One thing almost everyone seems to agree upon is that Donald Trump is not a normal president. Some view his abnormalities as a grave threat to the republic itself, others as symbols of his transformation of Washington into a place that finally listens to people like them, still others occasionally laugh or cringe and try their best to measure results. President Trump is also not a normal politician. And it is these unconventional quirks of his style that may play an unprecedented role in the 2020 Democratic primary.
For several decades, at least, incumbent presidents of both parties who are running for re-election have avoided getting publicly involved with other party’s primary. It makes a lot of normal political sense. They try to knock out a few wins and achievements, and look presidential while their potential opponents tear each other to shreds and call each other unfit.
And there he is, the president, already in office, shaking his graying head gravely as if to say, I’m obviously fit, I’m already doing it, do you really want one of these lunatics? The key point in the above sentence is “as if to say”––they don’t really say it. Well, Donald Trump doesn’t “as if to say” anything. And it seems quite a remote possibility that he will quietly sit on the sidelines during the primary.
It’s difficult to know exactly what form Trump’s interference in the Democratic primary will take. Nobody would be very surprised if he, for example, started live tweeting Democratic debates. Judging from his own primary in 2016 he’s likely to key in on specific flaws in the candidates he chooses to attack, and there have to be more nicknames, right?
One thing Trump will understand is that he will have some power to elevate candidacies. Recently Trump was asked to respond to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s allegation that he is a racist, his answer was, “who cares?” He knew that if he engaged he would elevate her; a concept many in the conservative news media, myself included, struggle with.
So if, or when, Trump chooses to zero in on one or more of the Democrats, what’s the best response? On the one hand, there’s a real advantage to being the one fighting the president. That is, after all, the opportunity they are running for. But there is also the danger of getting dragged through the mud. Marco Rubio learned this that one sad week in 2016 when he tried to match crude wits with Trump, who had honed the craft in New York City’s outer boroughs. It was basically the end of Rubio’s run.
The correct response probably depends on who the candidate is and where they are in the polls. Anyone lagging will relish and even court such conflict. It’s the golden key to the news cycle and provides at least the chance to bang out a snarky tweet that can fit on a t-shirt. But the style of the candidacy matters, as well.
A Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker seem more media savvy and ready to spar with the Champ than a Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders. One can most easily see Sanders asked about some salacious tweet, waiving his hand, muttering that the president is a foolish man and moving on with his points about raising taxes.
The news media has a role to play here, too. Going into 2020 coverage, it’s like the rock star addicted to heroin that just has to stay sober for one really important gig. Can they resist the rush of injecting pure Trump into the news media bloodstream? Trump is a helluva drug.
All three of these players––Trump, the Democratic candidates, and the news media––will be partners and adversaries in this game. And for Trump, it will be a home game. Donald Trump has the opportunity to be the narrator (and maybe even a judge) on the Democratic primary reality TV show. Creating factions, inventing rivalries, sowing distrust.
This is all new. And everyone, including the public at large, should be thinking about it. In 2016, Trump’s abrasive––frankly sometimes abusive––style and use of social media shocked the world. He darn near did the impossible. Now we know its possible. Might even be likely. We know more now about who Trump is and how he operates.
How the Democrats, and also the news media, react this time around will have everything to do with the outcome of the election. When a team in any sport comes up with a winning innovation, other teams quickly copy it to restore parity, or else develop a new defense against it. These are basically the two choices Democrats have regarding Trump. But of course, Trump knows that, too.