack, referencing the four congresswomen and Tweeting “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…” Now some defended the statements but “Go back” in reference to people of different backgrounds has meant the same, very specific, thing in the American lexicon as long as their have been immigrants, so it is silly to pretend otherwise. The message is clear, having meant the same thing this weekend as it has for 150+ years in othering someone based on them being different. It’s horrible. It was also purposeful. It was bait.
And The Squad knew it. “I encourage the American people and all of us in this room and beyond to not take the bait,” Rep. Pressley said. “This is a disruptive distraction from the issues.” Which was then followed by Rep. Omar enthusiastically taking siad bait and used the occasion of maximum political coverage to call for impeachment, the very message Speaker Pelosi had carefully managed, assuaged, and avoided for the better part of 6 months. Trump’s attack temporarily brought unity and covered the wounds to Team Blue, but that won’t last. Every time Trump or the Democrats do something, Speaker Pelosi’s comments will be run past The Squad by reporters for contrast/approval. Rep. Tlaib acknowledged such special treatment, saying “She has every right to sit down with her in any moment, in any time, with any of us. She is the speaker of the House. She can ask for a meeting to sit down with us for clarification. Acknowledge the fact that we are women of color, so when you do single us out, be aware of that and what you’re doing, especially because some of us are getting death threats, because some of us are being singled out in many ways because of our backgrounds, because of our experiences and so forth.”
Must be nice to tell your boss when they can/cannot single you out only six months on the job. Trump’s attack elevated the four freshman, and there will be little Nancy Pelosi or anyone else can do about it for the foreseeable future.
Which leads to…
Step 2: Define your opponent as bad to define yourself as good
This is where you can begin to see the strategy form up. While there are some who think the original Tweet blast was just Trump being the worst part of Trump, subsequent evidence demands the verdict that it wasn’t.
…..Congresswomen, who I truly believe, based on their actions, hate our Country. Get a list of the HORRIBLE things they have said. Omar is polling at 8%, Cortez at 21%. Nancy Pelosi tried to push them away, but now they are forever wedded to the Democrat Party. See you in 2020!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2019
Many have speculated that President Trump’s best strategy of winning in 2020 would be an “It’s me or the left” type campaign to try and maintain, and possibly gain, many of the persuadable Never Trumpers, hold-your-nose Trump voters, and those that sat out 2016. The theory is no matter how bad Trump is, whatever gets elected with a D beside the name would be far worse. Very loud, very visible, and very progressive as the Squad is, they are the natural target. Cynical as it is, the poll the president is citing is legitimate. If one is honest, no Republican is carrying those 4 districts anytime soon regardless. But that is the point: Making the most progressive elected officials the face of a party that in reality flipped the house by electing dozens of moderates in suburban swing districts that went for Trump in 2016 is sound political strategy. Trump knows that, Pelosi knows that, most of the Democratic caucus knows that, and the Squad could care less. Driving a wedge in the opposition party while giving your own party its best, probably only, shot at retaking the house? Yes, that is purposeful strategy at work.
Step 3: Make your opponent so abhorrent that their bad deeds excuse any and all bad deeds you do to overcome them for the greater good.
We are ok with cheating to win, as long as the right guy wins, of course. This hypocritical but hardwired part of human character works in storytelling, works in wrestling, and works in politics. Like with Hillary before, when the other party is bad too, the whataboutism takes over and makes for a nigh impenetrable shield for criticisms. So if you are President Trump and you are opening up your salvo on the four freshman with the oldest othering slur in the American political book, which is what “go home” was, you need your opponent to say some pretty questionable things so you can point and protest and deflect.
Enter Representative Ilhan Omar. Her own speech has brought enough controversy that Speaker Pelosi was forced to draw up a resolution of condemnation that started with anti-Semitic rhetoric from her, but by the time it was actually voted on was much more vague and against “hate” in general. With Rep Omar pushing BDS legislation that is scheduled for committee next week, expect a fresh round of all that being rehashed. Like Rep. Tlaib, Omar has been among the most vocal for impeachment.
