David Roberts explains why one-trick pony Donald Trump won’t be President on vox.com.
One of the best things I’ve read this year about Trump’s appeal is by Josh Marshall. It hearkens back to his (legendary in some circles) 2004 post about “bitch-slap politics.” Marshall has wisely abandoned that term, but the concept behind it has never been more relevant. It’s about dominance displays, about showing, rather than arguing, that one’s opponent is weak. It’s done not through critique but through attack — personal attack — demonstrating that the target will not or can not defend him or herself. The attack doesn’t make the point, it is the point.
That approach has proven immensely potent in the GOP primary. The angry white people flocking to Trump feel like they’re getting snubbed, looked down on, and passed over, that a new America culture is rising up around them and it has no place for them. And now, here is one of their own — okay, maybe not struggling like them, but definitely pissed off and politically incorrect like them — expressing their fears and resentments, without apology.
Trump is their avatar. And he is making all the fancy-pants politicos and journalists bend a knee and kiss his ring. They can’t hurt him, and he makes sure they know it. He is a florid middle finger to every one of the cultural elites his followers feel disdained by.
They’ve been getting crapped on years. Now someone is taking their side and doing some of the crapping. They love it. They don’t necessarily love him, but they love watching him stick it to the elites. And why wouldn’t they? They are, through Trump, winning again, like they used to back in the good old days.
Trump’s shtick excites a portion of the electorate — resentful, xenophobic, white — that is more robust than most political elites realized, but the shtick also polarizes. Trump has higher unfavorables than any of his opponents. Taken to a national race, his current act will even more sharply divide an already polarized country.
And here’s the bedrock obstacle to Trump’s success: there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.
So to win, Trump will have to reach out to moderates or independents or white-collar professionals or Latinos or college-educated women or … some other demographic. Endless dominance displays will not do that. He’ll have to soften his approach, to show some respect and gravitas, to display some empathy, to demonstrate that he has a grasp of policy. Bush-style “compassionate conservatism” is the only kind capable of building a national majority any more. Can Trump do that? Can he modulate his act? Can he appeal to different demographics? Well, he never has. And nothing in his history or behavior indicates that he’s capable of it.
He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn’t, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.
It’s pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience. Trump may “pledge a personality change” as president, but personalities do not change overnight. Narcissistic personality disorder is not a strategy, it’s a condition.
In a general campaign, Trump will not be surrounded by supplicants like he’s accustomed to. He won’t be able skip debates and bully journalists for an entire election. He will be put under intense stress and scrutiny, forced to improvise answers to difficult questions that he doesn’t get to choose.
And when he’s pushed, he’ll lash out, again and again, and eventually people will notice that lashing out is all he’s capable of. He’ll face setbacks, and people will notice that arrogant bluster sounds a little tinny and desperate coming from someone who’s down.
People will see his personality on display in circumstances not of his choosing, for the first time. And they’ll recoil at the idea of him holding the nuclear codes. Maybe core Republican voters will stay with him no matter what, but he’ll repel more than enough non-core voters to foreclose a winning coalition.
Bottom line: the strongman approach is inherently self-limiting. It flourishes in the bizarro environs of a modern Republican primary, but there is no evidence at all, and much to the contrary, that it could be used to assemble a national majority. Yet it is the only approach in Trump’s toolbox. That is why he will never be president.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center