No one needs a refresher on how Donald Trump responded, with an insult to the city of Atlanta, but some might have missed the pushback in mainstream and conservative media. Byron York, the Washington Examiner’s chief political correspondent, saw a “dilemma” emerging for Democrats who could not agree with Lewis, with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) calling the “not legitimate” charge “nonproductive,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough calling Trump “freely elected” and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) calling the insult “just words.”
For some Democrats, the illegitimacy charge would move them a bit too close to a kind of birtherism that they spent years denouncing. (Remember that Republican leaders stayed away from birtherism, although some GOP members of Congress embraced, or at least flirted, with it.)So it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the Trump illegitimacy charge will remain confined to the leftmost reaches of the Democratic Party, just as birtherism was confined to the rightmost reaches of the GOP.
Did you notice something in that parenthetical? I’ll repeat it: “Republican leaders stayed away from birtherism, although some GOP members of Congress embraced, or at least flirted, with it.”
As an avid reader of the news and subscriber to The Washington Post (click here), you can probably name a very prominent Republican who did embrace the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president. He will be taking the oath of office this Friday, and then President Obama will hand him the White House keys.
It’s true that few Democrats will embrace Lewis’s insult of Trump. It’s just as true that media gatekeepers will define it as out of line, and fringy, to say that Trump is not a legitimate president. But Lewis’s line is exactly the sort of thing that distracted and enraged Democrats, and the same media gatekeepers, when it was directed against Obama. I’m not making an equivalence between the racist birther conspiracy and the “legitimate” jab — I’m just saying that many Democrats, Lewis included, appeared to learn from 2016 that explosive rhetoric that drives the other party to distraction is its own reward.
After reporting last week on the Democrats who wanted to ditch the “high ground” and take on Trump, I’ve taken to calling this the New Rudeness. It's an inevitable byproduct of Trump’s victory, and of the failed campaign Hillary Clinton ran against him. But it’s also a product of Republican opposition to Obama. In 2009, as a reporter at the late and lamented Washington Independent, I closely covered the Democrats and outside groups who were rumbled by the angry opposition of the tea party. In early 2009, after Rush Limbaugh told listeners that he hoped Obama “failed” — at the bottom of the Great Recession — Democrats and reporters for outlets like ThinkProgress called out Republicans who would not denounce Limbaugh. The effect: Some bruised feelings for Republicans, but much more mainstreaming of Limbaugh’s point.
Months later, the tea party had perhaps its biggest legislative victory when it disrupted the normally staid town hall meetings that members of Congress held over the long August recess. Democrats, at first, thought that the story of these raucous events could become their noisiness — that swing voters would not want to identify with the sorts of people who accused congressmen of trying to kill them with rationing. Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called the protests “astroturf,” hoping that the organizing role played by well-funded tea party groups would discredit them.
They were wrong, and it was especially ironic that the San Francisco-based Pelosi was so wrong. Conservatives in 2009 were using tactics that they believed had been perfected by the left. They cited Saul Alinsky’s rules — find a target, freeze it and polarize it, as well as drown it with ridicule.
What does this have to do with Lewis’s remarks? It has more to do with their “controversial” nature. From 2009 through the Trump campaign, it was easy to find “serious” or “reasonable” conservatives who would denounce the voter anger they saw on the right. Clinton’s campaign practically turned the practice into dogma. It made a long bet that voters would be repulsed by Trump, and built an ad strategy and an outreach strategy around that theory.
The campaign had a point, or thought it did. In focus groups, voters were repulsed by Trump's insults of nonwhite voters and women. Black voters were repulsed by his birtherism — and indeed, Trump eventually walked it back, though without apologizing to Obama. The Clinton campaign piled onto the airwaves in swing states with ads that showed women glumly listening to Trump talking about their bodies and children becoming pie-eyed as Trump cursed. More importantly, plenty of Republicans seemed to agree with the strategy. Glenn Beck himself, the icon of the early tea party movement, spent the weeks before the election on an apology tour and hinted to Vice News that he might vote for Clinton.
None of this mattered. It turned out that Trump could beat Clinton even with voters who disliked both of them, because voters came to see the attacks on his rhetoric as a distraction. Democrats had been baited — every day they spent asking why Republicans would not denounce the latest Trump insult was a day they did not spend talking about their policies or record.
In other words, Trump’s rudeness, like the tea party’s disruptions, was effective because both were outside political norms and couldn’t be defended. It did not matter whether individual Republicans went on TV or held Capitol Hill hallway conversations to criticize them. Voters could not have cared less about the norms. It didn’t matter how many “Republicans divided” stories they read. Anyone who walked past merchandise tables with “Trump That B---h” and “Hillary Sucks, but Not Like Monica” shirts knew this. Democrats were wasting money on polling and focus groups when they could have just noticed how people talked about politics, and politicians, on Facebook.
Will rudeness hold the same benefits for Democrats as it did for Republicans? In electoral terms, maybe not. Although Trump is the least popular president-elect in popular memory, the seats Democrats need to win in 2018 are in more Trump-friendly turf than the country at large. You’ll see Democrats in purple or red districts refuse to agree that Trump is “illegitimate,” or refuse to make a “golden showers” joke. Plenty of Trump-mockery can be dismissed as empty choir-preaching, like how John Oliver’s “eviscerations” of Trump go viral only with people who hate Trump already.
But this is how we live now. Trump, who will soon be etched in history books alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, has not given up his habit of Twitter-fighting with people who are mean to him. Democrats have figured out that a #ThisIsNotNormal hashtag is not the way to respond. Their antidote is the New Rudeness.