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With Trump, you can’t pick your battles. You need total war

The bed of nails

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There is one – and, to my mind, only one – way to make sense of the drinking-from-a-firehose-of-insanity first week of the Trump administration, which is already full of more outrages and budding scandals and potentially impeachable offenses than Barack Obama amassed in eight years. And, in fact, it's much the same way you could make sense of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, which in a sane world would have never so much as have gotten off the ground, much less win this narcissistic man-child the White House.

Call it the Bed of Nails theory of politics. That is, if you lie on one nail – one scandal, one boneheaded statement, one inexplicable policy – it will rip into your flesh, maybe pierce an organ. It will hurt. It will cause damage. Do it enough, it might even kill you. But if you lie on a hundred nails, balanced so as to distribute your weight, you'll survive intact. And this is the thing that has kept Trump going.

Consider the campaign: Hillary Clinton had one major flaw – emails. Trump had a mountain of them, each of which, in a different election, with a different candidate, would have been deal-killers: the pussy-grabbing, the sexual harassment allegations, the Muslim ban, affiliating with the racist alt-right, insulting POWs, insulting Gold Star parents, insulting military generals, floating bizarre conspiracy theories, unapologetically and brazenly lying about everything under the sun. You name it, he did it. But he did so many of these heretofore unthinkable things that no single one of them got traction. None proved fatal. Rather, they blended into a miasma of background noise.

Think of it like that scene from an early episode of The Simpsons, in which a doctor tells Mr. Burns that he is "the sickest man in the United States. You have everything."

"This sounds like bad news," Mr. Burns says.

"Well, you'd think so," the doc replies. "But all of your diseases are in perfect balance."

The same holds true for week one of the Trump presidency: the investigation into Trump's associates ties with Russia; the secretary of state's ties to Vladimir Putin; objectively unqualified nominees to run the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development; a racist for attorney general; an EPA nominee who shills for the natural gas industry; a proposed trade war with Mexico in service of a pointless multibillion- dollar wall; unnerving obsessions with his inaugural crowd size and the phantom voter fraud that he's sure cost him the popular vote, which together suggest insecurity at best, dangerous mental instability at worst; executive orders targeting Muslim refugees (though not from countries in which the Trump Organization does business), international family planning organizations and cities that are too friendly to immigrant communities; an executive order to publicize crimes allegedly committed by "aliens" in sanctuary cities; threatening martial law in Chicago; gag orders for federal employees and threats to gut the EPA and federal arts funding; and, perhaps most chillingly, senior White House adviser and National Security Council member (!) Stephen Bannon, formerly the CEO of a white nationalist website, telling the media it should "keep its mouth shut."

And that's not even a comprehensive list.

With a different president, and on their own, any one of these missteps and bafflingly asinine and craven moves would have proven damaging. But lump them together, and there's only so much outrage to go around. The end result: Trump's first week was an unmitigated disaster, and his approval ratings are abysmal for a new president, but he's nonetheless managing to steamroll Washington and set the agenda. Republicans, in their lust for power and tax cuts for the rich, are compliant. (Case in point: Last week, the ever-spineless Sen. Marco Rubio, after castigating Rex Tillerson as an undeserving "friend of Putin" on Twitter, nonetheless cast the deciding committee vote for him to become secretary of state.) Democrats, meanwhile, haven't figured out how to fight back against so slippery a target.

The good news for Democrats is that Republicans have already written the playbook. From day one of the Obama administration – before that, actually – Republicans in Congress pledged total, unfettered war: sabotage, delay, obstruct, filibuster, take hostages, defy norms, break the government and then blame the other guys for the government being broken.

This was the formula the GOP rode back to power in 2010. This was what gave rise to the Tea Party and, in turn, empowered the far-right Breitbart crowd from which Trump draws his power. In their unbending resistance, Republicans shifted the Overton Window. In short, they normalized what was previously unimaginable. And that ultimately gave us Trump.

The question is whether Democrats will prove as ruthless as their Republican counterparts, or if they'll instead try to pick and choose their battles. The evidence so far suggests the latter. Fourteen Dems, after all, lent tepid support for the nominations of torture sympathizer Mike Pompeo (two other Democrats didn't vote); liberal stalwart Elizabeth Warren backed the woefully inadequate Ben Carson to head HUD; and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has ruled out reflexively blocking Trump's Supreme Court choice, as Republicans did to Obama last year. (It's possible that filibuster will manifest once there's an actual nominee to oppose.)

With a normal Republican president, this is fine: Work with him when you can, oppose him when you can't, try to beat him in four years. This is responsible governance, and had the president been, say, John Kasich, it would have been the correct path for Democrats to take, no matter how Republicans treated Obama.

But Trump is not a normal Republican president. Trump is an existential threat to American democracy. And existential threats demand total war, war on every front. After all, you don't know which battle will prove fatal. But you know that, eventually, one of them will.

See, while the bed of nails analogy might describe Trump's political career thus far, it's not really predictive. The analogy of Mr. Burns is much more so. After his diagnosis – everything, but in perfect balance – Burns looks at the doctor and says, "So what you're saying is, I'm indestructible?"

"Oh no," the doctor replies. "In fact, even a slight breeze could – "

"Indestructible," Burns cuts him off.

But Mr. Burns – like Mr. Trump – is not indestructible. The slightest breeze could kill him.

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