OK, enough fooling around: How do we beat this freakin’ guy?
I’ll assess this tactically, not politically. Politically, the left is presently split into two highly visible factions: far and moderate. These two factions are far from new, but they’re intensely pronounced right now, and intensely at odds with one another. The far left, embodied by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is gunning for a disruption of the machinations of capitalism, complete with universal healthcare, an embrace of renewable energy, and a dismantling of systemic social and racial injustice. The moderate left, embodied by the likes of Joe Biden and John Hickenlooper, has overlapping interests with their far-left counterparts, but are going to be more vanilla (I use the word with intention) in their approach to them: better jobs and wages instead of taking apart capitalism, curbing climate change instead of replacing our energy sources, tinkering with the machine instead of conceptualizing a new one.
The far left can win with mobilization: If young, minority, and disadvantaged communities can be persuaded to make their way to the polls, they’ll make for a major voice that can be heard. The moderate left can win by converting independents: i.e., winning back those white, blue collar voters who might have once swung for Obama yet then ended up turning out for Trump. Where one sits on the left is by many measures proportional to how disturbing one finds Trump. If one is revolted by his narcissism, repelled by his far-right pandering, and chilled by the numerous sexual assault allegations against him, one is likely to have planted one’s political flag as far away from Trump’s as possible (i.e., in the green — word intended — ground of the far left). If one sees his ascent more as an f-you to political correctness and a wrench thrown recklessly into the works of the establishment, one is likely to regard him with more patience, as more pawn than king.
Lately, those who once doubted he could ever win are predicting his handy second victory. And if the economy remains unruffled, he’s going to hold sinister appeal for every voter who’s not against capitalism on the whole. They may hate him, but they’ll gladly pull the lever for someone they hate, if it means getting a little more bread in their own pockets.
In fact, there you may have the common ground, in terms of how Trump’s perceived, and it even extends to his supporters on the right:
Donald Trump is a bully.
I daresay you’d be hard-pressed to encounter any thorough or meaningful arguments against this perceptual framing of the president. Even if you’re a fervent “fake news” believer (which is to say, a real news non-believer) and you think the guy’s been caricatured by the mainstream media, I rather think you’ll still recall the demeaning nicknames he issues to his opponents (so normalized, by now, that we keep an ear out, waiting for them), along with the demeaning words he speaks much of the time he opens his mouth (or types, much of the time he’s within the vicinity of Twitter).
If we can all agree on this, that Trump is a bully, then those of us who are against him can stand on stable tactical ground when it comes to devising a strategy to defeat him. For from bullies, we can always expect two things: (1) a need to have control over one’s altercations and (2) more importantly, a need to control the terrain upon which those altercations occur.
The control thing is old news: A bully’s truest, deepest enemy is his own deficient sense of self-worth, which he works to suppress and deny by attempting to dominate those in his environment.
The terrain thing works hand-in-hand with the control thing, though the bullying itself can be so distracting that its control aspects tend to drown out its terrain aspects. Unable to see the bully’s (generally hidden) inner vulnerability, his victims miss the fact that he always happens to control where the fights take place.
The “where,” mind you, needn’t only be physical. With Trump, physicality need not apply. Trump’s chosen terrain is of a moral nature. Remember a million years ago, when Michelle Obama intoned, “When they go low, we go high”? The possibility that those on the left missed, while being rightfully inspired by her sentiment, was that as we went higher in reaction to Trump’s lowness…he just kept on going lower…
Things are different now. The “conversation”’s changed. I use quotation marks because our nation’s political conversation is now so often fever-pitched, so laced is it with fear, distrust, trauma, and tribalism.
Welcome to the age of Trump. The tone is set at the top. We didn’t want to react to him, we didn’t want to normalize him, we didn’t want to absorb, metabolize, echo, and/or recycle his grotesque fever pitch, but as it turns out, we the people have ended up doing all of the above.
The good news is, while going after the presidency, his opponent has the option of doing the same.
Trump’s terrain is vulgarity. That’s how he won. He activated America’s latent Inner Shithead. He knew, like any experienced bully, that his opponents were unwilling to operate upon his chosen, controlled terrain. They were too polite, too professional, too dispassionate, too upstanding, too adult.
One by one, from his primary opponents to the big one at the top, he went ahead and introduced them to defeat.
I know what you’re thinking: Why not just define our own terrain? Such was precisely what Michelle Obama sought. Such is exactly what those on the left, driven by innate compassion and an accompanying pursuit of equality and social justice, are instinctually inclined to go for. We’re not naturally wired to get down in the mud. We’ve conceptualized nobility (correctly or otherwise) as central to our brand.
This is going to cost us.
When your opponent’s a bully, he will cling to terrain he can control. He’s operating on the wholly confident (and often insightful) expectation that you will not be able to operate with confidence on his terrain. That’s why dinner table debaters gravitate toward topics of which they have advanced knowledge; they’re carving out terrain that others will be afraid to dance on. Their victory is all but guaranteed by their selected parameters, ones which they dare not step outside of. Luring them to your world, therefore, is not possible.
I’m not advocating for a spectacle (at least not at the level of intention). Truth be told, as the election cycle heats up, I’m already feeling that familiar 2016-ish tug on the fabric of my sanity. It’s going to be ridiculous on many levels. On many levels, I sometimes wonder if it’s even worth following, or caring about. That’s what spectacles do to you, when pushed too far, for too long: They cut you off from your humanity. Initially, you were lit up with shock and fury. Over time, that can give way to an alienated numbness.
Ugliness, and fighting, and spectacle, are not what I seek.
I seek a victory against a bully. The bully perceives himself as being in control. The bully has carved out the terrain of vulgarity. His opponents’ unwillingness to ever be vulgar will potentially cost them all in perpetuity.
Whoever goes against him has to get in the mud. Could you imagine Trump being called a nickname? Being a bully, he would freeze. That’s how these things work. And could you imagine if the vulgarity, the mockery, the hostility, the immaturity, and the quote-unquote “political incorrectness” kept coming at him from his opponent, day in and day out, over and over again through every news cycle?
I guarantee you he’d be shocked. He’s not even particularly imaginative. He’d lose his edge, start reacting instead of spurring reactions, start coming up short on words. At this moment, he’s wide open: he expects no one to dare step on his terrain. The one who dares do so will at first seem outrageous, and the entire race will no doubt become a hypercharged, surrealist reality show, but at least with two opponents on the same terrain, the causes of the left will again have a chance at advancing.
Trump’s an unserious man, but a serious problem. Our collective psyche seeks relief from this pounding headache. Granted the chance to face him, his opponent must know this:
When he goes low, an opportunity has arisen to go lower.