The Foolishness of Overestimating Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

Democrats seem to over-learn certain lessons.  They lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and decided that the U.S. was a "center-right nation" and that the best thing to do was to become Republican lite.  Bill Clinton later decided to cave to Republican demands for a balanced federal budget and -- when the dot-com bubble created prosperity and a temporary surplus -- Democrats decided that being fiscal hawks was the best approach, leading to Obama's foolish "pivot" to austerity in 2010.

As I have argued frequently (most recently here), Democrats have somehow convinced themselves that their policy views are unpopular, even though the Republicans are under water with voters on every major issue.  Somehow, it is always Democrats who are engaged in soul-searching and wondering why not everyone agrees with them about everything.  The big newspapers and networks are also now in an infinite do-loop as well, asking how "heartland voters" -- understood as what used to be known as Reagan Democrats -- feel about every issue.

The 2016 election was an even bigger shock to the Democrats (and the world) than 1980.  Reagan was seen as an easily beatable doofus, but at least he had been a governor and knew how to deliver a speech -- and had never bragged about sexually assaulting women.  We must of course learn to take nothing for granted, but that does not require treating Trump as some kind of political god who can only be beaten if all of the forces of the universe align in exactly the right way.

This is yet another version of what has long been called the Democrats' defensive crouch.  But it is worse, in ways that are causing Democrats inadvertently to make Trump stronger.

In my new Verdict column yesterday, I likened the way that the Democrats and many media figures are overestimating Trump to the Movie/TV trope of the unbeatable colossal foe.  A large section of the column is devoted to describing one of the ways in which the final season of Game of Thrones has been wrongly criticized.

[Notice: Spoilers ahead]

To be clear, I too was deeply disappointed by the end of that now-sullied show (pun honestly not intended).  My point, however, is that one complaint about the final season is unfair, specifically the claim that defeating the Night King (and thus ending the threat of the White Walkers) was too easy.  As I point out, any defeat of what had seemed unbeatable is necessarily going to leave viewers with a sense of emptiness and confusion.  "Wait, what were we so scared of?"  By winning, the previous sense of hopelessness is necessarily revealed as having been excessive (at best).

I point out that the original Star Wars trilogy also had this problem, as did (in a slightly different way) E.T.  The original Raiders of the Lost Ark made light of the problem and flipped it by having a sword-wielding warrior jump out of a crowd and seem to threaten Indiana Jones with unbeatable skills, only to have Jones pull out a gun and end the fight with one shot.  TV shows like CSI and Bones frequently build up heinous villains who truly seem superhuman and unbeatable, and each time the inevitable win by the good guys ends up feeling deflating.  That was it?

In Trump's case, the Democrats and the press are now pretending that he is some kind of wondrous being with evil superpowers.  Again, we should not underestimate him, but we should not overestimate him either.

In my Verdict column, I point to two examples of commentators giving Trump undue credit.  First, some people are saying that Trump "knows how to win," when in fact his win in 2016 happened in spite of himself and 2018 was a humiliating loss for Trump.  Even more absurdly, one critique of the Democrats' recent debates is that they are showing themselves unable to go "toe-to-toe with Trump."

Honestly, if anyone reading this column were advising a candidate who was running against Trump next year, where would "we might not stand up to Trump's awesome debating skills" land on your list of concerns?  There are all kinds of ways in which things might go badly next year -- most prominently a return of the Russians' successful intervention in the U.S. electoral system, possibly this time including successful hacking of voting machines -- but losing a debate to Trump is about as likely as my being Trump's running mate.

The point is that acting as if someone has powers that he lacks can cause people to be tentative and to make other people think that he actually possesses such powers.  Laughter and mockery are still important weapons to be deployed against this con artist.

Having said all of that, I never quite closed the loop in my Verdict column on the analogy to the Game of Thrones problem.  I will try to do so here, which will in part involve confessing to having possibly adopted my own version of this "he's soooo powerful and we're doomed" stance.

Here is the basic problem: If someone is unbeatable, then he tautologically cannot be beaten.  If a person wins, however, that is not necessarily proof that he was inevitably going to win.  On the other hand, if he loses, at least we know that he was not omnipotent.  In any case, when people resist what seems like unbeatable foes, they are assuming that they are wrong about how powerful those foes are.

If Trump loses in 2020 and leaves office peacefully, people will quickly start to say something along the lines of what viewers said about Game of Thrones: "Wait, it was that easy?  What was the big deal?"  But it will be more than that, because the Night King possessed truly awesome powers along with his one vulnerability (and he made an error in exposing himself such that his vulnerability could be exploited), whereas Trump will quickly be rewritten in the public's imagination as the guy who was going to lose all along.

That change of attitude potentially carries with it the risk that the next Trump-like figure will himself (or herself, if Sarah Palin or Laura Ingraham decides that white supremacy in the White House can be gender-neutral) be underestimated.  If Trump's non-majority win in 2016 is ended after one term, he will likely be seen as no longer something to fear at all, and the forces that fell in behind him will be able to move forward under the radar.

So while my point in the Verdict column was ultimately that we should not liken Trump to the Night King (or the Emperor in Star Wars), lest we give him too much credit, my point here is that if Trump is defeated he will be too quickly deemed completely unimportant and weak.  By contrast, if he wins, he will be viewed even more as an irresistible force, which could make people think wrongly that he could not have been defeated under any circumstances.  If so, he or his anointed successor might be given too much credit, as people conclude that Resistance is Futile (to use another example from pop culture of an unbeatable force that was ultimately beaten).

The upshot of all of this is that it is not good under any set of circumstances to treat Trump as anything other than what he is: A toxic figure who has connected with the thankfully non-majority of Americans who are willing to support a white supremacist would-be dictator, but one who is deeply vulnerable in any number of ways to being taken down.  Understanding how important it is that he lose next year is no reason to act as if he is almost certainly going to win unless Democrats do not make a single mistake.

Where is my potential error along these lines?  In my own way, I have spent the last few years telling an even more depressing story than any of the narratives that 2020 candidates and campaign watchers have told.  After all, my longstanding contention (repeated most recently here) is that we are almost certainly already past the point of no return, because Trump will not accept it even when he loses in 2020 and Republicans (including Republicans on the Supreme Court) will let him get away with an internal coup.

I could be wrong about that, and I dearly hope that I am.  Indeed, I would not be continuing to write on the topics that animate me if I did not think that there is some reason to keep fighting.  Importantly, however, what makes me so pessimistic is not that I am overestimating Trump's skills or assets.  Instead, I am saying that we have every reason to think that he will try to deny the results of the election, and the Republicans in every area of government will have very good reasons for helping him keep a Democrat out of the White House.

In other words, I am actually not saying that people are being too pessimistic about Trump but rather that they need to understand the true nature of Trump's threat to the country.  Being prepared for what is coming is essential, and that includes not ignoring much bigger threats than Trump presents on the campaign trail.

The opposite of the Night King losing, or the Emperor being thrown down a hole, or any of the other underdog stories is predictable and swift defeat.  The opposite of David versus Goliath is Bambi Meets Godzilla.  If Trump is what so many people think he is, any Democrat is Bambi.  If the Republicans are what I think they are, then we will all be flattened whether Trump is Godzilla or not.  But treating a joke like Trump as something more than he is does not improve the possible outcomes, and it likely makes them worse.