We say it again: As good as Democrats are at policy, they are that bad at politics. Or worse. And as bad as Republicans are at policy, they are that good at politics. Or better. Republicans win primarily because they control the political narrative. A Republican could no more draft an efficient comprehensive healthcare policy than he could see the value in any postpartum human life outside his own orbit. But he sure can fit a message on a bumper sticker: “DEATH PANELS!” “GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER!” “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”
And as good as Republicans are at raising a subject, they’re at least that good at changing the subject. This is an art form that Donald Trump has taken – likely accidentally – to a new level.
Yesterday Trump tweeted that anyone who exercises his or her First Amendment right to burn a flag should be jailed or stripped of citizenship. As liberals, we tend to fail to see the genius of this kind of mindlessness. Instead, we filter this information through screens called logic and rationality in the prefrontal cortices of our brains. By any logical or rational standard, Trump’s outburst is a pathetic adolescent tantrum. But ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ do not describe the current state of the American electorate.
Every time Trump humiliates himself on an intellectual level, we’re tempted to say, wow – he really stepped in it this time. And so it is with his latest rant. But let’s think about this from 30,000 feet. What have been the real consequences of Trump’s tweet?
- Trump loyalists love it. There is not a single voter among Trump’s legions who would not agree that someone who burned the US flag in protest should be drawn, quartered, and THEN killed. It’s a complicated idea that the First Amendment is not supposed to be EASY. A commitment to defending unpopular speech is not for the intellectually lazy, and the average Trump voter sees the First Amendment the same way he sees everything else: as a lazy command to do what’s EASY. So by tweeting his ignorant bile, Trump WINS WITH HIS BASE.
- His enemies cower. When Trump tweets, liberals appear to be in full freak-out mode, tripping over themselves as Trump’s rubes point and laugh. And liberals, as always, play defense. So by tweeting his ignorant bile, Trump WINS AGAINST HIS ENEMIES.
- The media chases the shiny object. Why talk about the homophobe Trump put in charge of HHS or the anti-Semite he put in charge of domestic policy or the racist he put in charge of DOJ or the warmonger he put in charge of peacekeeping or the gazillions of dollars he stands to make in crooked pay-to-play deals when we might instead chase a rabbit called nonsense down a hole called the American attention span? So by tweeting his ignorant bile, Trump WINS THE MEDIA NARRATIVE.
So where is the downside? While Trump engages in conduct that would be unthinkable if undertaken by the elected leader in a serious First-World democracy, his asinine asides serve the purposes in this country of energizing the ignorant, scaring the soft, and distracting the lazy. And if you add up the ignorant, the soft, and the lazy, what you have is a solid majority of the American body politic.
Donald Trump. He’s wrong about almost everything, but he’s right about this: He wins.