Donald Trump vs. Elizabeth Warren: The future of political campaigning?

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been taking on Donald Trump in his own brash, Twitter-based style. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, seen here Capitol Hill, is grabbing center stage as Donald Trump’s most effective antagonist.

Elizabeth Warren made national news this week in one of the only ways politicians seem to be able to make national news these days: by attacking Donald Trump.

Yet perhaps more significantly, the style of attack adopted by the senator and former Harvard Law School professor is coming to be the hallmark of this presidential campaign: aggressive, blunt, and intimately personal. In short, it appears that Senator Warren (D) of Massachusetts has decided to act like Mr. Trump.

From attacking Trump on his de-facto home turf – Twitter – to mocking him on the stump as an “insecure moneygrubber,” she’s adopting the truncated, buzzword-heavy verbiage that Trump himself has mastered, to both provoke Trump and stir the Democratic base, experts say.

The deeper question is whether this is a phenomenon unique to this Trump-saturated election or whether it is a hint of how political discourse is evolving.

To some, Trump is a once-in-a-generation political animal, blending celebrity with a masterly understanding of the political climate and modern media.

“It’s something that’s distinctive to the Trump phenomenon,” says David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College.

But Trump didn’t emerge out of nowhere, either. From Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson’s infamous attack on his opponent as “Taliban Dan” in 2010 to Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” at President Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address, the acceptable modes of political attack have been shifting.

Now, Trump and Warren appear to be melding it with the Twitter era.

“This is a 21st century Twitter campaign,” says Thomas Whalen, a social science professor at Boston University, and an expert on presidential campaigns.

“The quicker and more outlandish your response is in terms of baiting your opponent, the better off you are politically,” he adds. “Elizabeth Warren intuitively understands this.”

Warren has been lobbing Twitter grenades at the likely Republican presidential nominee for months now, and on Tuesday she took the fight to the stump. In a Tuesday night speech at the Center for Popular Democracy’s annual gala in Washington, she criticized Trump for profiting of the 2008 housing crisis through buying property on the cheap.

“What kind of man does that?” she asked repeatedly. “A small, insecure moneygrubber who doesn’t care who gets hurt, so long as he makes some money off it.”

She went on to call out Trump on long-harbored desire to eliminate Dodd-Frank regulations on the financial industry.

“Donald Trump is worried about helping poor little Wall Street? Let me find the world’s smallest violin,” she said. She later added: “Can Donald Trump even name three things that Dodd-Frank does?”

This isn’t the way Warren talks every time she opens her mouth. When she discusses policy, particularly financial reform, she can get quite dense.

Such personal attacks “are not really her usual style,” but may be perfect for this political climate and, more strategically, this political opponent, says Professor Hopkins.

“Trump is easy to bait compared to other people in politics,” he adds. “There may be a sense of intentional provocation here, as well – that the tactics that may be effective are in getting Trump to lose his cool and do something that may be politically damaging to him.”

This is also the period in presidential campaigns when candidates and their surrogates try to energize their base by taking shots at the opposition, writes Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

“The campaigns right now are only talking to their bases. Very few people will be persuaded on their position” until closer to the election, she adds.

What seems to have changed now, Professor Whalen argues, is the specific style and tone that appeals. As the electorate has become increasingly partisan and disillusioned, it has also begun to consume political messages in 140 characters or less, and political campaigns have had to respond accordingly.

“Given how angry everyone is now, and given how technology has changed from four years ago, it makes sense that you have a Trump running for president,” adds Professor Whalen.

Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the one lining up against Trump as the Democratic nominee, is less versed in this kind of politics.

“She’s in a 20th century mode of campaigning, this is a new era,” he adds.

And that explains why Warren has stepped up.

“For Democrats, the problem is how do you respond to [Trump], and I think Elizabeth Warren has shown the answer,” says Whalen. “She gets it, I think she understands what’s required in modern political campaigning these days.”

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