Much of the commentary about the nascent 2020 presidential race is truly puzzling. Pundits, news reporters, and the Democratic candidates themselves have taken to treating Donald Trump as if he is some kind of awesome (or awful) monster, a fearsome power to be reckoned with, one that can only be beaten if no one makes a single misstep.
This is utter nonsense, and it represents a massive over-correction from 2016. Yes, we all should have learned the lessons that nothing should be taken for granted and that eligible voters who abstain from voting or cast protest votes are actually causing harm to our democratic system.
No one (including Trump) thought Trump would win in 2016, yet he is now the President. Lesson learned. But the lesson to be learned is most definitely not that Trump is some kind of evil genius or that Democrats have little-to-no hope of beating him unless they draw the proverbial inside straight.
That attitude is not merely wrong but potentially self-fulfilling. Trump as a candidate continues to be a buffoon, and although he is a very dangerous buffoon, talking about him with respectful trepidation hands over power that his opponents should not be willing to give away.
The Evil Force Than Cannot Be Resisted: A Popular Trope
This situation presents an interesting parallel to the depiction of monsters in popular fiction, where audiences are told that a villain is simply unbeatable, yet that evildoer somehow always ends up being beaten. And then everyone is perversely disappointed.
Take, for example, Game of Thrones, the blockbuster HBO series that was on everyone’s best-of-all-time lists until this year’s concluding mini-season, which left everyone angry or bewildered. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) For my money, the final season—weak though it was—is not enough to undo the legacy of the show, but it certainly makes it easy for those of us who argued all along that The Wire is the greatest show ever to win that debate hands-down.
But what does this have to do with Trump? In Game of Thrones, there are plenty of evildoers, so much so that it is often easy to forget at various times that the biggest evil out there is an army of the dead, the White Walkers, led by the Night King. Whatever one might think of Cersei or Daenarys or anyone else, their capacity for doing harm is nothing compared to the Night King.
Indeed, the story revolves around the idea that the Night King’s army can never be defeated, because they cannot die—and because the fallen members of any army that battles the White Walkers will themselves be reincarnated as White Walkers. In a battle of, say, 1,000 humans against 1,000 White Walkers, the end result will never be fewer than 1,000 White Walkers, and quite possibly it will end with zero humans and 2,000 White Walkers.
Because Game of Thrones is great fiction, there are also made-up substances—dragonglass and Valyrian steel—that can kill White Walkers; but of course those things are in short supply. Think of it as the search for Kryptonite, another made-up substance from timeless comic fiction that somehow levels the playing field against an unbeatable alien creature.
One of the complaints that many viewers expressed about the climactic battle against the White Walkers (presented, puzzlingly, in the fourth-to-last episode of the series, even though the outcome of this battle determines whether humanity will survive) is how easy it was in the end to defeat the bad guys. Arya Stark just happens to have a weapon made of Valyrian steel, and she just happens to get the chance to stab the Night King with it. He is destroyed, and all White Walkers are destroyed as a result. Problem solved!
I happen to think that many of the complaints about the final season of Game of Thrones were overwrought, but the point here is that the resolution of the narrative tension created by the White Walkers was guaranteed to disappoint audiences. We want to believe that unbeatable foes are in fact beatable—usually through pluck and hard work by good-hearted people—but when they actually are defeated, we ask: “Wait, that’s it? What were we so excited about? That was easy.”
Again, this is not a Thrones-specific problem. In the first Star Wars film in 1977 (“Episode IV: A New Hope”), the evil Death Star is impregnable until it is convenient for it not to be, and a single shot destroys it (but, we find out in later films, not really). It is to the credit of the franchise’s later writers that they finally offered an explanation for that fatal flaw (in Rogue One), but that does not change the overall problem with this kind of dramatic arc.
Similarly, in the third Star Wars film (“Episode VI: Return of the Jedi”), it turns out that the Emperor can be killed simply by being picked up and thrown into a pit. One would think that the top guy on The Dark Side would be a bit more resilient, but like the Night King’s helplessness against Arya’s blade, the super-powerful can be laid low in quite simple ways that leave the audience excited but befuddled.
Even E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial relies on this kind of plot device, where the climactic chase scene ends with the alien using his powers to allow the boys’ bicycles to fly. Fun, but audiences soon wondered: “If he could do that, why didn’t he do it sooner?” The list of television shows and movies that leave viewers with this same sense of a letdown and the suspicion that they have been conned is too long to even begin to list (although it would be fun to do so).
What would happen in any of these stories if the convenient way out had not been written into the plot? Quite simply, evil would win. The unbeatable would not be beaten. Our puny selves would cower and die in the face of powers beyond our comprehension. That would not just be sad, but as storytelling, it would be unsatisfying and boring.
The problem, however, is that having the good guys win can be in some ways satisfying and exciting, but it also leaves us with a question: “If we won, and that bad guy lost, why did we even think that he was unbeatable in the first place?”
Trump as the Focus of Dramatic Tension: Bad Casting
In the effort to pump up ratings, the news media is using Trump as some combination of the Night King, the Emperor, and Darth Vader. And the Democrats and pundits are almost all falling for it. This leads to particularly silly commentary, because Trump is simply not the omnipotent force that such a narrative requires.
Consider a gem from a columnist for The Washington Post, who recently published a piece under the title: “Elections are an unpopularity contest. And Trump knows how to win them.” To be fair, the writer makes a mildly interesting point, which is that Trump can win by making his opponent seem more unlikable rather than making himself likable (which is impossible in any event).
