Trump’s su­per­pow­ers have their lim­i­ta­tions

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Jonah Gold­berg

In comic books, a key to a com­pelling su­per­power is its lim­i­ta­tions. Magneto can ma­nip­u­late metal but only metal. Su­per­man has prob­lems with magic, red suns, and kryp­tonite.

The lim­i­ta­tions drive the drama.

In pol­i­tics, Don­ald Trump has a cou­ple of su­per­pow­ers. Shame­less­ness is one. He’s will­ing to say what­ever he thinks will ben­e­fit him, heed­less of tra­di­tional rules of ci­vil­ity, decency, con­sis­tency, or hon­esty. This is much more of an as­set in pol­i­tics than many would have guessed just a few years ago, be­cause it al­lows him to say and do things other politi­cians can’t.

Why Trump largely gets a pass in these re­gards is a com­pli­cated ques­tion that I can’t fully an­swer, but I think part of it is that it comes across as au­then­tic and, to some, as en­ter­tain­ing or en­dear­ing. What­ever the rea­son, it makes him im­mune to the sort of gaffes that typ­i­cally wound other politi­cians.

An­other Trump su­per­power is his abil­ity to de­stroy the ca­reers of politi­cians who dis­please him by at­tack­ing or in­sult­ing them. This power is often mis­un­der­stood.

For in­stance, dur­ing the re­cent com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 75th an­niver­sary of the D-Day landings, Trump took time out from his sched­ule to give an in­ter­view to Laura In­gra­ham of Fox News. With the solemn back­drop of the U.S. mil­i­tary ceme­tery in Nor­mandy behind him, he tore into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, call­ing her a “nasty, vin­dic­tive, hor­ri­ble per­son” and sug­gest­ing that she was men­tally un­sta­ble.

In re­sponse, car­toon­ist and prom­i­nent Trump­splainer Scott Adams tweeted, “I don’t know if Pelosi is ‘crazy,’ as Trump sug­gests, but she did just start a pub­lic in­sult war with the best pub­lic in­sul­ter in the solar sys­tem, so . . .”

Adams is wrong on two counts. First, Trump’s in­sults aren’t all that clever. One needn’t be a mod­ern-day H. L. Mencken or Os­car Wilde to come up with “Lyin’ Ted” (Ted Cruz), “Al Franken­stein” (Al Franken), “Lit­tle Michael Bloomberg” or “Dicky Durbin” (Dick Durbin). There are sec­ond-graders who can come up with equal or bet­ter.

Sec­ond, the no­tion that Trump’s barbs are equally ef­fec­tive across the ide­o­log­i­cal or par­ti­san aisle mis­reads the po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Trump’s shame­less­ness is all his; it comes from within. His abil­ity to de­stroy Repub­li­cans is dif­fer­ent.

For Repub­li­can sen­a­tors or con­gress­men to win pri­maries, they need the votes of Trump sup­port­ers. If Trump at­tacks you, it’s a sig­nal to a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the base that you are per­sona non grata. Even if you sur­vive the pri­mary, you’ll need the uni­fied sup­port of Repub­li­cans.

If Trump doesn’t sig­nal that sup­port, you lose. The in­sults may be a con­ve­nient short­hand way to send that sig­nal, but Jeff Flake isn’t a sen­a­tor any­more be­cause of the bril­liance of call­ing him “Jeff Flakey.”

This dy­namic sim­ply doesn’t ex­ist out­side the GOP coali­tion. Just as Magneto is pow­er­less to bend plas­tic or wood with his mind, Trump is in­ca­pable of de­stroy­ing Democrats with a barb, be­cause he can’t move vot­ers when he in­sults Democrats.

We live in a time of in­tense neg­a­tive par­ti­san­ship. That’s what po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists call the ten­dency of vot­ers to rally around what they’re against as much as — or more than — what they’re for. When Trump at­tacks a Demo­crat, it causes other Democrats to rally behind the Demo­crat un­der at­tack. One of the rea­sons rep­re­sen­ta­tives Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez and Il­han Omar are so pop­u­lar with their base is that they are so un­pop­u­lar with the Repub­li­can base.

This is why Democrats con­stantly try to one-up each other in goad­ing the pres­i­dent. It’s cat­nip to Demo­cratic vot­ers, and it just might in­vite a coun­ter­at­tack. It’s also why Trump’s ad­vis­ers and out­side op­er­a­tives have im­plored him to stop be­lit­tling for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, whom many see as the Demo­crat best po­si­tioned to de­feat Trump in 2020.

Most of the peo­ple who think Nancy Pelosi is a “hor­ri­ble per­son” are prob­a­bly al­ready in Trump’s col­umn. More­over, vot­ers who aren’t al­ready in Trump’s col­umn are more likely to sup­port her be­cause of such at­tacks. That’s why Pelosi’s ap­proval rat­ings have im­proved since re­claim­ing the speaker’s gavel.

And the fact that Pelosi has the speaker’s gavel points to an­other prob­lem. Trump’s pow­ers are for­mi­da­ble in their abil­ity to turn the GOP into a party of Trump loy­al­ists. But those pow­ers are also what led to the Democrats’ rout in the 2018 midterms.

Flake and other vic­tims of Trump’s wrath were re­placed not by Trump-loyal Repub­li­cans, but by Democrats. Jonah Gold­berg holds the As­ness Chair in Ap­plied Lib­erty at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and is a se­nior editor of Na­tional Re­view.

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