Acerbic philanthropist billionaire Mike Bloomberg was surging in the polls and enjoying positive attention going into the Nevada caucuses, largely because of his clever insults against Donald Trump. His campaign put out lots of sharp tweets and snarky ads trolling Trump on social media, and issued statements taunting Trump over his spray tan, his fake hair, his obesity, and how his New York friends called him “a carnival barking clown” behind his back. The media paid lots of attention to these digs, and Bloomberg came into the Las Vegas debate riding high. But then he ran into the verbal buzz saw that is Elizabeth Warren.
Coming off her failures in Iowa and New Hampshire, an obviously desperate Warren just started kneecapping everyone, starting with Bloomberg. Her opening salvo: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against. A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” She attacked Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden for being too moderate, but couched it in the form of a somewhat juvenile character attack: “Amy and Joe’s hearts are in the right place, but we can’t be so eager to be liked by Mitch McConnell that we forget how to fight the Republicans.” She assailed Pete Buttigieg for having “a Powerpoint,” not “a plan” on healthcare. And she insulted Amy Klobuchar’s healthcare proposal by saying, “And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-it note: ‘Insert plan here.’” BUH-DUM-BUM!
Warren’s “if Don Rickles were a liberal law professor” shtick worked. Immediately following the debate, she raised a record amount of money for a 24-hour period, and she became top of mind in the media. Supporters breathlessly hailed her as “a fighter,” who showed how she would “mop up the floor” with Donald Trump in a debate. This was the reaction she hoped to provoke; indeed, she opened her closing statement by saying, “I grew up fighting.”
What does all this so-called “fighting” mean? It means Democrats have stooped to the level of Donald Trump. Rather than choosing a candidate with the best policies and ideas, we are apparently choosing the nominee who has the best zingers.
Leading Democrats are trying to compete in the arms race of insults, rather than focusing voters on their own positive vision on how to lead the nation. Arguably, this just reflects the socially toxic age we’re living in. We are embittered by electronic devices. Social media breeds and magnifies bad behavior. In the online war of snarky comments and sarcastic memes, the social networks elevate antagonism and reward cruelty, incentivizing people to be combative and mean. Many of our political candidates are the most highly evolved versions of bad actors we see (and, often, are) every day on our screens.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Insult-driven politics is a cowardly surrender to the Trumpian ideas that negativity is power, and that belligerence is leadership. In a coarsened and corrosive culture, Trump came in and held up a fun-house mirror to an ornery and disaffected populace. People’s generalized anger was reflected back at them in the distorted form of political grievance. Trump took their unhappiness and threw a political costume on it, giving frustration and hostility a political identity. Trump also projected an image that many subconsciously identified as their own: mean, domineering, and dismissive of others who were or seemed different (Muslims and Spanish speakers, for example). For so many bullies and malcontents in our midst, Trump embodied their rage, and he became their voice.
Trump felt their hate, because he’s a person who hates. He gave voice to their negativity, because he’s a fundamentally negative person. Many people saw themselves in Trump, so they ignored the obvious falsity of his promises, and the red flags of character that any objective observer would have found disqualifying.
The scariest thing about Trump’s presidency is the notion that Trump is us. Democrats should nominate a different type of person, rather than trying to out-Trump Trump. By throwing barbs to gain political capital, Democrats like Bloomberg and Warren are stooping to Trump’s level. Rather than rising above Trump’s antics; they are just trying to be better and cleverer antagonists than Trump. And we are all the poorer for it.