The Politics of Humiliation

This presidential election is not going to be nice, not that they ever are – but since the late nineteenth century they have settled down into rather gentlemanly affairs, and now the nastiness is handled by surrogates. George W. Bush never said John Kerry was a coward and a liar and hid in the bushes in Vietnam and wasn’t a war hero at all. The independently funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth handled that for him. And did Bush skip out and pretty much go AWOL in the Vietnam years, when he was supposed to be flying a fighter jet? The evidence of that didn’t come from John Kerry – others took care of that for him. Presidential candidates do remain gentlemanly now, except this time it will be a woman versus a man who is anything but a gentleman.

In fact, Donald Trump is proud that he isn’t a gentleman. He hates that sort of thing. He won’t be “politically correct” and says that we, as a nation, have to “stop being nice” or we’ll all die. It’s time we hurt some people’s feelings, and that would include other nations, especially our allies who have been shamelessly using us and laughing at us behind our back, and Muslims, and all minorities that keep telling us they’re so special, when they’re really not. So far, Donald Trump has not said it’s time to starting calling niggers what they really are, niggers, but he’s getting there – and it’s the same with women too. Hillary Clinton is playing the “woman card” – she wouldn’t get five percent of the vote if she were a man. In fact, women have had it too good in America and it’s time to stop worrying about hurting their damned feelings. Face it. Saying what’s hurtful is saying the truth – and so on and so forth.

Hillary Clinton, of course, can’t be a gentleman, by definition. There’s no model for what she should be. If she’s too “womanly” she’s weak and useless. If she’s a bit more manly and firm and direct she’s shrill and a nag, or a hag. She’s in a bit of a bind, and that makes what is coming soon an election of a sort we’ve not seen before. This will not be gentlemanly. It can’t be, with these two. It will all be new.

That calls for new strategies, and the New York Times’ Patrick Healy reports that little is off limits as Donald Trump plans attacks on Hillary Clinton’s character:

Donald J. Trump plans to throw Bill Clinton’s infidelities in Hillary Clinton’s face on live television during the presidential debates this fall, questioning whether she enabled his behavior and sought to discredit the women involved.

Mr. Trump will try to hold her accountable for security lapses at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and for the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens there.

And he intends to portray Mrs. Clinton as fundamentally corrupt, invoking everything from her cattle futures trades in the late 1970s to the federal investigation into her email practices as secretary of state.

Drawing on psychological warfare tactics that Mr. Trump used to defeat “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Low-Energy” Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries, the Trump campaign is mapping out character attacks on the Clintons to try to increase their negative poll ratings and bait them into making political mistakes, according to interviews with Mr. Trump and his advisers.

Another goal is to win over skeptical Republicans, since nothing unites the party quite like castigating the Clintons.

That’s the plan – direct personal attacks in her face at the debates – with this additional thinking:

Attacking them could also deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities, such as his treatment of women, some Trump allies say.

For Mrs. Clinton, the coming battle is something of a paradox. She has decades of experience and qualifications, but it may not be merit that wins her the presidency – it may be how she handles the humiliations inflicted by Mr. Trump.

Humiliating the woman might not be the best of strategies, as she is used to this sort of thing:

Some political allies and friends, while disgusted with Mr. Trump, see a certain cosmic symmetry at work: After decades of fighting what she once called “the politics of personal destruction,” Mrs. Clinton will reach the White House only if she survives one more crucible of sordid and scandalous accusations.

“She is so prepared to be president, but holding her head high and staying dignified during the campaign is probably what will help her the most,” said Melanne Verveer, a longtime friend and former chief of staff to Mrs. Clinton. “Trump is yet another way she will be tested personally – one of her greatest tests yet.”

But Donald Trump is no dummy:

In a telephone interview, he noted that women did not like seeing Mrs. Clinton insulted or bullied by men. He said he wanted to be more strategic, by calling into question Mrs. Clinton’s judgment in her reaction to Mr. Clinton’s affairs – people close to the couple have said she was involved in efforts to discredit the women – and in her response to crises like Benghazi.

“Just getting nasty with Hillary won’t work,” Mr. Trump said. “You really have to get people to look hard at her character, and to get women to ask themselves if Hillary is truly sincere and authentic. Because she has been really ugly in trying to destroy Bill’s mistresses, and she is pandering to women so obviously when she is only interested in getting power.”