She also has had some questions involving her own background, which has been covered some by the Minneapolis Star Tribune but until now had mostly been confined to opposition research during her campaign. The questions surrounding the legal status of her marriages and tax documents, that the reporting describe as “legally corrected the discrepancy, she has declined to say anything about how or why it happened.” Mostly only right-leaning organizations and the Star Tribune have taken much notice.
Consider that changed:
Let’s not dance around it: Rep. Ilhan Omar is a naturalized American citizen and sitting congresswoman. That is how she should be dealt with, with the respect as a person those two things entail. But since she is a woman of color, wearing traditional accouterments of her culture and religion, people with prejudices are going to go with that over the policy debates 10 out of 10 times. Even if some great corruption or scandal about her is revealed, she still is an American citizen and sitting congresswoman first and foremost, and going to the rest of her background and appearance will rightfully be called out for the racial connotations such criticisms contain. All the more reason for people who want her policies and ideologies defeated in the arena of ideas to condemn any of the “send her back” mess. Nor can she use he race, gender, or religion as an excuse if there is wrongdoing found on her part. Adults of good faith can do so. Bad faith folks whose politics and personal prejudices are paramount to truth seeking and the greater good, will not. The president has elected for the latter; lets not pretend it isn’t on purpose.
Watch in the coming days for her party to rally around Rep Omar to defend against Trump, but Trump to continue to use that rallying as evidence that all who defend her support everything she does and says, which will become problematic for many in the Democratic party.
Step 4: Get your supporters to sing from the same song sheet
In cause you thought that press gaggle right before leaving for a rally in Greenville, NC was a throwaway, well…
Trump supporters chanted “send her back” and “traitor” after the president renewed his attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Democratic “squad” of freshman congresswomen. https://t.co/V8Kfny0xdd
— Twitter Moments (@TwitterMoments) July 18, 2019
Kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. The same methodology that brought us “Lock her up” now has its 2.0, the proxy for everything not sufficiently Trumpian between now and the crowning of the Democratic challenger for the White House. With seven more months before real votes start getting counted, the strategy is clear: The squad is the stand-in for whomever is nominated, and that nominee will have no choice but to embrace them.
This is cynical, ugly, and will be unlike any campaign we have seen in the modern era. Such a strategy may well work. The four freshman are not going to just go quietly, and every move will be countered and escalated. The president, in taking this line, with the “Send her home” and “Go back” rhetoric, will be defended by his ardent supporters, but this is playing with really dark and dangerous stuff. Far more than the “lock her up” chants that Trump would then laugh off after the election as “we’ve done enough,” attacking the citizenship of sitting elected officials is something else. Insinuating that 3 natural-born citizens and one naturalized citizen should be sent home when that home is here shouldn’t be allowed to stand as just flippant dialogue used to get a chant going. People cannot change their skin tones, where they are from, or what their demographic background is. Even if you want to argue about the allegations in Rep Omar’s background, the proper recourse there is investigation, not mob instigation. Nothing either side does can ever justify stirring up a mob. But mob rule is not only being justified but politicized, weaponized, and sanctified. Such actions will have consequences far beyond policies, elections, and the candidates themselves. It’s ingraining behavior, and that behavior will rear it’s head again, whether someone incites them or not.
The fact that it is that way by design should give us all pause. What the hell are we becoming where we can’t call balls and strikes on common breaches of human behavior? Trump should not get a pass on any and all behavior just because others do it, anymore than that excuse worked for any of us in third grade. Similarly, members of congress are not automatically inoculated from any and all criticisms of their policy or conduct, even by their own leadership, just because of their race, gender, or background.
The ugly truth here is, in our representative Democratic Republic, we get exactly the government and leaders we deserve. If these strategies work, and they very well might, it will lead to a recurrence in the future, and others pushing the envelope even further. They have worked before, and it is up to us to decide if they will work again.
When they do, when Lincoln’s plea to the “better angels of our nature” doesn’t take hold and our base human failings as a people take over as they did following his assassination, the damage to the people and the country is immense. We’ve seen it as a country before, when calling for healing the wounds of civil war bought Lincoln a bullet to the head and plunged the country into division and bloodlust for revenge marring decades of the reconstruction era. After that, and more recent history of unbridled language and radicalized true believers, if we don’t heed those lessons God help us, for there will probably be a lot more than Tweets or chants at a rally that we need to worry about then.