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The Vermin Libel And The Danger Of Forgetting
American memories may be short, but we're not doing all we can to lengthen them
By now you probably know the story.
First, Donald Trump threatened to “root out” all of us like “vermin.” He read those remarks from a teleprompter, which means he didn’t just blurt out something repugnant in the heat of the moment—he considered the repugnant idea at length and decided to run with it.
From there it fell to the campaign press corps to take note of the remark and decide how urgently to cover it. It’s safe to assume that if Joe Biden had called his political opponents “vermin,” reporters would’ve picked up on it right away and fanned it into an enormous controversy, not because they’re politically biased against Biden, but because a comment like that would be so out of character for him. Over eight years, journalists have grown desensitized to Trump and it’s weakened the mental muscles they must maintain to notice and respond to newsworthy developments.
The first New York Times headline, now infamous, read “Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in a Very Different Direction.” Other major outlets didn’t get around to covering the vermin libel until well into the weekend.
But the organic outcry had a real impact. The followup reporting has been clear and sharp about the historical resonances. Reporters breathed new life into the story even before Democratic leaders had taken the requisite step of expressing outrage. Semafor reports that the Trump campaign is privately worried about the political toll of landing in a rogues gallery with Hitler and Mussolini.
Biden finally weighed in Wednesday night, though he broke his silence at a fundraiser in California, where cameras were not rolling. “It echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s,” he warned. "Folks, we can't fail. We can't fail to treat the threat that he poses. I mean, we can't."
Cameras or no, the angst in Biden’s comments pulses off the transcript. But the question now—as days turn into weeks, and fresh stories vie for our attention—is whether this will be a passing kerfuffle, or one Republicans, as long as they support Trump, can never live down.
GUNS VERMS AND STEEL
Reporters have no shortage of Trump outrage porn to cover, and if Democrats can’t differentiate the vermin libel as something that transcends his more typical offenses, it will fade like most of the others. That’s the main source of my small misgivings over the couch-fainting, pearl-clutching way liberals have responded to it. “Ack, Hitler said that!” True enough, he did. But every reference to Hitler comes fraught not just with the repugnance of his words and deeds, but with danger and fear—of invasion, and war, and death camps. It grants Trump the air of menace he wants to cultivate. He and everyone in his orbit derive juvenile pleasure when good people flinch at their provocations. They are much less happy when they get caught taking things too far. That’s when the artifice falls away, and they clam up like bullies who realize they’ve antagonized someone who can kick their asses. That’s when they start turning on each other.
So what could Democrats say or do to transform the vermin libel into a red line? Why is it that, seven years later, the word “deplorables” remains a galvanizing term for Republicans and an embarrassment for Democrats? Was it that Republicans recoiled in fear that Hillary Clinton might tie up the deplorables and send them down a river in a basket? Or was it that they used it to undermine her claim to want to be president for all Americans—and then kept saying that?
Clinton fairly but unwisely described Trump’s most bigoted supporters as “deplorables” on a Friday evening. That Monday, Trump responded, “She revealed herself to be a person who looks down on the proud citizens of our country as subjects for her rule,” and insisted, in deep projection, that anyone with “contempt in your heart for the American voter" should not run for president.
I think Democrats can exploit the vermin libel in much the same way. So that there’s no forgetting, even after Trump’s gone. But they have to want to.
We spend a lot of our time around here talking about the tactics and strategies that might beat Trump, but I think we can best evaluate them not by testing how well they poll or whether they align with median-voter preferences but by assessing whether they’ll effectively slow or stall this process of forgetting. Trump has already disgraced himself 100 times over, the key is to make those betrayals, or even just a handful of them, feel raw.
Democrats might lose this twilight battle to drive Trump out of the body politic, and if they do, they’ll scour the devastation for the governing failure or political error that did them in. Was it inflation? Was it “wokeism”? Was it Biden’s age? But if it happened today, my money would be on this explanation: Their choices and emphases allowed the human process of forgetting to proceed as normal. And that in turn has allowed Trump to gain advantage, or narrow his disadvantage, on things like temperament and fitness for office that should be his defining liabilities.
Fifty-four percent of respondents to the November New York Times/Siena poll, which drove a party-wide panic earlier this month, said Donald Trump had the “mental sharpness to be an effective president.” Only 35 percent said the same of Biden..
True, but: Why did that happen? Was it inevitable? If it wasn’t inevitable, shouldn’t Democrats have labored harder to keep memories fresh, since, unattended, they are short? And now that the forgetting is underway, how much damage has been done? Is it reversible? Can a professional campaign and a few well-produced ads jog memories that have faded over three years?
I’m actually staking a lot of hope on the answer to that last question being “yes.” The trauma and scars of the Trump presidency are real, which means mass forgetting should be slower, harder. When he’s tormenting us nonstop again, people will remember. Or at least I hope they will.
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But the tools Democrats will likely use to rekindle memory—focus, passion, maybe even humor—are the same ones that could have arrested the initial forgetting. Over time and in silence, atrocities grow foggy and our anger over them dulls. Relived, they can become indelible, like they just happened yesterday.
