President Trump’s biggest fans like to compare him to Ronald Reagan, a comparison that rings hollow for most observers. The sunny happy warrior patina of the Reagan years and the deep moral rhetoric of the existential conflict with the Soviet Union have little echo in these times. But there are at least three ways this comparison rings true. One is their critics – Trump like Reagan is much criticized for his moves from the ideological right and a left who find him frustratingly teflon-coated; another is their willingness to reject conventional understandings of our foes around the world; and a third is their deep emphasis on an understanding that they are playing a role for the sake of the cameras.
Reagan was in many of his finest moments playing the part of an American movie president, and Trump in many of his finest moments is playing the part of an American TV president. And as such, last night may have been the best performance of his career.
Think of the series of stories Trump highlighted last night, and they are all the stuff of TV movies, viral videos, and reality TV competitions. I see your Lenny Skutnik, and raise you a premie, a little girl who gets to go to school, a soldier turned addict turned success, a kid who wants to go to space and his 100 year old Tuskegee warrior hero, the wronged families of sanctuary city policy and endless war, the young leader battling socialism, the parents who got vengeance for their daughter, and the war family tearfully reunited.
These are stories about what Trump thinks America is, and who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he is doing. The stagecraft of this can be obvious and contrived at times, and yes, some of it is trolling. The decision to give Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom live and on TV could be read as such, forcing Democrats and the media to look on as the conservative radio icon smiles. (A sadder interpretation is that this might be the only opportunity to give him the award – let’s hope that is not the case.) But most of this is thoroughly Trumpian because it is not about ideology, it is about good television. And that was good television. “What is the president going to do next, haul out KSM and shoot him in the head?”
Which makes the decision by the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi to battle Trump on this basis, in the meme game and theatrics, so foolish. Tim Alberta of Politico posted on this last night: “Donald Trump is a master of forcing opponents to play the game by his rules. Tearing up paper? Staging walkouts? This stuff does not work. Just ask Rubio, Cruz, Hillary… The president’s kryptonite is substance and reason. You cannot beat him at stagecraft and emotion. Remember when Warren’s campaign nearly ended before it began when Trump baited her into that DNA test? Or when Biden talked about wanting to beat up the president? (I’m sure suburban women loved that) Now you hear the champagne popping at 1600 with Bloomberg’s orange tan jokes.”
And yet, that’s what they’re doing, and what they are going to continue doing – and there is a huge risk in that. Van Jones on CNN last night tried to warn his fellow Democrats and media members to wake up to this:
The thing about it is, and we’ve got to wake up, folks, there’s a whole bubble thing that goes on, ‘he said s-hole nations, therefore all black people are going to hate him forever.’ That ain’t necessarily so. I think what you’re going to see him do, ‘you may not like my rhetoric, but look at my results and my record to black people,’ if he narrow casts that, it’s going to be effective.
Which means, as we move through this primary process, we’ve got to pay a lot more attention both to what’s going on with the Latino vote. Are we going to get a benefit in terms of having them respond and with the black vote. Is it going to be a split off, especially for black male voters? We’ve got to be clinical about this stuff. We get so emotional about it. That was a warning to us. That was a warning shot across the bow to us Democrats that he’s going after enough black votes to cause us problems. It’s not just suburban votes, he’s going after black votes.
Trump and the White House see what’s happening in the Democratic Party at the moment as potentially a huge opportunity to cut into the minority blocs they depend upon in 2020. Trump over-performed Mitt Romney among these groups in 2016, and he needs only cut into their support a bit more to have a dramatic impact on the Democratic path in 2020.
In a situation where the nominees are any of the top three vote-getters in Iowa, Trump will have a real shot at it. And that will cue what could be a dramatic expression of the divide between woke white voters and the less radical minority base they actually need to win national elections. James Carville is sounding alarm bells about the Democrats becoming the British Labour Party. And that’s exactly what the White House hopes is happening.
In the meantime, Trump is riding high. His party held together through impeachment. His poll numbers are at their highest levels. The economy is booming. His big calls on terrorist killing haven’t drawn us into further war. Things are working for him. His supporters are emboldened, and his opposition is divided, frustrated, and struggling to even get their votes counted. He is in the midst of the best week of his presidency. It’s stunning, and it’s happening at exactly the right time to ensure he gets to play this part for four more years.