Opinion writer

Pete Buttigieg is getting rave reviews for another one of his performances, this time from numerous prominent non-Democrats who were surprised and impressed with his Sunday night appearance on Fox News.

During a town hall event in Claremont, N.H., the mayor of South Bend, Ind., confronted the problem of how to run against the endless taunts, insults, and all around bottomless depravity that President Trump employs to achieve scorched-earth belittlement of his rivals.

Buttigieg did give a good answer to this question, and this does have value when thinking about how Democrats might approach the general election.

But in answering it, Buttigieg was also trying to chart his own course in another, separate debate underway among voters and candidates in the Democratic primary, one that’s entangled with competing explanations of what went wrong for Democrats in 2016.

In some ways, this debate is the more consequential one. And Buttigieg continues to commit a crucial misstep here.

Buttigieg was asked by Fox News’s Chris Wallace how he’d run against Trump’s “formidable and unconventional” style, which the president has already displayed by labeling Buttigieg “Alfred E. Neuman,” referring to the Mad magazine mascot. Wallace asked: “How would you handle insults and attacks and tweets?”

“The Tweets . . . I don’t care,” Buttigieg said emphatically after a pause, to loud applause. He added:

We need to make sure that we’re changing the channel from this show that he’s created. I get it. It is mesmerizing. It is hard for anybody to look away. Me, too. It is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away.

This is a good response to Trump, in that he’s all about dominance and humiliation. Appearing stung or responding angrily risks playing into the president’s hands by showing the very weakness Trump is trying to get you to reveal in the first place. As conservative Matt Lewis notes, Buttigieg disarms Trump’s attacks by shrugging them off, unmasking Trump as a doddering, unhinged fool who doesn’t belong in the position he holds.

I’d add that Buttigieg reveals Trump as depraved and unfit without saying so outright in a way that his voters can dismiss as patronizing towards Trump, or toward them. And that last point opens on to this other subterranean debate among Democrats.

A big debate among Democrats

Buttigieg has been pilloried for going on Fox News in the first place, something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has done but that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has refused to do. Buttigieg addressed the criticism by saying: “I get where that’s coming from,” and referencing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of some Fox News personalities. He added:

There is a reason why anybody has to think twice and swallow hard before participating in this media ecosystem. But I also believe . . . there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame for ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on.

Buttigieg insisted that this is another reason the candidates must spend more time “going into places where Democrats haven’t been seen much. We’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast.”

Democrats haven’t been seen much in these places?

This sidesteps the fundamental debate over whether Fox News, through unchecked disinformation and conspiracy theorizing that enables Trump’s lawlessness and corruption (along with the hating on immigrants), has become such an irredeemably destructive actor in our politics that its presence must not be legitimized by Democrats in any way.

But beyond this, Buttigieg is joining the debate among Democrats over electability, as well — and not entirely in a good way.

Mayor Pete’s magic key

The rationale behind Buttigieg’s candidacy is that he holds the magic key to unlocking the conundrum of blue-collar whites who bolted to Trump, because he never gave up on the industrial Midwest. After a brief period of meritocratic climbing with the coastal and even global elites — Harvard; Rhodes scholarship; the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. — Buttigieg plunged back into the battle against the slow-rolling social emergency in the industrial heartland that Trump recognized. Too many elite Democrats neglected this emergency; Buttigieg did not; thus, he understands how to talk to those voters.

Buttigieg projects seemingly sincere modesty when talking about these matters, but this is still problematic. Buttigieg’s own record belies it, as Nathan Robinson argues. Plus, winning the mayor’s office in South Bend is not tantamount even to winning a single Trump state. And this narrative of 2016 is a highly simplistic version of why Trump won, which was because of a confluence of many factors, some beyond Democrats’ control. It’s also belied by the fact that in 2018, Democrats swept all six statewide races in the “blue wall” states Trump cracked.

One can and should argue for speaking to all voters without adding the notion that other unnamed Democrats don’t actually try to do this. And if Buttigieg is indeed better at reaching these voters, he needs to show us that this is the case — even better, show us that his policies will do this — rather than constantly telling us it is the case.

Indeed, this narrative detracts from the genuinely good aspects of what Buttigieg is trying to accomplish here.

The big message Buttigieg is sending is that the public is exhausted with Trump’s constant debasement and degrading of, well, everything in our public life, and that a restoration of decency and good-faith efforts to listen to the opposition is the baseline for getting past all that.

In such settings as a Fox News town hall, this approach has value in unmasking Trump’s temperamental unfitness to serve, though how much more value than this it has remains to be seen. But there’s simply no reason to ladle on top of this the idea that Democrats, as a rule, fail to show up in Trump country.

This is supposed to sound like real talk in response to sneering elite liberal prejudices. But it just comes across as pandering to those who want to hype the presence of those prejudices in the first place.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Pete Buttigieg creates another media moment

Rev. William J. Barber II: Franklin Graham is a hypocrite about Pete Buttigieg, and he’s using that hypocrisy to do harm

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise on community and religion

Jonathan Capehart: Four hurdles for Pete Buttigieg