He acknowledged that Republicans tried to discredit her judgment in the marathon Benghazi hearing in the fall, to little avail. But he said that he would be more pointed and memorable in linking her to the failings and deaths in Libya, and that the debate would have a vastly larger television audience than the hearing. Still, advisers of Mrs. Clinton pointed to her face-off with the Republican-led Benghazi committee as a sign of her unflappability.

Trump does need to be careful. She’s hard to humiliate, but he’ll do his best, except for this:

“From Rick Lazio to the House Benghazi committee, there’s a long line of Republicans who set out to personally attack Hillary Clinton but ended up inflicting the damage on themselves,” a Clinton campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon, said in a statement. “We know Donald Trump is the most unconventional of them all, but no matter what he throws at her, she will keep running her own campaign and won’t hesitate to call him out.”

Ah, but when she calls him out he’ll say look, she’s so angry! Aren’t women ugly when they’re angry? And then the crowd cheers, he hopes, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog sees nothing much new here:

The only thing that’s new here is that the candidate isn’t going to pretend to be above the fray while surrogates and media allies do all the dirty work. This year, the candidate is going to be doing a lot of the attacking himself. And the candidate is Trump, of course. The media admires Trump for turning the primaries into a months-long schoolyard brawl, and for winning that brawl.

He won, of course, because he was appealing to voters of a rageoholic party in which it’s widely believed that the answers to all questions are simple, emotionally satisfying, and focused exclusively on hurting one’s political enemies; the electorate in November won’t be like that, but the press loves a winner, and Trump still acts like one, even if he trails Clinton in every poll. The press wants to see someone take a swing at Hillary Clinton this way, and it’s just so awesome that it might happen in what used to be a forum for reasonably serious answers to mostly serious questions.

That is good for the ratings, but there’s only one thing new here:

In a more typical Republican smear campaign – see, for instance, the Swift Boaters in 2004 – the media barely attempts to establish the truth of the attacks because, gosh, they’re not coming from the candidate or official surrogates, and the campaign strenuously denies any connection to the smears. Won’t the media response be different if the smears are coming directly from the nominee? You’d think the press would assess them more carefully – but because the smears will be coming from Trump, the press response will probably be Trump as General Election Smear Merchant: Still Awesome at This, or Not Quite as Awesome as in the Primaries?

I thought Trump was going to dredge up something a bit more predictable than Bill’s zipper problem and Benghazi – then I realized that he’s lazy and ill-informed and probably doesn’t have a true opposition research team apart from Roger Stone. So we’re going to get the moldy oldies. And the press is going to get all excited about them all over again. That would have happened anyway, because the press always wants to see Hillary Clinton taken down a peg, but there’ll be extra excitement, because it’s (be still, our fluttering media hearts!) Trump. So we’ll see how it plays out.

We will, and as for Trump’s main objective, the humiliation of Hillary Clinton, at his hands, directly, Digby (Heather Parton) has this to say:

A gal’s got to show she can take a beating or she won’t be respected, amirite? Isn’t that how it works? And a narcissistic fascist demagogue who slept through school after the 5th grade will not be judged on his fitness or his qualifications either but rather how skillfully he degrades the first woman nominee for president. And his decades of treating women like chattel, sexually harassing them at work and boorishly behaving like a demented throwback to something out of “Mad Men” are a cause for celebration, apparently.

Trump won’t have her vote, but this is odd:

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Donald Trump will have to answer questions about his conduct toward women, but said Republicans voters aren’t “judging” the party’s presumptive nominee on his personal life.

“There are things he’s going to have to answer for,” Priebus said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “But I also think there are things from many years ago.”

“I don’t think Donald Trump is being judged based on his personal life,” Priebus added.

Is that so? Maybe so, but the odd thing is that those attacks would be her fault not his:

Priebus sought to blame Clinton and her allies for raising concerns about Trump’s behavior. “It’s when people live in glass houses and throw stones is when people get into trouble,” he said. “It’s a classic Clinton operation. Now, suddenly these things are coming out.”

Priebus’ comments came on the heels of a New York Times story, describing Trump’s “unsettling workplace conduct” toward women. Times journalists spent weeks interviewing more than 50 women who worked for or with Trump over the past four decades, and the story unearthed complaints of unwelcome romantic advances and streams of inappropriate comments about women’s bodies from the real-estate magnate.

