Two ways Trump gains supporters

The New York Times’ Frank Bruni shows one …

You know how Donald Trump wins? I don’t mean a second term or major legislative victories. I’m talking about the battle between incivility and dignity.

He triumphs when opponents trade righteous anger for crude tantrums. When they lose sight of the line between protest and catcalls.

When a writer for “Saturday Night Live” jokes publicly that Trump’s 10-year-old son has the mien and makings of a killer.

“Barron will be this country’s first home-school shooter,” the writer, Katie Rich, tweeted. I cringe at repeating it. But there’s no other way to take proper note of its ugliness.

That tweet ignited a firestorm — and rightly so — but it didn’t really surprise me. It was just a matter of time. This is the trajectory that we’re traveling. This, increasingly, is what passes for impassioned advocacy.

Look elsewhere on Twitter. Or on Facebook. Or at Madonna, whose many positive contributions don’t include her turn at the microphone at the Women’s March in Washington, where she said that she’d “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House,” erupted into profanity and tweaked the lyrics to one of her songs so that they instructed Trump to perform a particular sex act.

What a sure way to undercut the high-mindedness of most of the women (and men) around her on that inspiring day. What a wasted opportunity to try to reach the many Americans who still haven’t decided how alarmed about Trump to be. I doubt that even one of them listened to her and thought: To the barricades I go! If Madonna’s dropping the F bomb, I must spring into action.

All of this plays right into Trump’s hands. It pulls eyes and ears away from the unpreparedness, conflicts of interest and extreme conservatism of so many of his cabinet nominees; from the evolving explanations for why he won’t release his tax returns; from his latest delusion or falsehood, such as his renewed insistence that illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote; from other evidence of an egomania so profound that it’s an impediment to governing and an invitation to national disaster.

There’s so much substantive ground on which to confront Trump. There are acres upon acres. Why swerve into the gutter? Why help him dismiss his detractors as people in thrall to the theater of their outrage and no better than he is?

And why risk that disaffected Americans, tuning in only occasionally, hear one big mash of insults and insulters, and tune out, when there’s a contest — over what this country stands for, over where it will go — that couldn’t be more serious.

After Rich’s tweet, “Saturday Night Live” suspended her, and she was broadly condemned, by Democrats as well as Republicans, for violating the unofficial rule against attacks on the young children of presidents. Chelsea Clinton, on her Facebook page, urged people to give Barron space and peace — something that wasn’t always done for her, for George W. Bush’s daughters or for Barack Obama’s.

But the treatment of presidential progeny isn’t the real story here. And that’s a complicated saga anyway, because so many presidents and candidates try to have things both ways, putting family on display when it suits them and then declaring them off limits when it doesn’t.

The larger, more pressing issues are how low we’re prepared to sink in our partisan back-and-forth and what’s accomplished by descending to Trump’s subterranean level. His behavior has been grotesque, and it’s human nature to want to repay him in kind. It feels good. It sometimes even feels right.

Many people I know thrilled to the viral footage a few days ago of the vile white supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the head during a television interview. But that attack does more to help him than to hurt him.

Many people I know thrilled to BuzzFeed’s publication of a dossier with unsubstantiated allegations about Trump. But that decision bolstered his ludicrous insistence that journalists are uniquely unfair to him. It gave him a fresh weapon in his war on the media.

If Trump’s presidency mirrors its dangerous prelude, one of the fundamental challenges will be to respond to him, his abettors and his agenda in the most tactically prudent way and not just the most emotionally satisfying one. To rant less and organize more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. To answer invective with intelligence.

And to show, in the process, that there are two very different sets of values here, manifest in two very distinct modes of discourse. If that doesn’t happen, Trump may be victorious in more than setting newly coarse terms for our political debate. He may indeed win on many fronts, over many years.

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