In comic books, a key to a compelling superpower is its limitations. Magneto can manipulate metal but only metal. Superman has problems with magic, red suns, and kryptonite. The limitations drive the drama.
In politics, Donald Trump has a couple of superpowers. Shamelessness is one. He’s willing to say whatever he thinks will benefit him, heedless of traditional rules of civility, decency, consistency, or honesty. This is much more of an asset in politics than many would have guessed just a few years ago, because it allows him to say and do things other politicians can’t.
Why Trump largely gets a pass in these regards is a complicated question that I can’t fully answer, but I think part of it is that it comes across as authentic and, to some, as entertaining or endearing. Whatever the reason, it makes him immune to the sort of gaffes that typically wound other politicians.
Another Trump superpower is his ability to destroy the careers of politicians who displease him by attacking or insulting them. This power is often misunderstood.
For instance, during the recent commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Trump took time out from his schedule to give an interview to Laura Ingraham of Fox News. With the solemn backdrop of the U.S. military cemetery in Normandy behind him, he tore into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person” and suggesting that she was mentally unstable.
In response, cartoonist and prominent Trumpsplainer Scott Adams tweeted, “I don’t know if Pelosi is ‘crazy,’ as Trump suggests, but she did just start a public insult war with the best public insulter in the solar system, so . . .”
Adams is wrong on two counts. First, Trump’s insults aren’t all that clever. One needn’t be a modern-day H. L. Mencken or Oscar Wilde to come up with “Lyin’ Ted” (Ted Cruz), “Al Frankenstein” (Al Franken), “Little Michael Bloomberg” or “Dicky Durbin” (Dick Durbin). There are second-graders who can come up with equal or better.
Second, the notion that Trump’s barbs are equally effective across the ideological or partisan aisle misreads the political landscape. Trump’s shamelessness is all his; it comes from within. His ability to destroy Republicans is different.
For Republican senators or congressmen to win primaries, they need the votes of Trump supporters. If Trump attacks you, it’s a signal to a significant chunk of the base that you are persona non grata. Even if you survive the primary, you’ll need the unified support of Republicans. If Trump doesn’t signal that support, you lose. The insults may be a convenient shorthand way to send that signal, but Jeff Flake isn’t a senator anymore because of the brilliance of calling him “Jeff Flakey.”
This dynamic simply doesn’t exist outside the GOP coalition. Just as Magneto is powerless to bend plastic or wood with his mind, Trump is incapable of destroying Democrats with a barb, because he can’t move voters when he insults Democrats.
We live in a time of intense negative partisanship. That’s what political scientists call the tendency of voters to rally around what they’re against as much as — or more than — what they’re for. When Trump attacks a Democrat, it causes other Democrats to rally behind the Democrat under attack. One of the reasons representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are so popular with their base is that they are so unpopular with the Republican base.
This is why Democrats constantly try to one-up each other in goading the president. It’s catnip to Democratic voters, and it just might invite a counterattack. It’s also why Trump’s advisers and outside operatives have implored him to stop belittling former vice president Joe Biden, whom many see as the Democrat best positioned to defeat Trump in 2020.
Most of the people who think Nancy Pelosi is a “horrible person” are probably already in Trump’s column. Moreover, voters who aren’t already in Trump’s column are more likely to support her because of such attacks. That’s why Pelosi’s approval ratings have improved since reclaiming the speaker’s gavel.
And the fact that Pelosi has the speaker’s gavel points to another problem. Trump’s powers are formidable in their ability to turn the GOP into a party of Trump loyalists. But those powers are also what led to the Democrats’ rout in the 2018 midterms. Flake and other victims of Trump’s wrath were replaced not by Trump-loyal Republicans, but by Democrats.
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