A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

Why Democrats won't beat Trump playing by his rules

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rips up the speech of U.S. President Donald Trump after his State of the Union address before Congress in Washington, Feb. 4, 2020.

Dear reader:

First, President Donald Trump appeared to decline to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand. Later, Ms. Pelosi tore up the president’s speech.

The made-for-meme moments bookending last night’s State of the Union address represent a dispiriting sign of our times.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump’s stagecraft and emotion – whether you love it or hate it – tends to crowd out everything else.

Politics has always been about theater, as presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama intuitively understood. But today’s tit for tat theatrics seem increasingly petty and crass.

President Trump’s penchant for schoolyard insults and over-the-top rhetoric – his willingness to go there – has long confounded his opponents. If they try to rise above it, a la Michelle Obama’s famous “when they go low, we go high” dictum, they risk not getting any credit – or more importantly, any attention.

But while a clap back may generate cheers from the base, it can diminish your stature in the long run.

Over the weekend, after Mr. Trump sent out a series of tweets mocking former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “Mini Mike,” the Bloomberg campaign chose to responded in kind. “The president is lying,” said Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Julie Wood. “He is a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan.”

Trump-haters loved it. Others saw it as taking the bait.

“Donald Trump is a master of forcing opponents to play the game by his rules,” tweeted Politico’s Tim Alberta. “This. Stuff. Does. Not. Work. Just ask Rubio, Cruz, Hillary… The president’s kryptonite is substance and reason. You cannot beat him at stagecraft and emotion.”

The problem is, Mr. Trump’s stagecraft and emotion – whether you love it or hate it – tends to crowd out everything else. As one Democratic voter in Iowa told the Monitor last week: “Although I disagree with him on everything, he does know how to manipulate the media and get attention.”

In the run up to Monday’s Iowa caucus debacle, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked by a voter how he would take on Mr. Trump. He answered: “I’m going to respond without becoming what we’re fighting.”

We’ll see if he can stick to that plan.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.


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