The last few days have seen continuing discussion of Donald Trump’s being seduced into responding to his leftist opposition’s personal slams and slurs against him -- which, incidentally, are not confined to alleged sexual indiscretions. A good many people, including Republican Party elites and Trump’s own campaign advisers, have long and consistently suggested that he should not answer such slurs, and that doing so is but a sign of his own self-absorbed, narcissistic ego. They maintain that he should, instead, stick to the issues and remain “on message” -- because hey, the issues are the things that are causing such extensive destruction to the country.
It is not an unreasonable point -- particularly during an election campaign whose winner will succeed a man who is the most self-absorbed president in living memory; a good many people have had enough of that. But in an on-air call to Rush Limbaugh this week, Trump responded this way to Rush’s asking him about the matter:
...when people say things that are fabrication -- you know, there were fabricated stories made up, these were fabrications. You know what I'm talking about.Out of nowhere. And this was just like, if you remember, where they said, you know, with the rallies where they hired thugs to go into my rallies, well, I think they hired other people to do other things.
I would rather, Rush, fight it, even though most people say you shouldn't do that. But if you fight it, at least you're telling the truth. At least the word is out that, you know, you're innocent of these charges or stating you're innocent. But other people say stay on jobs, stay on Obamacare and repealing and replacing it, et cetera. So I guess it's two theories. I would rather fight it, but everyone says you shouldn't do that, just go along.
So Trump understands explicitly that there is virtue in fighting back, and implicitly that people are longing for someone who will do so -- someone like him -- even though they may not quite pinpoint it that way. I think he is onto something serious with that one, and I will tell you why.
Most people understand that one of the Republican establishment’s most pervasive problems with its own constituency is its perceived unwillingness to fight back against relentless attacks from the progressive left and its Democratic Party cohorts -- consider, for example, those who accused George W. Bush of fabricating the cause for the Iraq War. What that establishment does not seem to understand, though, is the extent to which people see these attacks on both the officials they elected and their policies as comprising attacks on the people themselves.
Bush refused to respond to political attacks against him during the Iraq War, and to attacks on its rationale. When Karl Rove advised him to refrain from responding to such attacks so as not to “relitigate the past,” Bush pursued his own policies diligently but remained quiet in the face of these political attacks -- which, as a result, grew in both intensity and hostility.
In refusing to respond to the attacks against him, Bush was also failing to see that the attacks were not only against him. They were also against the American military that was fighting a foreign war under his command and against those large numbers of the American people who supported both the American military and Bush himself in that effort. Instead, he allowed all those citizens of this country who supported him in undertaking removal of a threat, and its soldiers who labored in harm’s way, to twist in the wind as the rhetorical targets they, too, thereby became. Even in his storied and celebrated reverence for the military he commanded, Bush failed to see the damage he was inflicting upon them in such a breach.
Bush’s response to the Iraq War slanders is but one example of a situation Republican establishment elites have consistently failed to recognize. They are representatives -- either elected themselves, or appointed by those who are elected. They are hence functionaries in our constitutional republic -- but so are those who elected them. This country’s government is not, after all, a mere show put on for an audience. Likewise, elections are not box offices where viewers buy tickets by casting votes. American voters are, instead, citizen-participants. A significant number of these participants have come to see Donald Trump as the only presidential candidate who understands and accepts the real-world-participation nature of national-level American politics, and who might reasonably be expected to represent them rather than merely to use them.
So Trump is not responding to attacks by ignoring them in favor of continuing a theatrical script other people, people on the professional production crew, hand him. He is fighting back, and against specifics. And contrary to the standard political approach, he is not pretending to fight for his supporters. Instead, and as his supporters understand, he is fighting with them -- because they have all been, and continue to be, targets. The customary issues are not the only things that are causing such extensive damage to this country. The battle plan itself is destructive -- because the people themselves are its target. The increasing, and increasingly energized, numbers of Trump’s supporters understand this, both implicitly and explicitly. And they are, consciously or not, adopting Abraham Lincoln’s memorable formulation in response to criticism for placing Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union forces during the Civil War: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”