- When Chuck Schumer said Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh “won’t know what hit” them this week, he was channeling Trump’s schoolyard-bully persona.
- In play-acting like Trump, Schumer launched yet another partisan “civility” conversation but buried his real message in noise.
- “If you can’t beat Trump, act like Trump” has become a political maxim of our time. But only Trump is Trump, and his critics undermine themselves when they try to ape his “tough guy” act.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Whenever the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library opens, it ought to have at least an exhibit immortalizing his sickest burns. Call him a schoolyard bully if you want. It won’t matter. He knows who he is, and he’ll hit you first and dirty.
But it’s not easy to pretend to be a bully. You either have the instinct or you don’t. Trump’s the real deal. And perhaps his greatest trick since entering political life has been to coax his political enemies into acting as juvenile and boorish as he is.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer provided the latest example this week when speaking at a Centre for Reproductive Rights rally, where he addressed two Supreme Court justices by name with what can only be reasonably interpreted as a threat.
“I want to tell you, Gorsuch. I want to tell you, Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price! You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
Does anyone truly believe that Schumer “has brought great danger to the steps of the United States Supreme Court,” as Trump put it in a tweet? Unlikely.
But it was a wildly inappropriate and bizarre display of tough-guy posturing, and Chief Justice John Roberts was completely correct to issue a rare public rebuke of the minority leader, saying: “Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous.”
Schumer didn’t do himself any favours with the mealymouthed statement put out by his office, which accused Roberts of following “the right wing’s deliberate misinterpretation of what Sen. Schumer said.”
OK, then: So what was the correct interpretation?
According to Schumer’s office, he was referencing “the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court, and a warning that the justices will unleash a major grassroots movement on the issue of reproductive rights against the decision.”
That’s patently ridiculous. Schumer didn’t say Senate Republicans “won’t know what hit them.” The grammar makes it clear the “you” was in reference to Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
But the whole sadly comical episode is indicative of how Trump has influenced so many political figures into acting like him through pro-wrestling-style insults, childish tweets, and theatrical attempts at viral moments.
‘If you can’t beat Trump, act like Trump’ has become a political maxim
Trump’s been known for his brash, plain-spoken style since he became a national figure following the publication of his bestselling ghostwritten book, “The Art of the Deal.”
Later, as his business fortunes crumbled, he was forced to rebrand as a somewhat self-deprecating TV commercial pitchman to maintain relevance. Then, Mark Burnett cast him in the fictitious reality-TV role of a competent businessman in “The Apprentice,” where Trump really started to lean into the role of indomitable heel.
But it wasn’t until Trump joined Twitter in May 2009 that he unleashed his true id.
With a completely unfiltered bullhorn of global reach, he was free to spread fake conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, level gross insults on female celebrities’ appearances, and make easily debunkable boasts about his own accomplishments.
Almost a decade to the day later, a lot of lawmakers have calibrated a “be like Trump” approach to fighting Trump.
During a desperate last-gasp attempt at survival in the 2016 Republican primary, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida fought back against Trump’s “Little Marco” insults by saying Trump has small hands, adding, “And you know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.”
Rubio may have thought he landed a direct hit, but Trump’s got no shame, and was quite happy to play in the gutter. At a debate days after Rubio’s insult, Trump addressed the audience: “He referred to my hands – ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, widely considered one of the most patient and effective political tacticians in congressional history, has never quite sunk into Trump-level vulgarity or made intimation toward violence, but that doesn’t mean she’s above fighting Trump with a petty stunt.
The speaker grabbed headlines in February when she tore up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address moments after the speech concluded. This came after Trump pointedly snubbed her attempt at a handshake before the address. Pelosi said afterward that “it was the courteous thing to do considering the alternatives.”
And, more recent, the vanquished 2020 candidate, billionaire, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, responded in February to Trump’s “Mini Mike” insult with a tweet reading simply: “Impeached president says what?”
Bloomberg’s social-media team also used the @Mike2020 account to “satirically” go after Bernie Sanders following his comments in support of deceased Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, though they were forced to delete the thread after at least one of them was widely reviled as homophobic.
Trump didn’t make politics uncivil, but he’s helped make it even less dignified
US politics has never been civil.
Take the presidential campaign of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson reportedly hired a journalist to describe his opponent, John Adams, as “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Trump would never apply such literacy to his barbs, which has worked well for him.
Rubio’s double entendre about Trump’s hands didn’t work because it was a one-off and rang false. He’s still young enough to be part of the GOP’s future, and if he ever gets comfortable enough in his own skin not to come off like a robot, maybe an authentic version of himself could be compelling to the national electorate.
Pelosi’s not a naturally theatrical showboater; she’s the ultimate poker player. Ripping up the State of the Union speech isn’t much of a bluff. It’s going on tilt. In the past three years, she’s shown an ability to ingratiate herself to Trump and score some political victories off him, but she did it by playing cool.
Bloomberg ran for president on his reputation as a technocratic CEO who ran New York with the same kind of humorless efficiency that made him his fortune. Yet he couldn’t hire people to effectively cut Trump to pieces on Twitter, and became the source of online ridicule himself.
That’s the whole point: Trump is Trump. His enemies are not.
Chuck Schumer’s threat – and it was a threat, however empty – to Gorsuch and Kavanaugh has ginned up the predictable partisan outrage, but it was an inauthentic attempt to out-Trump Trump.
As a communicator, Trump can be a shameless and vulgar thug. But unlike his opponents trying to ape his style, it’s rightfully perceived as authentic.
Schumer’s clearly passionate about reproductive rights and wants to make an upcoming Supreme Court decision into an issue that resonates with voters. But in play-acting like Trump, he launched yet another partisan “civility” conversation, and buried his real message in noise.
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