For those still mystified by Donald Trump’s appeal, the latest Congressional smackdown reveals why he manages to survive virtually every crisis and remains a formidable political force.
With a spending bill necessary to keep the government open, Democrats thought they had the leverage to force Republicans into accepting an immigration deal that’s one of their top priorities. President Trump even seemed to help the Dems by oafishly contradicting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on a key tactical matter, creating the impression of a Republican party in disarray, and vulnerable.
Less than two days later, Democrats caved, giving Republicans the spending bill they wanted–without the immigration provision Democrats had demanded. Democratic stalwarts are now thrashing their leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, for staking out turf he promptly abandoned, as liberals who thought they had Trump cornered ended up outmaneuvered and embarrassed. It’s now the Democrats who seem to be in disarray.
How did Trump do it? With spin and guile. “While the President could use some help understanding the Senate rules, he has an undeniable instinct for marketing,” analyst Tom Block of investing firm Fundstrat Global Advisers wrote to clients after the brief shutdown ended. “The Trump message overwhelmed the Democrats.”
Nicknames and branding
Trump, with his penchant for zingy nicknames, labeled the government closure the “Schumer Shutdown.” Not Shakespeare, exactly, but good enough for the reality TV show Washington has become. Schumer’s comeback—“#Trumpshutdown”—seemed hammy and scripted, by comparison. (Plus it lacked alliteration.)
More effective were Trump’s efforts to paint the Democrats as prioritizing undocumented immigrants over the needs of actual citizens. “The Democrats are turning down safety and security for citizens in favor of services and security for non-citizens,” Trump tweeted on the first full day of the shutdown. “Democrats are holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration,” he riffed in another tweet.
Trump’s tweets were sophistry, of course—but he’s now the best sophist in Washington. Democrats have a legitimate priority in securing legal status for the so-called Dreamers, who are young people brought to the United States illegally as children. Most Dreamers are students, workers or others contributing to society, and roughly three-quarters of Americans think they should be allowed to stay in the country. So the Dems are standing on firm ground, in terms of policy.
But Trump sideswiped Schumer, et al, with shrewd branding, as he has done before and will do again. Trump’s nicknames—“Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas,” “Rocket Man,” “Sloppy Steve”—are part of the strategy, because they demean foes in a way Trump supporters find handy and funny. Trump can be crass, of course—but half the public doesn’t really care, and some find it downright delightful. “Schumer Shutdown” may not make the list of Trump classics, but it signals that Trump’s claws are out and he is in bulldozer mode, which his base loves.
Trump then beat the Dems at their own game by propagandizing their support for Dreamers, after they’ve propagandized every Trump move as the end of the Republic. This is routine political sport, of course, but Trump is simply better at finding the most vulnerable point in an opponent’s argument, then exaggerating, distorting or lampooning it until he finds the sweet spot voters react to. It helps that Trump can be entertaining—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not—given that virtually every other public persona in Washington is drier than lint (especially now that Al Franken has left).
There’s undoubtedly an element of hucksterism in Trump’s modus operandi. His many critics act as if this is an anomaly or temporary affliction they won’t have to put up with for long. But as a businessman, Trump learned that hucksterism is the pathway to riches and fame. Trump has sold condos, beauty pageants, reality shows, wine, clothing, cologne and dozens of other things, which ultimately comes down to Trump selling himself. A few bankruptcies? Meh. Trump is still a billionaire who can legitimately claim giant success.
Trump will keep hucksterizing politics until it doesn’t work anymore, and maybe long after that. Another shutdown standoff is coming soon, with Democrats sure to seek another way to keep faith with the Dreamers, and Trump is sure to belittle them again. There could be fights over spending priorities all year, in fact. Democrats keep thinking like pre-Trump strategists who just need to wait for the bombastic president to burn himself out or dig a hole so deep even he can’t climb out. Instead, they should continually prepare for Trump to outflank them, and ask why their own flabby messaging is so ineffective. And maybe take Marketing 101.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman