Worst week ever?

By Robert Wright, Feb 08 2020

What could be more painful, for the committed Trump opponent, than watching Trump march into last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and hold up a copy of USA Today with the word Acquitted plastered across its front page, above its story about his impeachment? 

No, the answer isn’t watching him hold up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline Trump Acquitted (which he also did). The answer is watching him do both of these things in the same week that (1) his Gallup approval rating reached its all-time high; (2) the Iowa caucuses turned into a display of Democratic incompetence that he seized on with malicious glee, while journalists reported that the Iowa fiasco had intensified Democratic infighting; (3) he delivered a State of the Union address that, in addition to setting a new standard for SOTU cheesiness, successfully employed his patented formula for political survival: simultaneously enraging his detractors and energizing his supporters; (4) he previewed, in his opening SOTU segment, a formidable reelection stump speech, flaunting a series of mainly accurate boasts about the health of the economy; (5) various pundits deemed this “the most politically successful week of the Trump presidency” or said that for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, they believed he will probably be reelected.  

But cheer up! For two reasons:

1) This too shall pass.

2) The great thing about bad things is that once you figure out why they happened, you can (in principle) make them less likely to happen in the future. 

Consider the decision to impeach. Now, I’m not here to declare that decision a mistake in every sense of the term. There is value in recording for posterity the fact that many Americans, and their political representatives, find Trump sufficiently horrible to warrant the ultimate indictment. If, decades from now, archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of American civilization, I’d like them to find evidence that its collapse didn’t catch us totally unawares; we knew an ominous presidency when we saw one.  

But if you ask whether impeachment was a mistake in sheerly tactical terms, I think the answer is yes. Between the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings and the end of this week, Trump’s “underwater rating”—the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings—shrank by four points. This could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The tactical argument for impeachment had been that it would damage Trump politically, even if it didn’t lead to conviction.

So why didn’t Democrats in Congress see this coming? Why did they proceed on the premise that the evidence at hand would outrage enough Americans so that Trump would suffer politically for having subordinated American foreign policy to his own reelection prospects?   

Regular NZN readers may at this point be divided into two camps: those who fear that this will turn into another sermon about “cognitive empathy”—about the value of understanding other people’s perspectives—and those who fear it will turn into another sermon about “mindfulness”—specifically, about being aware of our own motivations. Well, congratulations—you’re both right! But there’s a surprise ending, so stay tuned.

First the predictable part: 

If congressional Democrats, back when they were pondering impeachment, had mindfully examined the sources of their own outrage about Trump’s behavior, they might have noticed that it got a boost from three things: (1) they intensely disliked Trump to begin with; (2) the person Trump’s Ukrainian machinations were designed to slime, Joe Biden, was a member of their political team (and a personal friend of many of them); (3) the policy Trump compromised in order to slime Biden—fighting Russian aggression in Ukraine—was one they strongly supported. 

Here are three things that are true of many of the American voters that congressional Democrats had to win over if impeachment was going to work as a political tactic: (1) they don’t especially dislike Trump—at least, they don’t dislike him as intensely as the average congressional Democrat; (2) they don’t have strong feelings about Joe Biden or a strong sense of allegiance to his party; (3) they don’t have strong feelings about the policy that Trump compromised in order to slime Biden. 

To have pondered this would have been to exercise cognitive empathy—perspective taking. And this exercise might have led Democrats to wonder whether impeachment would indeed move the needle of public opinion as they hoped. 

A further impediment to getting many swing voters indignant about Trump’s behavior is that he wasn’t accused of committing an actual crime—in contrast to Bill Clinton, who was impeached after committing perjury. Don’t get me wrong; Trump’s various transgressions are a much graver threat to the country than Clinton’s, and for my money are worthy of impeachment. But precisely because Trump is such a clear and present danger, limiting him to a single term is job one. So whether his transgressions were worthy of impeachment is less important to me than whether impeachment made his reelection more likely or less likely. It’s because the answer seems (for now, at least) to be “more likely” that I think this post-mortem is worth the trouble.

