The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You cannot fight Donald Trump with conventional weapons

Hand gesture! (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

If you attended preschool at any point in your life, you understand the problem with Donald Trump’s candidacy. You remember the one kid on the playground who makes everyone else’s recess hell.

“You’re out,” you say. “You just got tagged.”

“No, I’m not,” he says. “Nobody can touch me ’cause I’m made of fire.”

“No, you’re not,” you say. “That’s not how the rules work.”

“Yes,” he says, “Yes it is I made the rule that I’m fire and if I touch you you burn up and nothing you can do can undo it ’cause fire beats everything.”

“That’s not fair,” you say.

“And I touched you and now you’re out,” he says, and shortly afterwards the game ends in him winning, because that is the only way he will allow it to end.

Certain five-year-olds are impervious to rules. They won’t play nicely. They trample through your sandcastles. They arrogate sudden inexplicable powers to themselves which render them invincible and can therefore defeat you at a touch, or they announce that they can cross into your territory by special dispensation, or they simply refuse to stay tagged when you tag them.

“This won’t work if he doesn’t freeze when he’s tagged!” you complain, but — what authority do you have? The rules of games possess only as much authority as you allow them. There are no referees handing out red cards for Red Rover. You are in a state of nature unless the other kindergartners agree otherwise.

And this can be extremely frustrating when you are accustomed to playing by the rules. There you are, with Ted and Bobby and Carly, playing nicely, and then along comes Donald and announces that you aren’t playing Traditional GOP Primary Where Everyone Can Be Handicapped By Gaffes but instead King Donald’s Primary where everything everyone says has consequences except for what Donald says because Donald is made of fire.

He is the terror of the schoolyard for a reason. “Can we play it my way?” you ask. No. You can’t. His way or no way at all. And now he’s got your favorite truck.

You can’t win against someone who refuses to admit that there are rules. Not only that, but you can’t declare him “out.” If he wants to play with you, you’re stuck.

And this is the problem we’re running into now with Donald Trump.

You can’t defeat him with conventional weapons. He’s not playing “three gaffes! you’re out.” Tag him as many times as you like and he won’t even blink. You can’t shame someone who doesn’t feel shame. He exists on a different axis. You can try covering him as entertainment. You can try not covering him at all. But so far, nothing touches him. He still powers clicks and he still commands a share of the polls.

And this feels wrong. “You gaffed!” Rick shouts. “Now apologize!” But he laughs us off.

We, as a public and as a media, are used to an election game that has, if not certain rules, certain — accepted formulas and traditions. It is supposed to be a kind of low-rent reality TV for people who couldn’t make it on real reality TV — proportionally more serious and less entertaining. If it is the GOP primary, the more it looks like Twelve Angry Men, the better. But the rules only exist by our mutual and silent agreement. So does the game itself, for that matter.

So Trump runs rampant. Donald Trump has been Donald Trump long enough to know better than to pay any attention to anything that comes out of his own mouth. He shrugged off his recent remarks about John McCain’s military service (“I like people who weren’t captured”) and kept up the attacks. According to the rules of the game he should be cowering underground and issuing frantic apologies. He didn’t even bat an eye.

So what do you do?

Do you cover him? Rebut his incautious remarks with the same care you generally apply? That is a lot of work to do every time he opens his mouth. Ignore him? Agree to play his game?

Can you address him without sounding like him? In Please Don’t Eat The Daisies, Jean Kerr laments that “The real menace in dealing with a five year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five year-old.” That’s the danger.

Maybe you just hunker down and wait for recess to be over.

If I learned anything from my brief stint as a babysitter, it is this: never negotiate with preschoolers.

The possible White House contender on Obamacare and building a border wall (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)