A thought experiment: Imagine that the president of the United States was a man named Ronald Stump, not Donald Trump. Suppose he was known, before reaching the Oval Office, for delivering thoughtful remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, rather than for starring in a TV show. Picture him communicating through the White House press office instead of an inflammatory Twitter feed, and cool rather than fiery, and careful as opposed to rash.
Now give this anti-Trump, this Ronald Stump, the same record on which to run for reelection as our real-life President Trump. Give him a persistently strong stock market, record-low unemployment, tame inflation, below-average gasoline prices and bragging rights in a Delta Force raid to administer justice to the founder of the Islamic State. Add to that a passionately happy base of voters savoring a tax cut, a deregulation crusade and a growing army of conservative judges, as promised.
Ronald Stump would be riding high as he enters his reelection campaign. The markers of a two-term presidency are there: a growing economy, a happy political base, a chastened enemy. And given his background and temperament, Stump offends almost no one; he’s a uniter, not a divider; he says “Yes, we can” and “Si, se puede.” He is affirmative, inspiring. Minus the Trumpiness, President Stump would be thinking in terms of historical landslides.
Trump without the Trumpiness is a fantasy once cherished, but long abandoned, by the conflicted individuals formerly known as Republicans. They’ve reluctantly come to understand that chaos is intrinsic to this perpetual one-man news cycle. The cartoon-villain vibe, the crazy Twitter feed, the geopolitical rashness and the crude bully-boy are all so baked into Trump’s personality that they will matter just as much (maybe more) over the coming year as any underlying statistical record.
The party’s apparent lack of a plan for Trump’s Trumpiness is, perversely, the plan itself. Don’t react. Comment as little as possible. Let the dogs bark; let the caravan move on. Trust in Trump to change the subject, [to become best friends with] the dictator he had threatened to incinerate, to send tanks into Syria after pulling the troops out, to suspend tariffs he had announced with a flourish, to deny he ever said whatever it was he said yesterday. And hope that Election Day finds the economy still growing and those elusive swing voters of the Great Lakes region once again holding their noses and voting what they perceive to be their interests.
Democrats, on the other hand, are still in search of a plan for dealing with Trump’s alter ego, President Stump. They’re driven to distraction by the sheer Trumpiness of the daily roller coaster and risk losing sight of the political terrain. If it’s true that Ronald Stump would be sailing to victory while Donald Trump is paddling like mad, then it follows that Trumpian behavior — the chaos, threats, conspiracy theories and all-around hyperventilation — is a negative with key voters. Which suggests that fighting fire with fire is a serious mistake.
Democrats need a platform and a candidate who can project calm and reason. Someone who recognizes the difference between baby and bath water. On the economy, this means recognizing that equal opportunity is not measured in equality of outcomes. On matters of culture, it means appreciating that the antidote to Trump’s Make America Great Again is not a conviction that America is a mistake to be atoned for. On questions of tone, it means knowing that sneering invective is ultimately puerile and unappealing, no matter who the target may be.
The secret is not so much the Michelle Obama formula of going high where Trump goes low — although an occasional moment of uplift would be refreshing these days. It’s more a matter of staying sane when Trump goes crazy, which starts with evicting the president from that large space in the Democratic Party brain where he has lived rent-free, wreaking havoc, for the past three-plus years.
In this sense, folks tired of Trumpiness should be heartened by the failure of presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. The logorrheic lightweight has been stoking the crazy train lately, vowing to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens and to punish churches that reject progressive mores.
Democrats aren’t buying into Beto, and that’s a sign of sanity. Trump’s Trumpiness can be a lethal liability a year from now, as long as his opponents don’t emulate it.