DAVID LEONHARDT: How Trump's critics should respond

Posted January 31, 2018 5:00 a.m. EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times

On a Thursday a few weeks ago, 215 workers at a heating and air-conditioning plant in Indianapolis worked their last shift. They were being laid off by Carrier, which, as you may recall, was the company that President Donald Trump visited shortly after his election. That visit felt like one big celebration, where Trump basked in his victory and took credit for a postelection deal that would save Carrier jobs.

It turns out, however, that he didn’t save as many jobs as he’d claimed. “We feel betrayed,” Chuck Jones, a union leader, who stood with Trump that day, wrote recently. Carrier isn’t the only Indiana factory laying off workers, either. At least two other big plants there have done so since the 2016 election.

In the daily circus of the Trump presidency — the tweets, the porn star, the racist trolling, the Russia investigation and the bizarro conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation — it’s easy to lose sight of normal political stories like Carrier. But normal stories are Trump’s biggest vulnerability, and the circus is actually his friend. Democrats would be wise to remind themselves of this fact every single day.

To that end, I don’t think anyone should get too worked up by the inevitable punditry on Tuesday night that treats Trump, for at least one night, as a normal president, delivering a standard State of the Union speech. I fully understand why that commentary is maddening. Trump is not a normal president, and the speech will not mark a pivot, a reset, a turning point or a cliché to be named later.

And yet it’s precisely when he is trying to act like a normal president that he is least effective. Remember: The circus is his friend.

Just consider the past six weeks. They’ve included Stormy Daniels, his vulgar rant about Haitians, his much-mocked physical exam and the many stories spawned by Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury.” You know what else has happened in the last six weeks? Trump’s approval rating has risen a couple of percentage points, as have the share of voters saying they plan to vote for a Republican congressional candidate this year.

Not all of Trump’s outrages can or should be ignored. His lies need to be fact-checked. His racism needs to be called out. Most important, his attempts to obstruct justice need to be stopped, not encouraged, by Congress. But people who are disturbed by his presidency should keep reminding themselves of the big goal here: persuading Trump supporters and Trump agnostics that his presidency is damaging the country.

The trouble with constantly disparaging him — as a person and as the Worst President Ever — is that it doesn’t win over very many Americans. Hillary Clinton’s campaign took a version of this approach in many television ads, and it wasn’t a crazy strategy at the time, given how unpresidential Trump was and is. But given the campaign’s outcome, the strategy doesn’t seems worth rerunning.

Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago has written what I think remains the smartest essay on this point. In an op-ed published shortly after the election, he explained that Trump fit a global pattern. Demagogues like him — and like Silvio Berlusconi of Italy — rise to power because people feel alienated. The demagogues are often odious. But when the opposition focuses on their outrageous qualities, it usually loses.

“These people don’t exist in a vacuum. They emerge when there is a total distrust of the elite,” Zingales told me recently. “The more the elite go after him, the more people think, ‘He’s one of us.'”

The successful strategy — in Italy and elsewhere — is to treat the demagogue like a normal politician who’s failing to deliver. Think of the Carrier layoffs. Or Trump’s various moves to let Wall Street take advantage of consumers. Or Beijing’s glee at Trump’s weak foreign policy.  Or Trump’s tax cut for his fellow millionaires.  Or his cuts to health care programs, both the ones he’s enacted and the larger ones he tried to enact.

Democrats need to cast him more like a plutocrat and a feckless president and less like a buffoon and a cartoon villain. They need to treat him more like any other Republican president.

For this reason, I welcome the State of the Union address. The speech itself is unlikely to matter much, one way or the other. But if I can borrow one of those clichés of punditry, it does offer Trump’s critics a chance at a reset.

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