I wanted to make a couple related observations about this Donald Trump debate drama.
First, an admission.
When I heard last night that Trump was pulling out of the Fox News GOP primary debate I was quite certain he had every intention of finally attending tomorrow night’s event. The point was simply to engineer 48 hours of cable news drama, begging by Fox News, all topped off by Trump finally deigning to attend the event after all the other players had been sufficiently humiliated. But unless the man is managing a far better bluff than I can imagine, that is clearly not the case. It also seems clear it was never the case. I see no evidence that Trump fumbled this gambit or boxed himself into a non-attendance he didn’t intend. Being a no show was the plan.
I can’t say that I know how this is going to play out for him. But I thought this was an important moment to revisit an issue I’ve discussed in various posts going back over a dozen years. In the present context I would put it like this: Pundits and political obsessives tend to get distracted by process and policy literalism. But politics generally and especially intra-Republican political battles are really about demonstrating dominance – not policy mastery or polling leads but a series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.
I’ve seen various people say, ‘Well this is awful for Trump. He’s missing his opportunity to make his closing argument to Iowa caucusgoers!’ But that’s not getting what’s happening. Maybe this will be a disaster for Trump. But it won’t be because he missed out on 15 minutes of airtime.
The misunderstanding is similar to all the other times over the last six months when observers thought Trump had tripped himself up by violating some political taboo, showing he didn’t understand some basic policy issue or just flat out lying about something in a easily demonstrable way. Focusing on these indicators is like watching an opera and fixating on the libretto rather than the score. Yes, it’s part of what’s happening. But it’s not what’s generating the energy and motion. It’s just a ripple on the surface of a deep sea. How much do you need to know German to get Wagner?
When I first wrote about this a dozen years ago I called it the “bitch slap theory of politics.” I’m no longer comfortable using that phrase. But I do think the heavily gendered, violent nature of that phrase is one of the only ways to really capture the nature of what’s happening in these dramas.
Take Trump’s evisceration of Jeb Bush.
Trump’s comment about Jeb’s being “weak”, “low energy”, “pitiful” … these are demeaning and denigrating phrases. They seem frankly gross, with an emotional tenor we’d expect from street toughs or frat boys trash talking each other. It’s raw and primal and all about dominating by denigrating. But what has really hurt Bush is not so much that Trump is calling him names. It’s that Trump has used these attacks to demonstrate that Jeb is unable or unwilling to defend himself. Trump hits him and Jeb takes it. His responses are hapless and weak and generally meaningless. You probably barely remember them. The impact of this is not tied to Trump calling Bush “weak.” Trump is engineering encounters that show that Bush is weak.
In an election dominated by national security, this kind of demonstration of power and dominance has a profound impact. That is why the ‘Swift Boat’ attacks in the 2004 presidential election were so devastating. Whether anybody really believed all these slurs and claims about John Kerry wasn’t really the point. What was deadly was his seeming inability to defend himself.
Here’s what I wrote at the time …
This is a battle between two candidates to demonstrate toughness on national security. Toughness is a unitary quality, really — a personal, characterological quality rather than one rooted in policy or divisible in any real way. So both sides are trying to prove to undecided voters either that they’re tougher than the other guy or at least tough enough for the job.
In a post-9/11 environment, obviously, this question of strength, toughness or resolve is particularly salient. That, of course, is why so much of this debate is about war and military service in the first place.
One way — perhaps the best way — to demonstrate someone’s lack of toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves — thus the rough slang I used above. And that I think is a big part of what is happening here. Someone who can’t or won’t defend themselves certainly isn’t someone you can depend upon to defend you.
That was a dozen years ago. But this driving force of Republican politics has only become more salient and central as the GOP has become increasingly dominated by core constituencies animated by anger and resentment that things to which they believe they are entitled are being taken away from them.
Trump doesn’t apologize. He hurts people and they go away. He says things that would kill a political mortal (ban members of an entire religion from entering the country) and yet he doesn’t get hurt. Virtually everything Trump has done over the last six months, whether it’s a policy proposal or personal attack, has driven home this basic point: Trump is strong. He does things other people can’t.
This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I’ve said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language. And yet somehow for most it is nonetheless a second language. Not Trump. It’s his native language. I still believe it’s rooted in the mix of the hyper-aggressive New York real estate world, his decades of immersion in the city’s febrile tabloid culture and just being, at the most basic level, a bully. Wherever it comes from, he seems to intuitively get that for this constituency and at this moment just demonstrating that he gets his way, always, is all that really matters. Policy details, protecting the candidate through careful press releases and structured media opportunities … none of that matters. Trump doesn’t kiss babies. Babies kiss him. He doesn’t have a billionaire backer; he is a billionaire. Trump doesn’t ask for support. He just tells you that you need to stop being a loser and get on board.
So this debate power play is all of a piece. He can just take the table, flip it over and walk out of the room. It’s all about him.
There is no question that Trump will completely dominate tomorrow night’s debate by his absence. After all, he’s the one in the lead everywhere. If he’s not there, what is there to talk about? The Rubio v Christie stand off? Jeb? Who cares?
It may be two plus hours of people attacking him without him being there to respond – and the moderators themselves out to get him too. But again, it’s still all about him. He can make it all about him by not even being there. He doesn’t kowtow to Fox News or go on retainer with the network during the off-season. He calls the shots. And there is little question in my mind that in one fashion or another you will have two competing TV shows tomorrow night, Trump’s and everybody else’s. And Trump’s will almost certainly be better.
I cannot imagine that at least one of the other cable nets won’t livecast it so it really is two different, simulcast competing shows, maybe even with Trump responding to debate attacks in his own speech. The rival candidates are putting it out that Trump is afraid to face Kelly. But I don’t think anyone will actually buy that. He’s at least held his own in every debate so far. And his first encounter with Kelly last year was a big success for him. It’s just a very transparent, straightforward power play.
Now, having said all this, this is so over-the-top that I’m not certain Trump can pull it off. There’s part of me that wonders if he’s become so used to getting away with every stunt he’s pulled in this campaign that he’s finally bitten off more than he can chew and somehow it backfires. My hunch is it doesn’t. I’m not sure. But I get the idea. Trump doesn’t follow rules. Rules follow Trump.
And this brings me to the other part of this I’m keen to discuss.
This whole drama is becoming a real measure, almost a litmus test for buy-in to the normative political culture, the architecture of our current electoral system. Because what is most striking to me about this game is that there’s really not even the pretense that there is any real dispute about debate rules or bias or fairness or anything like that at the core of this. There’s not even any there there in Trump’s supposed ‘feud’ with Megyn Kelly. It has all the emotive credibility of a professional wrestling rivalry. It really is more or less openly just him saying I’m going to jack you guys up for the fun of it and make a spectacle of this.
Just to make trouble.
Because I can.
For a lot of regular people – or let’s say people who have some buy in to the normative political process – this would be the point where people would say, “Okay, you’re just too far outside the lines. This is BS. I love how he’s kicking ass but this guy does not have the temperament to be president.” And frankly I’m not sure that won’t happen. But it does not seem to be happening yet, even though this is punching through the margins even Trump’s been operating within for the last six months.
We’ve heard lots of talk about an ‘anti-establishment’ mood in the country or this being an anti-establishment election cycle. And at many levels it unquestionably is. But these kinds of antics, really unprecedented in their nature, are less an attack on the ‘establishment’ than a deeper structure of the political system itself. And that bears paying close attention to.