My Republican friends often deplore what they see as an obsession with transcending Trump: he is a bit boorish, but his policies are really great, they say. Well, maybe. Pretty much across the board his policies have served the hard right agenda of economic nationalism, white nationalism, hostility to diversity of all kinds, and taking a wrecking ball to environmental regulations of all kinds, including the rejection of climate change as a problem. So yes, as a policymaker he is, from my point of view, as bad a calamity as I have seen in my lifetime (which is getting pretty long by now).
What compels our obsession with him: he deliberately, defiantly debunks our normal expectations of common decency and constitutional probity?
But what compels our obsession with him: he deliberately, defiantly debunks our normal expectations of common decency and constitutional probity. Trump is The Transgressor. Tell him he may not do something: he will immediately do it, and do it with the cameras rolling.
This was the dynamic, most recently, of the impeachment ordeal. Trump presented the House Democrats with what seemed to them clear constitutional violations. If they failed to call him on those violations, they would be complicit. Indeed, if they didn’t call him out, he would commit even grosser transgressions, until they responded. And once they responded by impeaching him, he could play the holy martyr in the certainty that the Republican Senate would not convict. He wanted them to impeach him.
The same pattern is there throughout his presidency and indeed throughout the 2016 campaign. He consistently looks for ways to say or do something outrageous, and sure enough, the outrage comes and his base loves it. He compulsively lies and distorts. He lies when he’d be better off telling the truth. When people call him on his lies, he just doubles down on them. The very fact that he transgressed so much is what convinced most observers that he could never become president. But the base loved it and still do.
The task for those of us trying to beat him in November is to stop being triggered, to transcend his transgressions. Our outrage strengthens his ties with the base. We would do better to ridicule him. We would do better to embody the thoughtful search for the public good that is his very antithesis. That won’t win over the base, but it could pull together the rest of us. And the rest of us are the majority.