The weird, short Oprah boomlet earlier this year underscored the dilemma for Trump’s opponents. Is the lesson of his rise that one should resolutely stick to the high road, avoiding all semblance of Trump? Or is the trick to co-opt Trump’s tactics, while opposing his goals?
Savagely ad-hominem jokes, conspiracy theories, over-the-top anger, potty mouths: Whether consciously or not, the people mentioned here have adopted Trumpian tactics and language. There are actually two separate, related dynamics at play. One is the tendency to get into the mud with Trump and wrestle him there. The second is the feeling that one must meet fire with fire when the nation faces an existential threat. Rhetorical extremism in the defense of Lady Liberty is no vice, more or less.
The problem with either of these theories is that there’s not much evidence they work. Perhaps the original attempt to turn the Trump playbook around on Trump was Marco Rubio, who infamously decided to mock his then-rival for the GOP nomination in late February 2016.
“He’s always calling me Little Marco. And I’ll admit, he’s taller than me—he’s like 6’2”. Which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who’s 5’2”,” Rubio said. “And you know what they say about men with small hands … You can’t trust ‘em!”
Rubio did get results—days later, Trump bragged about the size of his penis on stage at a Republican presidential debate—but not the results he wanted. Two weeks after the first comments, he dropped out of the race, and in May he told CNN he had apologized to Trump.
“I actually told Donald—one of the debates, I forget which one—I apologized to him for that,” Rubio said. “I said, ‘You know, I’m sorry that I said that. It’s not who I am and I shouldn’t have done it.’”
This is the power Trump has: He manages to turn even those who are not him into him, at least a little bit.
What Brennan and Comey, in some of his more serious moments, are doing is different. It’s an attempt to rouse a populace they believe is insufficiently alarmed. The problem is that bombastic rhetoric is a Trump staple, too. In 2017, Michael Morrell, who was acting CIA director before Brennan, expressed some reservations about his own decision to speak out against Trump during the election, and how that might have poisoned relations between Trump and the intelligence community.
This is a real pickle: If, like Comey, you believe that Trump is an existential threat to American values, you can’t hold back; but if you speak out forcefully you risk appearing strident or alarmist or over-the-top, prone to the same histrionics as Trump himself. (“Attorney-client privilege is dead!” “Much of the media is a Scam!”)
No one has solved this quandary yet. Trump not only degrades the level of discourse through his own words, but induces others to sink to his level. Once there, however, they don’t often win. Being seen as engaging in petty bickering does harm to James Comey, with his reputation as a sober public servant. Paradoxically, even though Donald Trump is president of the United States, he has established his persona such that even nastier, more absurd insults from his mouth do nothing to hurt his own reputation. They are not presidential, but they might be “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”