Trump, already contending with fresh news that he often used pseudonyms to pose as his own spokesman in the 1990s, took to Twitter on Sunday to complain about the Times.

He called the story a “lame hit piece” and accused the paper of refusing to use the stories of women he told the newspaper he had helped. In a later tweet, he said the paper needs to “write the real story on the Clintons and women.”

This is going to be unpleasant, but the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent looks at the Clinton strategy:

Can Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in part by laying out a programmatic economic agenda that is designed to make a concrete difference in Americans’ lives? Or does that risk being too conventional an approach that fails to reckon with the unpredictable nature of Trump’s appeal?

In an interview with me, Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, previewed some of the Clinton team’s lines of attack on Trump. In so doing, he brushed off much of the conventional wisdom about the race, arguing that no matter how creatively Trump has employed his celebrity and business alpha-prowess, he’d succumb to an attack revealing that he isn’t actually on the side of ordinary Americans, and that ultimately, voters would choose Clinton over him on the economy for the simple reason that her policies and priorities are better.

The idea is that voters will reason and then in their own logical self-interest, but Sargent is skeptical:

Trump, of course, is not Mitt Romney. The latter was more easily painted as a heartless, plutocratic symbol of the ways in which global capitalism has destroyed countless lives in America’s industrial heartland. Trump, a celebrity billionaire, has sought to speak directly to American workers by vowing to kick the asses (this really is what he is promising, at bottom) of other countries, international elites, illegal immigrants, outsourcing CEOs, bought-and-paid-for politicians, and all others responsible for their plight. Unlike Romney, Trump cheerfully cops to having been in on the elite scam that has ripped off American workers for decades and now promises to put his inside knowledge to work on their behalf.

Given that, the Clinton team is taking a calculated risk:

The Clinton team is betting, contra some of the pundits, that Trump’s big storyline about the economy will not end up having some kind of otherworldly persuasive power, absent an actual record of accomplishment and a credible economic policy agenda. Republicans who are now stuck with Trump as their likely nominee are trying to persuade themselves otherwise. On Face the Nation yesterday, RNC chair Reince Priebus said twice that voters would ultimately choose the candidate who promises to bring an “earthquake” to Washington – in other words, that they’ll vote for the candidate who promises the most disruption, regardless of the details.

But Benenson made a case that – relative to Priebus’s – sounds oddly conventional. He argued that the things Trump says and proposes about the economy will actually matter, and that voters will make their choice by comparing the two candidates’ actual agendas.

That’s where this gets tricky:

Clinton recently rolled out a plan to improve childcare and make it more affordable. Where Trump has vowed generally to put miners back to work in coal country and to bring jobs roaring back to the U.S. from China, Clinton has offered plans to help miners transition to new lines of work and to boost U.S. manufacturing via tax credits and more government investment. Where Trump has fudged endlessly on the minimum wage – claiming he generally wants to see wages get higher while opposing the existence of any federal minimum wage – Clinton supports a minimum of at least $12 and edged towards Bernie Sanders’s $15 proposal. Clinton supports pay equity and has called for student debt relief (albeit significantly more modest than Sanders’s plan provides).

But is this enough? Does Clinton have to speak more directly to a widespread belief that our economic and political systems are fundamentally failing people? Does she have to do more to dispel the sense – which Trump will encourage – that she’s a creature of a corrupt system, by standing more forcefully on the side of fundamental reform?

That is a problem, which they’re ignoring, at least for now:

“She’s the only candidate who’s talked about a real jobs plan, with manufacturing and small businesses at the center of it; a real approach to competing and winning in a global economy, where we make more goods here that we sell to 95 percent of the consumers who live outside the United States; about a plan to raise wages; and a plan for equal pay for women,” Benenson said. “This isn’t about bluster. It’s about having real plans to get stuff done. When it comes to the economy, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with plans that have been vetted and will make a difference in people’s lives.”

And of course, there are Trump’s business record and his own words. Benenson argued that Trump was already in trouble with women across the board – blue collar and college educated white women alike – and that in the end, he would actually prove less competitive with blue collar whites in a general election than commonly expected. “Trump makes more blue-collar working class voters accessible to Hillary Clinton than the other way around,” Benenson said. “When he plays offense, he continues to alienate the very people he needs to persuade.”

