Trump’s Campaign Strategy: The Big Smear

President Donald Trump gloating

President Donald Trump is fixed in his beliefs and prejudices, incapable of learning anything new. The two major events of this week — his acquittal by pusillanimous Republican senators (Utah’s Mitt Romney excluded) and the Iowa caucuses — only reinforce his preconceived political modus operandi.  

What does that mean? On the one hand, the failure of the Senate to demonstrate spine and oust the rapscallion from office confirms Trump’s lifelong conviction that the rules do not apply to him and he can engage in further lawless behavior. On the other, Trump will interpret the results of the Iowa caucus as confirmation that sliming opponents works. 

This is the nexus of Trump’s Ukrainian escapade and the 2020 presidential election — scandal meeting campaign. They are the linked outcomes of Trump’s amoral approach to politics. Trump has no ideas; he is incapable of articulating a political thought beyond shibboleths taught him by his handlers and slogans tested at his cult-like rallies. The words “Trump” and “thought” do not belong in the same sentence. But, attacks and insults come naturally to him. The veracity of those attacks and insults is irrelevant.

First Lady Melania Trump hanging a medal on Rush Limbaugh

Trump knows most people view him as ethically challenged. He understands that stink follows him from his business career and personal life. He hides as much as he can (remember those promised tax returns?), but what we know combined with what he keeps from us makes us justifiably suspicious. That goes for his followers as well as his opponents. His core strategy is not to appear ethical, certainly not to suggest he is more ethical than his adversaries. No, the Trumpian approach is to make his rivals appear no better than he. If voters conclude that both candidates — Trump and whomever the Democrats nominate — are scandal-ridden, then voters well throw up their hands and vote for the candidate who entertains them. And, for many voters, Trump is entertaining. (Note: His Tuesday night State of the Union was pure theater, from having First Lady Melania Trump hang a medal on controversial talk radio host Rush Limbaugh to reuniting a military family in the gallery.)

Joe Biden, the former vice president

So far, the strategy works. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and I am sure he believes he wounded Joe Biden in Monday’s Iowa caucus. It is irrelevant that Trump’s accusations against his opponents are either downright erroneous or highly exaggerated. What matters is that he — and his sycophantic surrogates — repeat the accusations frequently and loudly. The attacks gain currency through frequent repetition in the media, and as totalitarian leaders such as Hitler and Stalin demonstrated, a lie told often enough becomes accepted “truth.”

Every day of the 2016 campaign seemingly brought a new Trump scandal, yet he succeeded in deflecting his ethical challenges by aggressively pushing the Clinton email story. Clinton was certainly sloppy in caring for her emails, but any suggestion of equivalence between her purported “scandal” and Trump’s many scandals was absurd. Still, chants of “lock her up” certainly did damage.

Hillary Clinton campaigning in 2016

I am not suggesting that Clinton lost because Trump attacked her. She ran a bad campaign, former FBI Director Jim Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into her emails wounded her as did Russian interference. But, I am suggesting that Trump believes his attacks worked, just as he probably believes sliming Joe Biden contributed to the former vice president’s disappointing apparent fourth-place finish in the muddled Iowa caucuses. 

Trump launched the Ukraine scandal because he believed Biden was his most dangerous opponent. Even though a whistleblower exposed the scandal and the House impeached the president, Trump, his congressional allies, and rightwing media outlets have been hammering the accusation that Biden is corrupt — or, at least as corrupt as Trump. 

He will use the same approach on other Democratic candidates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will be attacked as a socialist bordering on communist, and Trump will not shy away from mentioning Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union, insinuating Sanders engaged in treasonous activities. Trump’s friends in the Russian government may help in this campaign. 

Pete Buttigieg

Critics rightly accuse Trump of racism and corruption, but if Pete Buttigieg is the Democratic nominee, Trump will deflect charges of his racial insensitivity with allegations of racism against Buttigieg stemming from his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. As for Trump’s overt corruption? What about Buttigieg’s consulting work at McKinsey? 

If Trump cannot conjure a scandal, he will engage in ad hominem attacks on his opponents, calling Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” or referring to “Mini” Mike Bloomberg. Trump’s ability to engage in critiques of other people’s physical appearance is mystifying. But, it entertains his followers and works as a substitute for serious discussion of issues.  

How should Democrats pondering who best to nominate against Trump respond? That is a relevant question considering the Democratic side’s emphasis on which candidate is most “electable.” Certainly if electability means a candidate free of scandal, that is an irrelevant criterion. All of the Democratic candidates are, as far as I know, clean. That will not stop Trump from smearing each and every one. But, Trump’s big smear ought not to influence how Democrats choose their nominee.

Posted February 7, 2020

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