The President's Rhetoric No Longer Belongs to Him
In my first article published here, I chose to talk about the evergreen and definitely under-covered topic of Brett Kavanaugh and his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In keeping with that spirit, I’m writing about something also rarely discussed in journalism: the takeaways from the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.
Sarcasm aside, I think there is value in examining the themes of then-candidate Trump’s campaign that are now cropping up in the messaging of several hopefuls for the 2020 Democratic nomination. I find myself both fascinated and uncomfortable with Trump’s ability to employ rhetoric that then necessitates similar messaging from his political rivals. It’s absolutely corrupting our two-party discourse, but it’s hard to turn away and avoid the spectacle.
It’s also hard to make predictions about the future, especially in a post-2016 political landscape. However, I find it difficult to imagine an election where both parties aren’t obsessed with combatting the other side. Liberals and conservatives alike are growing to view the opposing ideology as a force that must be extinguished, hence why Trump-ish rhetoric has found a home in American politics.
What exactly does Trump-ish rhetoric look like? Definitions are important, since any given individual could read that and extrapolate a different meaning than the next person. For the purposes of this column, rhetoric akin to Trump’s is this: an active attempt to belittle the other side, in crude or comical ways, to drive base turnout. This is often referred to, on the Twitter-sphere and abroad, as “owning the Libs.”
Let’s look at a case study. Does anyone remember Jeb Bush as a respected politician and governor anymore? I sure don’t, because Donald Trump ended his political career with only two words: “low energy.” The attack was so effective that Jeb (!) dropped the exclamation mark from his campaign signs and changed his slogan to “Jeb Can Fix It.” In the base’s eyes, a lib was owned (despite the fact that Jeb is a mainstream Reagan conservative). Little Marco, Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted...the list extends infinitely.
I could continue with more Trump examples, but my aim is not to summarize the 2016 election. Instead, I want to focus on how negative polarization allowed this strategy to expand beyond the confines of Twitter and how Democrats and established Republicans now increasingly view it as a reasonable strategy.
There are a few things that have to be true in order for this tactic to work, even thrive.
As mentioned previously, negative polarization must be high. This means that people are driven to polar opposite points by their extreme distaste for the other side rather than a positive passion for their own. Sure enough, Republicans’ attitudes about Democrats, and vice versa, reached record-high “very unfavorable” levels in 2016; that number has only climbed since the election. As a result, voters, politicians, and pundits see this method of campaigning as increasingly preferable in order to defeat the other side, or at the very least, make them angry.
Furthermore, the messenger has to be effective at angering and mocking their opponents. Jeb, in another environment lightyears away, could have been a serviceable, if not excellent, Republican candidate. Next to Donald Trump, he looked lost. Hillary had the same problem with charisma. There are many reasons why Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment worked against her, but among the most prominent is that she wasn’t equipped to engage in that type of rhetoric and succeed.
Trump is a one of a kind politician, but that has not stopped formerly lukewarm officials and pundits to respond with hyperbolic and sometimes firebrand language.
Joe Biden, former Vice President to Barack Obama who is also deciding on whether to run for president, has stated on multiple occasions his desire to have “[beaten] the hell out of [Trump]” if the two were still in high school. Trump, of course, responded in kind, claiming he would make Biden “go down fast and hard, crying all the way.” Move over Conor McGregor; fight night is now starring two 70-year-old grandparents who also happen to be at the forefront of American politics.
Cory Booker, US Senator from New Jersey, called himself Spartacus in a rather laughable attempt to martyr himself for the “Resistance.”
Kamala Harris, another Senator from California, joked while on Ellen about killing Trump, Mike Pence, or Jeff Sessions should she be stuck in an elevator with any one of them.
CNN, which frames itself as an unbiased news publication, aired a documentary in which one of their reporters Brian Stelter claimed some events relating to Trump were “eerily reminiscent” of plotlines in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I could write another ten paragraphs about Michael Avenatti’s never-ending list of Trump-like moments, but I’ll settle for his proposition that they both release their transcripts from Penn University to prove who is smarter.
Republican midterm and gubernatorial candidates have also decided to follow President Trump into the chasm as well. None of them will be on the presidential ballot in 2020, but that doesn’t change the fact that a large number of candidates are seeking to achieve the once-impossible: winning a race the way Donald Trump campaigned. Brian Kemp, candidate for governor in my home state of Georgia, openly joked about using his pickup truck to find illegal aliens and deport them himself, in a scripted campaign ad no less.
Kemp is not some random insurgent in Georgia politics; he has been Secretary of State for eight years and served in the state legislature before that. Donald Trump ran as an outsider, but his strategy is becoming the insider politician’s game.
Normalcy still has its defenders. Nikki Haley, in a speech to high schoolers, told them to avoid “own the libs” behavior and to instead attempt to persuade and reason with those who differ. Former President Barack Obama, while addressing the nation of South Africa, pleaded with listeners to understand those who have different perspectives and proceed from there. Republican Senator Ben Sasse is releasing an entire book titled Them: Why We Hate Each Other - And How to Heal.
More importantly, everyday Americans don’t like what our politics is becoming either. Outrage theatre has a niche audience; reality television is good for making popcorn, not making policy affecting millions.
Unfortunately, I don’t envision calls for decency to be heeded in time for 2020. If Twitter isn’t truly representative of our political discourse, it seems politicians and pundits haven’t received the memo.
Trump’s most popular tweets remain those in which he has tweeted videos of him wrestling a photo-shopped CNN logo to the ground and picked fights with opposing figures. His supporters rationalize this behavior by taking it to mean that the President fights for them.
The progressive left’s base wants a fighter too. If recent statements are any indication, the 2020 primary is sure to give them plenty to choose from.