Fine, and Sargent adds this:

A certain species of fatalism has taken hold among our political classes in general and among Democrats in particular. The idea is that, because Trump has successfully broken so many of our rules – he dispatched a supposedly deep bench of GOP challengers while spending virtually nothing, and while blowing past norms that used to require candidates to adhere to some nominal standard of respect for facts and consistency – it must mean he has a chance at blowing apart the old rules in the general election, too.

And so, you often hear it suggested that Trump can’t be beaten on policy, since facts and policy positions no longer matter; that he is going to attack in “unconventional” ways, so there is more to be feared; that he may be able to ride Rust Belt working class white anger into the White House in defiance of demographic realities; and that he has some kind of magical appeal that Democrats fail to reckon with at their own extreme peril. I don’t mean to suggest Trump should be taken lightly or to denigrate those worries; I have on occasion shared them, too.

But what if this is all wrong? What if it turns out that Trump can be beaten with the relatively conventional argument that Clinton’s priorities and policies are better for a majority of Americans than his are, and with a more effective series of negative attacks on him than he is able to land on her? Maybe the world hasn’t gone as crazy as the GOP primaries have made it seem.

Or maybe it has, and the National Review’s Jim Geraghty wonders about all of this:

Even if these are the best areas of attack, why is Trump announcing he will make these attacks in the debate now, in mid-May, in the pages of the New York Times, when the first debate will be in September? (Occam’s Razor – Donald Trump is talking about how he’ll attack Hillary in the autumn debates because he feels like talking about it.)

Benghazi and personal corruption sound like fertile ground, and hopefully Trump will elaborate on the last argument, connecting the dots between donations to the Clinton Foundation and changes in U.S. State Department policy under Clinton. But accusing Hillary of enabling Bill’s infidelities seems a lot riskier – ask the House Republicans of 1998 whether Americans cast their ballots based upon disapproval of Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior and lying under oath.

He sees this happening:

Hillary will undoubtedly claim to be victimized by Trump’s attack, and probably claim it’s an attack on every spurned spouse. Or she may point to Trump’s boast in The Art of the Deal, “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” Or she may revert to the trite deflection, “arguing about nonsense like this doesn’t help one struggling family with an unemployed parent find a job, or pay for their medical bills…”

Hey, that last trite bit actually is the plan, the whole plan, not a deflection, and that leads the New York Times’ Charles Blow to consider Trump’s asymmetric warfare:

There is no way to shame a man who lacks conscience or to embarrass an embarrassment. Trump is smart enough to know what he lacks – substance – and to know what he possesses in abundance – insolence. So long as he steers clear of his own weakness and draws others in to the briar patch that is his comfort zone, he wins.

As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said in December, this is asymmetric warfare. Conventional forms of political fighting won’t work on this man. Truth holds little power, and the media is still enthralled by the monster it made.

He is hollow, inconsistent, dishonest and shifty… and those who support him either love him in spite of it, or even more disturbingly, because of it.

He has waffled or equivocated or backtracked on tax plans, releasing his tax returns, his proposed Muslim ban, abortion and any number of issues.

It is hard to know where the hard bottom is beneath this morass of lies and bile. He has changed the very definition of acceptability as well as the expectations of the honor of one’s words. He has exalted the art of deceit to a new political normalcy.

In short, he is not a gentleman, and that’s worked just fine for him:

You see, part of the problem here is that some people believe, improbably, that virtue can be cloaked in vice, that what he says and what he means are fundamentally different, that the former is acting as a Trojan horse for the latter. One of Trump’s greatest pros is that he has convinced his supporters, all evidence to the contrary, that they are not being conned.

We are a society in search of an instant fix to some of America’s most intractable problems. Politicians of all stripes keep lying to us and saying things are going to be okay; that broad prosperity is just around the corner, only requiring minor tweaks; that for some of our issues there are clear good and bad options, rather than a choice between bad and worse options.

Into this mess of stubborn realities steps a simpleton with a simple message: Make America great again. We’ll win so much that you will get tired of winning.

That works:

Some folks want to be told that we could feasibly and logistically deport millions of people and ban more than a billion, build more walls and drop more bombs, have ever-falling tax rates and ever-surging prosperity. They want to be told that the only thing standing between where we are and where we are told we could be is a facility at crafting deals and a penchant for cracking down.

