This past week many Democrats began saying publicly what they have been agonizing about privately: It’s entirely possible Donald Trump could win reelection.
The odds are increasing that his opponent will end up being viewed as more extreme than Trump. “If it’s a race between ‘mean’ and ‘crazy,’ I fear mean wins hands down,” one former Democratic congressman told me. “As a young voter, I saw ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon demolish a George McGovern who was tagged as being in favor of ‘acid, amnesty, and abortion.’”
That’s not all that Democrats have to worry about. Trump’s outré behavior has led many Democrats to obsess about him, overreact to every perceived outrage, and distract them to the point that they’ve allowed socialists and “woke” progressives to capture much of the party’s policy agenda.
“We spend too much time chasing whatever foolishness Trump throws out there, and he’s masterful at it,” Cornell Belcher, a veteran Democratic pollster, told the Washington Post. For example, Trump couldn’t have asked for a better overreaction to his State of the Union message than Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dramatically tearing up the speech on national TV, standing on the podium right after he finished speaking.
Former Obama aide Van Jones told CNN that Trump’s reality-show-style State of the Union speech was effective and “a big wake-up call for Democrats.” Trump highlighted key issues that would resonate among blacks, Van Jones noted, including record-low unemployment, signing criminal-justice reform into law, and providing more federal backing for historically black colleges and universities.
During the Super Bowl, the president’s campaign committee paid for an ad featuring Alice Marie Johnson, a 64-year-old black woman who was freed after Trump commuted her prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. In the ad, she hugs her family, thanks Trump, and shouts “Hallelujah!”
Jones and other Democrats point out that while Trump remains deeply unpopular with most minority voters, even a small decrease in Democratic margins in minority communities can have large political ripples. Trump won only 8 percent of black voters in 2016 and only 31 percent of Latino voters. But both showings improved on Mitt Romney’s numbers and helped Trump carry key states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, where enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket in inner-city neighborhoods declined.
According to Oval Office visitors, Trump privately chortles at the extent to which he lives rent-free in the heads of his opponents, thus discombobulating them. A new book entitled “A Very Stable Genius” recounts that former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, now a fierce Trump critic, once witnessed a classic over-the-top Trump riff in the Oval Office. Scaramucci then reportedly asked the president, “Are you an act?” Scaramucci says that Trump replied, “I’m a total act, and I don’t understand why people don’t get it.”
Those Democrats who can’t resist falling for Trump’s trolling are reacting to him exactly as he would wish. “Trump sends liberals over the edge in rage, and while they’re not looking, the socialists like Bernie Sanders are stealing their party out from under them,” former GOP congressman Dana Rohrabacher told me.
Liberal satirist Bill Maher, who hosts a comedy show on HBO, says that Trump’s behavior is increasingly viewed as acceptable. “Every time he’s just this horrible jerk people say, ‘Yeah, but that’s part and parcel of being a strong leader and getting things done.’”
Maher, a donor to Democratic causes, says his party is in danger of ceding the election to Trump if it drifts too far to the left on economics and politically correct social policies.
Trump Derangement Syndrome may be so deeply imbedded in the Democratic Party that it can’t be successfully treated. But the first step would be for Democrats to take Trump at his word. He is not evil — he is more of “a total act” who tramples social norms and sacred cows with equal abandon. Opposing him is fine, but acting as if he’s a dictator tilts the rhetorical playing field toward him.
Instead, Democrats might compete with Trump by recognizing that he’s the P. T. Barnum of American politics. In short, Trump is a brilliant self-promoter who often knows exactly what he’s doing and changes course constantly to match what he thinks audiences want to hear — much as Barnum used to switch out circus acts between towns on his tour.
The way to beat a master showman isn’t by running a “crazy” candidate against him. It may involve running someone who can at least compete with him in the showman department.