President Trump is systematically sabotaging his own 2020 reelection prospects. His erratic behavior and crude language may energize parts of his base, but overall these Trump traits are undermining his appeal to the independent voters he’ll need to win next year.
Today’s poll numbers may mean little, but they nonetheless suggest that repeating his 2016 electoral college surprise (upsets in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) will be extremely difficult. Only two factors, both of which are beyond the president’s control, are likely to ensure his reelection: continued strong economic performance and a radical, left-wing, progressive Democrat opponent.
New York’s late Democratic senior Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase (purloined partly from sociologist Emile Durkheim) “defining deviancy down” to describe situations in which societies can tolerate only so much aberrant, deviant behavior. The result is an adaptation, an accommodation of the declining standards accompanying these offensive activities.
Here’s an example: certain rap lyrics extolling sexual violence or racial slurs wouldn’t have been tolerated (or touted) 50 years ago.
Moynihan’s context was unrelated to the modern American presidency, but his approach is relevant. We’ve had presidents who have run the gamut from elegant to crude (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson). But it’s rare to have a president who relishes, embraces, and extols deviant behavior.
Richard Nixon’s crime was to condone, and then participate in, covering up a burglary. His behavior led to his resignation before facing certain impeachment and conviction.
Bill Clinton’s impeachment was premised on lying to Congress. His role in the downward deviancy of the American presidency involved inappropriate sexual conduct in or near the Oval Office with a young White House intern over whom he had control as her supervisor. The lurid details recounted in Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s report forever changed the tenor of network news during the American family dinner hour. Talk around the dinner table included previously unmentionable topics.
Now comes Donald Trump. There can be little doubt that he will be impeached by Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats. Absent some crime akin to Nixon’s, Trump will probably be tried and acquitted in the Senate. The issue then becomes one of assessing the social, moral, and political costs of Trump’s first term, plus the impact on the country’s psyche and, more specifically, on the mores of our young people.
By November 2019, Trump had belittled his political opponents with frequent name-calling, denigrated a decorated war hero, mocked reporters (including one with a serious neuromuscular disorder), bragged about groping women, been named in numerous legal actions for inappropriate amorous conduct, suggested incarcerating Hillary Clinton, used profanity when describing certain developing countries, and openly mocked Joe Biden for kissing Barack Obama’s posterior. We can expect more in the months to come.
There’s the adage that “politics ain’t beanbag,” and Trump will contend that much of his behavior is a reaction to serial witch hunts launched by the Washington establishment to undermine and delegitimize his presidency from the start.
The problem is that Trump keeps making his own difficulties that much worse. The White House enjoys the biggest bully pulpit in the world, but if the president keeps stepping on his message day after day, that pulpit becomes useless.
A well-known New York City editor and publisher, the late Erwin Glikes, urged his authors to kill all their “little darlings,” those clever witticisms that just had to be expressed. Glikes was right: 90 percent of the time, the “little darlings” were not needed; they detracted from a story’s overall narrative thrust.
By contrast, Donald Trump picks his “little darlings” and drives them home with force in his Tweets and political rallies. This behavior is also driving down his poll numbers and jeopardizing his reelection. To the extent that he has rebranded the Republican Party in this image, he will also do considerable harm to those down-ballot GOP candidates running next year.
Mr. President, by all means, tweet all you like, but it’s time to nose up your plane. Your “little darlings” may make you and your base feel good, briefly, but they are classic examples of defining deviancy down.
There’s a reason why Ronald Reagan remains one of our country’s most revered presidents. He, too, had a conservative agenda, but his personality and his messages were optimistic and upbeat. Americans want presidents who inspire. They reward optimism, not shame. Lincoln was correct: it’s all about the better angels.
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.