The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Perez won’t apologize for insulting Trump and GOP leaders. Here’s why.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On Friday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told activists in New Jersey that their protests were hitting the Trump administration where it hurt. He pointed to Jan. 21, the day of the Women’s March, as the start of a resistance that had been more effective than critics ever expected.

“Women marched all over the world and said: Donald Trump, you don’t stand for our values!” Perez said. “That’s what they said. Donald Trump, you didn’t win this election!” If anyone didn’t want to hear this, Perez had an answer: “I don’t care, because they don’t give a s--- about people.”

Hours later, the conservative Daily Caller posted clips of Perez’s remarks for a story that was shared on Facebook more than 18,000 times. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the new chair of the Republican National Committee, demanded an apology for the “dangerous” remarks, snarking that Perez “needs a lesson on how the electoral college works.”

But Perez did not apologize. On Saturday, in Texas, he said exactly the same thing. In an email, Perez spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa explained that the DNC chair was not going to stop belittling Trump’s victory.

“Tom has not only pointed out that the Russians interfered in this election to help Donald Trump get elected, but Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million people,” Hinojosa said. “Since before Trump stepped foot in the Oval Office, his divisive and destructive views had already been rejected by a vast majority of the American people.”

Perez’s speeches, which made news on conservative websites all weekend, reflected the tonal shift — perhaps a permanent one — that Democrats have undergone since their 2016 defeat. Covering Perez’s campaign for DNC chair, I saw firsthand how the affable former labor secretary grew more and more aggressive in the ways he mocked and decried the Trump administration.

That sometimes involved four-letter words. At a speech in Detroit, Perez said Trump graduated from “Makin’ S--- Up University,” and at several live-streamed candidate forums, he described the administration’s executive orders on labor rules as “bulls---t.” The New Jersey and Texas speeches were the latest in a string of fiery Perez open mics; they were just the first to cross the radar of conservative media.

Democrats don’t mind the attention. Their new, harsher tone came after Clinton and the entire Democratic Party tried, and failed, to brand Trump as too crude to serve in the White House. As a post-election study by the Wesleyan Media Project found, Clinton’s ad campaign was historically negative and light on policy, with 90 percent of its TV commercials focusing on Trump’s personality. The upshot of those ads was that a President Trump would embarrass Americans. In “Role Models,” viewers saw bewildered children watch Trump on TV as he shoots off insults.

Hillary Clinton's campaign released this attack ad against Donald Trump July 11. (Video: Hillary Clinton)

In “Captain Khan,” a well-made ad that dazzled pundits, the father of a Muslim U.S. soldier who had been killed in action in Iraq reflected on how Trump’s insults and threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States made him feel unwelcome in a country he now calls home.

Hillary Clinton: 'Captain Khan' | Campaign 2016 (Video: Hillary Clinton)

We can cut to the chase: These ads did not work. Compelling, and designed in part to keep educated suburbanites in Clinton’s camp, they were predicated on the theory that voters would see Trump as unacceptable and overcome doubts to vote for the Democrat. In key states, even though majorities of voters viewed Trump unfavorably, pluralities picked him anyway.

The long tail of that experience is that progressives stopped caring about the tone of politics. They felt that Clinton, by failing to strip the bark off Trump’s record and policies, had blown an advantage with voters who saw her as more qualified to be president. In the moment, Michelle Obama’s saying that “when they go low, we go high” mirrored what progressives felt about the campaign. As soon as Clinton lost, it felt like a giant strategic error. (And it never took into account the rumors, fed in conservative media for decades, that Clinton was a foul-mouthed tyrant when the cameras were off.)

Clinton’s approach was summed up in the second presidential debate, which Trump entered at a serious disadvantage, bleeding support after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting a woman. Trump’s solution: bring four women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to the debate and deflect a question about his own scandal by attacking his opponent’s husband.

Hillary Clinton responded by invoking Trump's insults.

When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama advised us all. When they go low, you go high. And, look, if this were just about one video, maybe what he is saying tonight would be understandable. But everyone can draw their own conclusions at this point about whether or not the man in the video or the man on the stage respects women. But he never apologizes for anything to anyone. He never apologized to Mr. And Mrs. Khan, the Gold Star family whose son, Captain Khan, died in the line of duty in Iraq, and Donald insulted and attacked them for weeks over their religion. He never apologized to the distinguished federal judge who was born in Indiana, but Donald said he couldn't be trusted to be a judge because his parents were “Mexican.” He never apologized to the reporter that he mimicked and mocked on national television and our children were watching. And he never apologized for the racist lie that President Obama was not born in the United States of America. He owes the president an apology and he owes our country an apology and he needs to take responsibility for his actions and his words.

Again, in the moment, this was exactly what Democrats wanted to hear — and what they thought voters wanted to hear. It was inconceivable that the man who perpetuated the “birther” lie could take the presidency. But since then, they’ve seen Trump get away with plenty more insults. More important, they’ve reflected on how Clinton made her response personal, instead of tying Trump to the Republican Party and its policies. And one result was watching Trump take the White House.

This has not just curdled political rhetoric in general; it has emboldened Democrats to make fun of the increasingly unpopular president, and to portray Republicans as dishonest and heartless. One might argue that they’ve always said that about Republicans, but again, the Clinton campaign tried to “go high” about this stuff. In her August 2016 speech condemning the “alt-right,” Clinton noted that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had condemned Trump’s insult of the judge handling his university fraud case and attacked Stephen K. Bannon for his criticism of Ryan’s “social-justice Catholicism.”

Clinton’s reward? Ryan would demand that she fire Catholic staffers whose conversation criticizing right-wing elements in the church was stolen by hackers and released by WikiLeaks. In my coverage of the left, Clinton’s occasional attempts to separate Trump from the broader, “reasonable” Republican Party are remembered as massive strategic errors.

Perez, who endorsed Clinton for president, has more or less embraced that view. Asked whether he would apologize for the “give a s---” line, Hinojosa said Perez stood by his comment completely.

“Tom Perez has said repeatedly, including in New Jersey, that Republican leaders like Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and others in Congress have shown us that they don’t care about the American people, especially when it comes to providing families with affordable health insurance,” she said in the email. “The Republican health-care bill would have taken away coverage from 24 million people, imposed an age tax, and made Americans pay more money for less care. Republicans are making it harder to save for retirement, and one of the first acts under President Trump was to make it harder for homebuyers to afford a mortgage. These actions and many others are further proof that Republican leaders in Washington don’t care about the American people and are only looking out for their wealthy friends.”

There were fewer four-letter words in that statement, but it’s part of a continuum of Trump-era Democratic rhetoric. In 2016, the party learned that voters really did not mind if a candidate was rough or profane. It cost a few voters; to more, it came across as toughness. Democrats no longer shame voters for putting up with Trump’s rhetoric. They portray him as a phony who didn’t earn his victory and is betraying the voters who trusted him. They don’t know if this will work. But they’re sure as s--- going to try.