Politics & Policy

The Art of Making the Right Enemies

President Trump on the floor of the House following his address, February 28, 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)
Trump’s opponents might end up boosting his popularity.

This week, Democrats elected former Obama Labor secretary Tom Perez to head the Democratic National Committee. In an act of obeisance to the Left’s insistence that President Trump be opposed by any means necessary, Perez appeared on national television with NBC’s Chuck Todd to declaim that Trump “hasn’t proposed anything but chaos and carnage, I mean, from Day One.” When Todd objected that Trump has proposed a massive infrastructure spending plan that Democrats would normally support, Perez ignored him and fired back, “We’ve seen no evidence, Chuck, of anything constructive from this president.”

This will be the Democrats’ strategy: Take down Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, has a strategy of his own: Attack his enemies.

Attacking enemies isn’t new. Politics has become the art of identifying yourself as the slayer of popular dragons. Naming your enemies is half the battle — label them properly, and you’re likely to win supporters to your side. During the Cold War, Republicans won presidential elections regularly because they identified the enemy: the threat of global Communism. Democrats declared that the true enemies of the republic were stodgy old moralists and militaristic bureaucrats. The American people agreed with the Republicans and gave them the White House over and over again. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Democrats continued to label Republicans the enemy, but Republicans could no longer point to the Soviet Union; their dragon had been slayed. The result: the Clinton presidency.

With the short hiatus of the Bush reelection in 2004, that’s been a winning strategy for Democrats. In 2004, Americans briefly agreed with Republicans that the chief threat to the country didn’t spring from repressive John Lithgow types seeking to stop the dancing, but from Islamic terrorists; on that basis, they kept George W. Bush around. But after the badly prosecuted war in Iraq, Americans quickly turned back to the Democratic narrative that America’s enemies could be found in our own back yard: those who wanted to take America back to the past, who opposed hope and change. Thus Obama.

Now, in the aftermath of President Trump’s surprise election, Democrats are sticking with the program. They say that the true enemy of America is Trump himself. That’s not an awful strategy. Trump currently rides low in the opinion polls: He has the lowest ratings of any modern president at this point, with an average of 43.7 percent. Attacking Trump could be big business for Democrats, given his unpopularity, his chaotic style, and his penchant for stepping into political minefields.

Then again, the strategy could backfire. Contrary to popular opinion, Bush didn’t need 9/11 and the Iraq War to remain popular — the week before 9/11, Bush’s approval rating was +12 percent, and the week before the Iraq War, Bush was at +20. He dropped only as the Iraq War continued and as it became clear that no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction would be found. In other words, it takes some serious failures for a president to totally tank — for the president to become the enemy in the public mind.

Meanwhile, Trump has enemies, too.

It takes some serious failures for a president to totally tank — for the president to become the enemy in the public mind.

Who are his enemies? 1) The media, who purvey “fake news”: A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53 percent of Americans think the media are “exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration because they are uncomfortable and threatened with the kind of change that Trump represents.” 2) China, which Trump says is stealing our jobs: 52 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China. 3) Globalists, a conspiratorial group he accuses of rigging the economy against workers: Polls show that most Americans agree with Trump’s economic plans. 4) The “establishment,” some shadowy cabal of insiders opposed to his administration: Polls show that 86 percent of Americans think “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” 5) Radical Islamic terrorists, who aren’t particularly popular in the United States. 6) Illegal immigrants, who share a similarly low approval rating. 7) And, of course, Democrats, who currently enjoy a -16 percent approval rating overall, as opposed to Trump’s -4 percent.

That’s the nice thing about being Trump and spotting enemies around every corner: The more enemies you spot, the more people who will agree with you that at least one of your enemies is their enemy, too.

So, who’s likely to win this fight?

Democrats will win if Trump continues to hit his enemies without anything to show for it. Trump needs to pull into the high 40s to have a shot at reelection, but the polls show that the public is open to that possibility based on his policies. The only elected presidents who have lost reelection since 1940 had approval ratings that fell below 40 percent by the time of the election (H. W. Bush and Carter). The best hope for Democrats is that Trump experiences an economic recession or botches a war.

Trump, by contrast, must continue attacking his unpopular enemies with alacrity, and he must avoid making any big mistake. While the Democrats seem hell-bent on a strategy of anathematizing Trump and polarizing the electorate, Trump is already a polarizing figure: It’s going to be tough for Democrats to drive down his approval ratings if he achieves anything at all. Opposing Trump at every turn might unify Democrats, but it will be unlikely to defeat Trump — unless Trump defeats himself.

Mr. Shapiro is the host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, the editor emeritus of The Daily Wire, and the author of How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps and The Right Side of History.


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