I know, I know—this particular horse is out of the barn; it’s too late to decide not to impeach Trump after all. (And I admit that, though I had grave misgivings about the wisdom of impeachment, I wasn’t so confident of them that I flat-out opposed it.) But every day offers an opportunity to apply these basic lessons about mindfulness and cognitive empathy anew.

For example: Suppose you’re the Speaker of the House and you’re deciding whether to dramatically tear up a copy of the president’s State of the Union speech on national TV. Maybe you should ask yourself not only whether lots of people in your tribe will love that gesture, but how the people who aren’t in your tribe will perceive it. Will it, in the eyes of some lukewarm Trump supporters, lend credence to Trump’s narrative of persecution, making them more likely to go to the trouble of voting? Will it convince some potential Democratic voters that the average Democratic politician is no less petty then Trump, making them less likely to go to the trouble of voting? 

Of course, that horse is out of the barn, too; Nancy Pelosi went with her gut. And, anyway, I could be wrong in my conjecture that her viscerally gratifying gesture was unwise. (Maybe swing voters like spunk!) But I do think that on balance this week has strengthened the argument for subjecting our political impulses, especially retributive ones, to critical reflection. And there will be lots of opportunities between now and November to do that—for Nancy Pelosi and other high-profile politicians, but also for all of us Trump opponents who frequent social media and so help shape, in however small a way, the public perception of the opposition. 

At Wednesday’s National Prayer Breakfast, as it happened, there was a homily by conservative author Arthur Brooks about the importance of “loving your enemies.” And, Trump being Trump, he explicitly distanced himself from Brooks’s message and then proceeded to trash two of his political enemies (Pelosi and Mitt Romney) without mentioning their names.

That was pretty much his mode for the rest of the week, culminating in the White House’s firing on Friday not just of a National Security Council staffer who had testified against him in the House impeachment proceedings—but, for good measure, of the staffer’s twin brother!

I could be wrong, but I think that extra dollop of pettiness—the firing of the brother—is the kind of thing that actually hurts Trump in the eyes of some Americans whose opinions matter: the people whose shifting sentiments are the reason Trump’s approval rating continues to go up and down by increments big enough to swing an election. That’s why I say we should give Americans a clear view of Trump, and not cloud the picture with gifs of Nancy Pelosi tearing up speeches.

Or, to put it another way: sometimes loving your enemy, or at least not acting like you hate your enemy, can be an effective strategy. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, famously wrote, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Less famous is what Paul said next: “For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

Here’s another old saying about enemies: Never get in the way of your enemy when he’s making a mistake. Trump makes a lot of mistakes. He does many things that many Americans find distasteful. That’s why his Gallup approval rating, even at its current apex, is one point below 50 percent. (And Gallup is an upside outlier; the Real Clear Politics average of polls has Trump’s favorable at 45.5.) 

The challenge for Trump opponents is to continue to make their disapproval of Trump clear, without doing so in a way that’s politically counterproductive. That calls for a lot of good judgment and restraint—recognizing, for example, when your reaction to Trump supporters will strike them as condescending or contemptuous—or when your frankly contemptuous view of Trump can be read as contempt for his supporters.  

Here you may find helpful a line from Arthur Brooks’s prayer breakfast homily: “Ask God to take political contempt from your heart. And sometimes, when it’s too hard, ask God to help you fake it.” And, if you’re not the praying kind, you can always fall back on the generic formula for judicious political engagement: mindfulness and cognitive empathy. 

The other place mindfulness and cognitive empathy can help is in keeping intra-Democratic discourse at a reasonably civil level. However good a week Trump had, the fact remains that most Americans wish he weren’t president. If they stick together, and don’t get too upset with each other, the chances are that, a year from now, he won’t be.   

This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.

Please, consider subscribing.