But what are we to make of the claim that “Trump knows how to win” elections? Trump has been involved in exactly two elections in his lifetime, 2016 and 2018. How did those go?
Trump became president as a result of the 2016 election, but the question is how that happened. And in fact there is no mystery as to how it happened. It has now been extensively documented that the Russian government intervened specifically to help Trump win. In addition, former FBI Director James Comey’s inexplicably self-indulgent intervention only days before the election turned an easy win for Hillary Clinton into a hair’s-breadth win in three key states for Trump. Moreover, Republicans nationwide had engaged in years of voter suppression efforts.
And even the “unpopularity contest” part of the campaign was not Trump’s doing. Republicans—with huge assists from mainstream media—had spent years creating a tendentious narrative about Clinton being dishonest and untrustworthy. This meant that what should have been a two-day story—her use of private email servers—received more coverage in the election than all of Trump’s many faults combined.
There are a lot of lessons to take away from this experience, but even well-meaning people continue to get it wrong. For example, in a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the actor and Michigan native Jeff Daniels pointed out that over 90,000 ballots in his home state in 2016 had votes for every Democrat on the ballot but left the presidential vote blank. Notably, Trump’s margin in Michigan was about 10,000.
That is a very important point, but Daniels decided that the problem was that “she didn’t talk to those voters.” Michigan was a particular target of the Russian disinformation campaign, but some people still want to say that Clinton—who actually offered policies that would help white working-class voters (as well as other voters)—was outsmarted or out-campaigned by Trump. Trump did not win the 2016 election, nor did Clinton lose it; it was a series of disastrous decisions, culminating in people deciding to let someone else vote for Clinton—“After all, she’s gonna win anyway, so why should I sully myself?”
The second election that Trump involved himself in was the 2018 midterms, during which he campaigned vigorously and in which he explicitly said that he was “on the ballot.” He ignored the advice of Republicans to talk about the economy and instead beat the drums of fear and hatred about a supposed invasion of immigrants. (Based on what we know about last weekend’s slaughter of innocents in El Paso, that fear-mongering seems to have had an audience.)
The result of Trump’s involvement in that election? Democrats swamped the Republicans in the House and even managed to defend six threatened Senate seats (and pick up two others) in states that seemed to be unwinnable. Trumpian candidates lost in large numbers.
So how is it that we are now being told that Trump knows how to win elections? He does know how to vilify people, but his “win” was hardly his doing and his loss was a landslide.
In short, if we are going to try to view American politics as the real-life version of a Game of Thrones-like drama, Trump is no Night King.
The Democrats Cower Before a Laughable Nonentity
Despite all of this, it is not just the occasional columnist who commits analytical errors in over-hyping Trump’s supposed powers. The Democrats themselves are also giving Trump too much credit, to their own detriment.
For example, after the second round of the Democrats’ so-called debates last week, a Post columnist predictably turned it into a painfully simplistic “winners and losers” story. Did Joe Biden make a comeback from his bad performance a month before? Is Liz Warren still surging? Inquiring minds want to know!
The story took a truly strange turn, however, when the very first entry on the writer’s list of “winners” was “Trump the debater.” During one of the two nights of performance art, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said to Joe Biden: “I guarantee you, if you’re debating Donald Trump, he’s not going to let you off the hook.”
The Post’s writer, rather than mocking the very idea of Trump as a fearsome debater, agreed with de Blasio’s premise: “The prospect of going toe-to-toe with Trump has loomed over these early debates, and on Wednesday night especially, the leading candidates didn’t exactly demonstrate their debating prowess.”
I realize that people have short memories, but does no one remember that Trump lost each of his three debates to Hillary Clinton in 2016—and he lost them badly? Even the pundits who bent over backward to claim (wrongly) that Trump had won the first half of the first debate admitted that it all fell apart for him after that.
And this is not surprising, because the man cannot craft an argument to save his life. He does not bother to say how he will make some good thing happen—“I will spend money on this, which will cause people to change their behavior in predictable ways, which will have this good outcome”—instead simply saying, “We’re going to win so much that you’ll be bored. Trust me.” That is not debate. Anyone can say that they will make good things happen—and if you do not believe me, I guarantee you that believing me will make you rich!
I have quite a bit of experience in debating of all kinds, and I can guarantee you that I would love it if my preferred candidates could go “toe-to-toe with Trump.”
Again, I understand why people do not want to underestimate the threat that Trump represents again in 2020. The 2016 outcome has scarred our collective psyches. Even so, going too far in the other direction is also a mistake.
It feeds a false and self-defeating narrative to say that Trump is to be feared for his non-existent talents. It would be far better to say, “We do not know what nefarious things might be going on this time, so we need to try as hard as possible to make it impossible for Trump to steal or stumble his way into another narrow win.”
After all, Trump has done nothing to expand his voting base, and he is epically unpopular. Telling voters that he is all but unbeatable—unless we get lucky against our own version of the Night King and the Emperor combined—sets us up for failure.
Tell the truth: Trump can only win if he threads the needle again. We need to be sure to turn out votes, but making Trump seem stronger than he is is not the way to do it.
[Note to readers: I will publish a column that continues to engage with the ideas introduced in this column tomorrow (Friday, August 9) on the Dorf on Law site.]