by Alex Knepper
As the dawn of the Trump era tiptoes ever-closer, many Democrats and skeptical Republicans have still not figured out what makes the president-elect ‘tick.’ It is fair to say that we have never known so little about the motives and core beliefs of an incoming president. Nonetheless, we know enough about him to cut through the noise and sketch an outline of what the opposition must note as it prepares for battle. If Trump’s opponents want to effectively combat him, we will need to re-learn a lot of what we thought we already knew:
1. Remember: Trump Is Not an Ideologue, and He Has No Master Plan
Many vain attempts have been made to make sense of Trump by gathering the president-elect’s various statements and attempting to discern a systemized ideology from them. But Trump has no ideology: he is more like former Chinese autocrat Deng Xiaoping, who declared that ‘it does not matter what color a cat is, as long as it catches mice’ — which is not to say that there are not discernible patterns in Trump’s thought, but rather that they are informed more by ‘gut,’ instinct, or prejudice than by a coherent system of abstract principles.
This is a major part of his appeal. He boldly declared earlier in the year that, while he is a conservative, ‘it’s called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.’ He does not attempt to justify his beliefs by appealing to time-honored principles: he defines what is politically good by its immediate practical effect — which is always hand-in-hand with increasing his power — and if existing theories conflict with Trump getting his way, then Trump insists on a new theory, rather than on accommodating his desires to pre-existing principles.
The Khan family wondered over the summer whether Trump had ever read the Constitution. The answer is that he probably hasn’t but that it really doesn’t matter. He is indifferent. He doesn’t have contempt for it — he just doesn’t care. He is motivated primarily by a desire to be the best, the most successful, at everything he pursues, whether it is money, celebrity, women, or political power. But he makes up the details as he goes along. He distrusts master plans.
Ultimately, ideological attacks against Trump are doomed to fail, as they did in both the Republican primary and the general election: his beliefs are instinct-driven, and his approach is transactional. Successful attacks against him must focus on a combination of his temperament and judgment on the one hand — and on the other, the practical, bottom-line effect of his policies.
2. Keep Your Eye On the Ball
Last month, progressive commentators made themselves dizzy with the idea that Trump was tweeting against the cast of Hamilton to distract the people from his political problems. Actually, Trump tweeted about Hamilton because he felt like it, and progressives were distracted by it because they found it annoying and vulgar. Progressives weren’t played by Trump: they played themselves.
One reason Trump won was that his opposition, though united by hatred of him, could not agree on just what made him so odious. He floods the media with so much material that the practical effect is attacks against him can come across as having a scattershot character — as if his critics are throwing everything at the wall to see if something sticks. Again: there is no master plan at work here. Trump is histrionic: he was the king of the New York tabloids before he ever became a television celebrity or presidential candidate. He was acting manic on Twitter before he ever took a shot at the Bushes or the Clintons.
The lesson here is that the opposition must learn to keep its eye on the ball and resist being sucked into Trump’s tabloid world of gossip, sensationalism, and noisy-but-meaningless conflict. If the goal is to resist a policy, then the correct response to, say, that tweet about Hamilton — is just to wave it off.
3. Learn How to Troll
We will never understand Trump or his supporters until we understand that, whatever their goal at-hand is, tactically all is subordinate to trolling the left. The entire Trump saga is, to a very large extent, a big joke to them — a master class in trolling — in part because they think liberalism has already transformed our culture into a big joke. To them, the real joke is that anyone is actually defending liberalism instead of trying to do something — anything — to remove the horrible status quo from power. And since they feel — correctly, to a large extent — that their demands are not taken seriously in ordinary discourse, they have made use of the tactics of the marginalized — to disorient, inflame, and win attention.
On the one hand, we should be wary of ‘normalizing’ these tactics. On the other hand, the genie is already out of the bottle to some extent. Critics should experiment with ways to confound Trump and his supporters. Irony, absurdity, ridicule, and playground teasing are all on the menu. Saul Alinsky was right: there is no effective response to ridicule. Trump’s thin skin ensures there is plenty of material to work with, and that he is easily baited into self-destructive behavior — but opponents cannot deceive themselves that arguments with him can ever become like a collegiate debate society. We are about to enter a strange, post-modern presidency — and to some extent we have little choice but to play along.
4. Admit It When He’s Right
One reason President Obama has retained a degree of sympathy even from people — like me — who opposed him is due to the sheer intransigence of his critics. If Obama discovered a cure for cancer, some of his opponents would berate him for looking down on people with Alzheimer’s.
Trump’s critics should not be like this. We should not want him to fail. We should cheer when he makes good decisions or successfully compromises a deal worth achieving. If he is able to get an infrastructure bill through Congress, that’s a good thing. If he appoints a quality justice, that’s a good thing. If he makes greater headway in the fight against ISIS, that’s a good thing. Our interests are as Americans first and as Trump opponents second — and if we really want to effectively oppose Trump, we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of that truth.