This streamlined message appeals to that bit of the population that is frustrated by the problems we face and quickly tires of higher-level cerebral function. For this group of folks, Trump needn’t be detailed, just different. He doesn’t need established principles, as long as he attacks the establishment.

And there’s no better way to do that than humiliating the woman who has been “the establishment” since January 20, 1993, when she became first lady. She can now talk sense to the American people, but she will never win over that bit of the population that quickly tires of higher-level cerebral function – so this election will pit rational thinking against ritual humiliation. That’s new – and that also makes this election a close call. We are not a rational people.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Politics of Humiliation

  1. Rick says:

    According to the New York Times’ Patrick Healy, Donald Trump says he’s ready with his strategy:

    In a telephone interview, he noted that women did not like seeing Mrs. Clinton insulted or bullied by men. He said he wanted to be more strategic, by calling into question Mrs. Clinton’s judgment in her reaction to Mr. Clinton’s affairs …

    Trump, or maybe one of his ubiquitous droids, needs to explain how this is supposed to work:

    When confronted by boasts from his own book on his extramarital exploits with women (“If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller”), how much success can Trump expect to get from painting Hillary with that same brush, when nobody is accusing Hillary herself of being a slimy lounge lizard?

    The worst they can argue is that she married someone like Donald Trump!

    He [Trump] acknowledged that Republicans tried to discredit her judgment in the marathon Benghazi hearing in the fall, to little avail.

    But he said that he would be more pointed and memorable in linking her to the failings and deaths in Libya, and that the debate would have a vastly larger television audience than the hearing.

    First of all, is Trump really saying that, for once, he’s going to stop speaking in generalities, and start digging into the details?

    Okay, well, good luck with that!

    Trump needs to understand that Hillary was able to shut down the Benghazi Committee members because their insinuating questions actually only have an effect when kept in that mysterious area of “unanswered questions”. But once you get beyond the generalities and into the specifics in these Benghazi accusations — and the same thing with the email accusations — the wrongdoing turns out to not be there, the “scandal” falls apart, and the critics start looking like they’re on a witch-hunt.

    Greg Sargent zeros in on another one of Trump’s bizarre ploys:

    Unlike Romney, Trump cheerfully cops to having been in on the elite scam that has ripped off American workers for decades and now promises to put his inside knowledge to work on their behalf.

    Hey, it’s that old “Fox in the Henhouse” scam! Remember that one?

    So it all comes down to that old snoozer, “Yes, he is an S.O.B., but at least he’s our S.O.B.” I understand a lot of Americans think things are bad in this country, but it’s hard to believe that things are so bad that they want to put a know-nothing bullying shit-head in the White House.

    Charles Blow says you can just forget about all the strategies:

    Trump is smart enough to know what he lacks – substance – and to know what he possesses in abundance – insolence. So long as he steers clear of his own weakness and draws others in to the briar patch that is his comfort zone, he wins.

    As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said in December, this is asymmetric warfare. Conventional forms of political fighting won’t work on this man. Truth holds little power, and the media is still enthralled by the monster it made.

    The media didn’t really create this monster, unless you’re talking about the media being so predictably easy for the monster himself to manipulate. It’s not that hard. All it takes is a recognition that the media insists on giving the public more of what it obviously wants, because if the public doesn’t get what it wants, it goes away — and what it wants is provocative bluster, and preferably, on a daily basis.

    And that’s exactly what Trump offers up: Today’s story is that he says we need to keep all Muslims from entering the country; next Sunday, it will be that this Muslim thing was only a suggestion. Do the Trump-heads think he’s a flip-flopper? No, since they’re not really listening. He had them a long time ago, at “We don’t win anymore.”

    Yes, there are a large number of voters who have totally given up on rationality, given up hope, and think they need an S.O.B. as their president, but we can only hope that we outnumber them on election day. If we don’t, then America will find itself involved in the same experiment that John Boehner kept trying with the Tea Party — just this once, let them get their way, and let them find out first hand, that — surprise! — shutting down the government doesn’t force Obama to repeal Obamacare after all!

    Of course, that wishful thinking never worked for Boehner, and it surely won’t work for us either.

    Maybe electing Donald Trump president of the U.S. will be sort of a yin-yang moment for the planet, in which everything seems to be chugging along nicely, but the next thing you know, bang! Everything is swallowed up by its dichotomous opposite! Maybe it’s that the gods are just playing dodge-ball with us!


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