In 2016, GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio tried to get himself back in the game by ridiculing Trump in Trump-like fashion in the 1,875th Republican debate. This was the notorious “hand size” moment—and Trump responded exactly as Rubio wanted him to, by defending himself on the most ludicrous grounds. But the attack didn’t take and, in short order, Rubio apologized for it. He said his wife was unhappy he’d done it and he wouldn’t stoop to Trump’s level again. And that was that for Marco Rubio.
You cannot shame the shameless, and you cannot make unacceptable someone who has not only resorted to but has embraced conduct everyone else deemed unacceptable—and has not only survived but thrived because of it. That was Rubio’s mistake. By behaving like Trump, Rubio erased whatever advantage he might have had from not being like Trump (and remember, that was not nothing; after all was said and done, Trump only got 45 percent of the primary vote). It was probably worth a shot, but as it didn’t work, it’s probably not worth a second shot.
And yet that is exactly the path Democrats and liberals seem to be stumbling onto in their battle against Trump and the GOP. They have decided that the offenses of Trump and his administration against the good and the true and the beautiful are so horrific that anyone officially associated with him is to be harassed in public. Desperate times call for desperate measures, apparently.
The tactic of making the political personal in the most direct and unpleasant of ways is nothing new, of course. The home of my late sister, married to Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs at the height of the U.S.-Sandinista clashes, was picketed by protestors in 1987. He was away while she and her three children under the age of six sat inside hearing their husband and father denounced as a murderer. In a residential neighborhood in D.C. That was nice, huh? Three little kids.
The comedian Seth Rogen recently bragged about refusing to take a photo with Paul Ryan in the presence of Ryan’s kids. He confessed to feeling bad about it, but also to thinking that it would be good if Ryan’s kids knew people who make movies and TV don’t like their dad. There’s a word for someone who brags about how he went and taught someone else’s kids a lesson in this way: The word is “asshole.”
This is what happens when you dehumanize your opposition. But anyone who professes to admire Trump should tread carefully when expressing outrage over the mistreatment of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders at the Red Hen restaurant this weekend because the dehumanization of the opposition is key to Trump’s communications and base-pumping strategies. And if you thrill at him for his conduct and find the treatment of Sanders unspeakable, there’s a word for you too, and it’s “hypocrite.”
The point Trump’s opposition fails to grasp is this: By imitating Trump, you are doing exactly what you fear the media are doing. You are normalizing him. You are making this kind of conduct the political baseline for both parties and both ideological tendencies. And let’s face it: You’re just not going to do it as well as Trump does. It’s like trying to follow in the footsteps of Al Jolson, a huge star who was also insufferable and immensely annoying. Nobody did Jolson like Jolson—but who would want to?
By affirming the notion that Americans are now divided into enemy camps, and each should treat the other as though it is beneath contempt, Democrats and liberals are making an in-kind contribution to the GOP’s 2018 midterm campaign and the 2020 Trump campaign. This is how you’re going to get Trump again.