Donald Trump is not just an awful president — he is an awful human being. He is a liar, a philanderer, a bigot, and a sexist. He has spent a lifetime reveling in his own moral corruption, in both his business and personal life. The one abiding consistency of Donald Trump’s political career is that the bar can always go lower.
Last month’s outrage was the news that in February he told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward the coronavirus was a serious pandemic, while downplaying the deadliness of the disease in public. Earlier that month, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Trump had referred to dead soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.”
But none of these stories provide new insights into Trump. Voters, even his supporters, have a clear understanding of who he is. According to polls, just 52 percent of Trump voters describe him as a “good person.”
The problem that has vexed his opponents in both the Republican primary and the general election is that every time Donald Trump commits yet another “career-ending” act of depravity, the media runs to cover it. The chattering class might condemn the act and Donald Trump might react, but a week later what was breaking news only a few days before falls down the memory hole and Trump does it all over again. This same cycle has repeated itself since Trump’s ride down the escalator in 2015.
Following George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, his adviser and future Fox News chief Roger Ailes told journalist Judy Woodruff during a forum at Harvard University, “Let’s face it, there are three things that the media are interested in: pictures, mistakes, and attacks. That’s the one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage.”
Ailes continued, “It’s my orchestra pit theory of politics. You have two guys on stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
The nightly news has been replaced with 24-hour cable channels but Ailes’s media critique, one he put into practice at Fox News, remains true.
We are now in a presidential election year that will have substantially fewer pictures. This leaves us with mistakes and attacks. Trump has turned the first part of Ailes’s maxim on its head. Mistakes are no longer to Trump’s disadvantage. They are either demonstrations of his strength or something simply done to evoke angry reactions from liberals.
We can bet that Donald Trump will walk right into the orchestra pit every night between now and election day. And we can also bet that a compliant media will eat it up. The question is how the Biden campaign and the Democrats respond.
If the question voters are forced to ask in this race is, “Is Donald Trump a good person?” many will say no or simply not care and step into the voting booth and cast their ballot for him.
Democrats need to put a new question before voters. For the last two cycles we have relied on people voting against Trump. It is time to aggressively put forth an agenda that people can vote for.
The truth is, in his failure to govern in this moment of multiple crises, Trump has given his opponents the opportunity to put forth an economic agenda that gives voters something to vote for. Republicans have steadfastly blocked aid in the time of a killer pandemic. The government could provide that aid. Food banks are still being overwhelmed by those who are going hungry. A new administration could put the necessary funding in place to make sure people can feed their families. Millions have lost their employer-provided health coverage. A credible opposition could present this as the time to make health care a universal right. California is in flames. We could fight climate change with a Green New Deal.
But thus far in the campaign Democrats have focused on the case that Joe Biden is a “nice guy” — he won’t send nasty tweets or govern through social media posts. He was kind to Amtrak conductors and the elevator operator at the New York Times. But the election is not in fact a popularity contest, and Mr Congeniality won’t necessarily win.
A few months ago, Biden and his team were claiming his administration would be a fifth term for FDR. It’s time they start making good on those promises.