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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stoehr: Dems Can Win By Focusing on Trump’s Weaknesses

The Trump campaign — it’s more that than an actual functioning government — is all puffed up about some favorable feedback he got for his State of the Union speech. But it remains weak at the core, which for any Administration, rests on the twin pillars of integrity and competence.

In that regard, Yale political scientist John Stoehr, a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor who has written for a broad range of progressive newspapers and magazines, has some strategic insights for highlighting Trump’s weaknesses. As Stoehr addresses his readers at The Washington Monthly,

I really want you to understand the connection between Trump’s appearance and the trust his supporters place in him. What the Democratic opposition needs to do is undermine that trust. Part of doing that is pointing out every time Trump lies. (The Washington press corps is doing that.) But the opposition must also attack the president where it really hurts him—by appealing to logic and reason, but not only logic and reason. The opposition must wound the president by focusing on his weakness

….When confronted with the fact that he did not win a bigger electoral victory than anyone since Reagan, he immediately backed down, spluttering something about how he had been given that information so it’s not his fault. Some have implied he will never accept the truth, so don’t bother. But that’s an argument of logic and reason. What happened in that brief exchange needs to happen a million times over in order to reveal that the president is weak and that in that weakness his supporters have misplaced their trust.

So, say it with me: The president is weak. Say it again. Over and over. Then when the president really does demonstrate weakness, as he did when confronted by the reporter about his fake electoral landslide, the president will have substantiated the opposition’s charge of weakness.

That will hurt.

Trump ran on strength. Only he was strong enough to solve our problems. And people believed him. They still believe him. But if the opposition can establish an image of weakness, it will come close to breaking trust in him.

Stoehr is revealing something unique here. He advises watching Trump on television with the sound turned off to get a sense of how much he relies on projecting the visual image of strength, even while confidently spouting transparent lies and nonsense that contradicts what he said a few days before. More importantly, many of his supporters are mesmerized by his blustering boldness, longing as they do for a simplistic authoritarianism, somewhat like the ‘strict father‘ paradigm referenced by George Lakoff.

In his U.S. News & World Report column, “Trump Can’t Govern: The Democrats’ best play may be to highlight the Trump administration’s incompetence,” written just before Trump’s SOTU address, Stoehr explains further,

More than exposing Trump for his white nationalist sympathies, the best way forward may be stressing what’s emphatically evident: Trump can’t govern.

This president sold an image of himself as a billionaire businessman who knows how to get things done. He hires the best people. He has the best words. He knows the system better than anyone. He said: Vote for me and I will bring real change.

But after more than a month, it’s clear the Trump administration is broken. It’s equally clear the public is noticing. The president’s popularity has sunk to historic lows. His White House has lurched from one trumped up crisis to another. It leaks like a sieve. Aides can’t corral Trump in person, so they corral him through the media. His executive orders have been a mix of pixie dust and plagiarized text (literally) from previous administrations. Hundreds of positions remain vacant while Trump does photo-ops at Boeing before alighting to Florida for rounds of golf.

 The closest we got to non-crisis normal was last week. But by Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer banned some media outlets from a briefing. As Roll Call put it: “an otherwise routine Friday morning at the White House had suddenly given way – yet again – to confusion, chaos, deflecting and denials.”
The incompetence appears baked in.

Ben Carson never ran anything, much less the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he is nominated to lead. Betsy DeVos literally bought her place as head of the Department of Education. Scott Pruitt was best buds with Big Oil before taking the Environmental Protection Agency’s helm. Trump’s first pick for labor secretary was toxic and withdrew. His first replacement for Michael Flynn on the National Security Council said no thanks. Wilbur Ross, the new commerce secretary, is chair of a European bank known to launder Russian mafia money. Trump’s nominees for secretaries of the Army and Navy have taken a pass. White House aides told Axios they believe the Russia story is a useful distraction rather than a scandal threatening to take down a president. And an adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has the makings of a 100 percent grade-A con artist.

Stoehr has even more to say about the Trump Administration’s incompetence, but warns, “none of this is to say Trump’s critics are wrong. Though incompetent, this administration could still fumble blindly into fascism…But it’s important to be clear about the disease in order to cure it.”

“The Democrats are already making a play for Republican-held congressional districts that voted for Hillary Clinton,” notes Stoehr, “targeting affluent white voters who normally support Republicans but who found Trump’s overt bigotry beyond the pale.” Stoehr concludes, presciently,

Trump can bring those voters back by muting his ethno-nationalist rhetoric (we’ll see what happens at tonight’s joint session of Congress), but the Democrats know, or should know, that to affluent educated white voters, muted rhetoric is one thing. Basic competence is another.

All of which puts Trump’s SOTU speech and a key challenge facing Democratic activists and candidates in clearer perspective.

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