That’s why, from the moment Republicans decided to acquit Trump of his second impeachment, Democrats should have made him and his presidency the central villains of the Biden years. It can be a mistake to turn the page just because you’ve won. Even when losers concede defeat, which Trump never has, winners often seek truth and reconciliation. Sometimes there’s value in fighting the last war, and winning it again. And again. And again. The more effort they’d devoted to recounting and probing all the horrible things Trump did—not just January 6, but the petty corruption, the lying, the caged children, the injecting bleach—the more present they’d feel today.
But this is just another way of saying political leaders have great influence over what people think is important. And it applies as much to the present as the past.
SAUCE FOR THE ‘GANDA
“Trump is more mentally fit for the presidency than Biden” is a false contagion of an idea, and it can only spread through a combination of lost knowledge (about Trump) and new impressions (about Biden).
Biden’s enemies have gone to great lengths to foster those impressions, and spread them. Democrats have done much less work to preserve our collective memory of the Trump years.
If the net effect of those decisions is to turn the question of fitness for the presidency on its head, why couldn’t it also upend our perception of other things? Those same Trump loyalists have gone to similarly great lengths to spread the idea that the Biden economy is tattered and miserable; most Democrats have shied away from directly refuting that assertion for fear of seeming insensitive to a struggling minority. Coincidentally, a strong public consensus has emerged in favor of the idea that the economy is bad when (broadly speaking, for most people) it is very strong.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not.
The consensus could just as easily reflect the effectiveness of propaganda—mostly on the right, but some on the left—over material reality, and the Democrats’ acquiescence to it.
So what is to be done? If the tools required to make the vermin libel a lasting liability for Republicans include repetition, and the tools required to remind people that Trump is a crook and a lunatic include repetition, what’s the best way to introduce people to the idea that the economy is much stronger than public opinion suggests?
If Democrats interpret public opinion to mean they should be delicate about their economic messaging, that they should reinforce the primacy of people’s struggles, they will in essence feed the false perception, and compound the problem. Why do that work for the people who want to beat you?
But if the right move is to contest public opinion in the realm of ideas, it means politics is more about information warfare and less about governing excellence than we might like. I believe this because I’ve spent half of a life-long journalism career watching elections turn on bullshit. But I think even skeptics recognize it when it takes a toll, as it often does, in other countries.
The notion that political popularity is a variable that’s highly dependent on the trajectory of material conditions is very reductive. Obviously it’s better to succeed than to fail, and it’s easier to husband public approval in prosperity than in recession. But what people expect of their political leaders is constructed socially, not an inherent property of the human mind. Russian public opinion does not appear to be tightly linked to material conditions. Public opinion in Mexico doesn’t seem to turn on conditions there either, and it makes sense as a theoretical matter that people in societies with incompetent governments will lose faith in the idea that politics is about improving material conditions, and start making their assessments of leaders based on other things.
In the Republican nation of America, where government is and should be incompetent, perceptions of the economy have become a pure proxy for partisanship, good when the president is on team red; bad when on team blue.
We’re evolving into the propaganda society we imagined we were too advanced to become.
PASS THE BLUNT
This may be an insoluble problem (though if any progressive billionaires want me to take a stab at solving it, my Venmo is easy to find). But even if it can be solved, Democrats will for now have to shape opinion through the system as it exists. They could attempt this by scampering to address every last economic indicator that isn’t pointed the right direction, and maybe they should. I’d never fault an officeholder for trying to make people’s lives better. But they’ll have more success moving the arrows of public opinion by transmitting opinion than they will by transmitting money.
It’s admittedly hard at this point. Can you even go viral on TikTok being cringe about Joe Biden’s Roaring 20s? I don’t know. But for Biden and his top surrogates, I’d suggest: Say what you mean bluntly on the topics you want people to care about. Don’t outsmart yourself. Don’t let your paranoid suspicions about how your opponents will react or your fears about playing into their traps overcomplicate the task of conveying simple ideas.
If you think the vermin libel disqualifies Trump, say so. It’s a much simpler way to introduce the idea than comparing Trump to Hitler and hoping the masses a) agree with the comparison and b) decide it is disqualifying on their own. The economic message should be similarly blunt. “We’ve built the best American economy in 70 years, after Trump destroyed the last one.”
More than any particular poll or paper liability, I worry about the way the party strains to explain Donald Trump’s enduring strength as a candidate against Joe Biden. The kids call it cope, but whatever it tells us about the state of the Democratic psyche, it also suggests something much worse—that strategic weaknesses keep going unaddressed.
For the weeks and months following Donald Trump’s campaign announcement, the whipping boy was inflation. When the government tamed inflation, it became an under-theorized “lag” in public sentiment about the economy. When polls suggest Biden’s age explains his poor polling, we’re told the point is moot because Donald Trump is also old. When Biden trailed Trump in the late summer, we were reminded that Barack Obama also trailed in head-to-head polling at the same point in 2011. Now that it’s November, we’re due for a new hypothesis.
Those who insist good policy is destiny will try to find it in economic data. For most of my career, they embraced the view that job and GDP growth were skeleton keys to political success. They continued making that argument under Biden until it ceased to be true, at which point they insisted it was inflation, then specifically gas prices, then a hangover effect from inflation, then housing prices. You can call it a curve fitting exercise, I think of it as Dems trying to tug carpeting into every corner of a room that’s too big. The missing piece is storytelling.