Fortune favors the bully

“I’ve seen various people say, ‘Well this is awful for Trump. He’s missing his opportunity to make his closing argument to Iowa caucusgoers!’ But that’s not getting what’s happening. Maybe this will be a disaster for Trump. But it won’t be because he missed out on 15 minutes of airtime.

The misunderstanding is similar to all the other times over the last six months when observers thought Trump had tripped himself up by violating some political taboo, showing he didn’t understand some basic policy issue or just flat out lying about something in a easily demonstrable way. Focusing on these indicators is like watching an opera and fixating on the libretto rather than the score. Yes, it’s part of what’s happening. But it’s not what’s generating the energy and motion. It’s just a ripple on the surface of a deep sea. How much do you need to know German to get Wagner?

When I first wrote about this a dozen years ago I called it the “bitch slap theory of politics.” I’m no longer comfortable using that phrase. But I do think the heavily gendered, violent nature of that phrase is one of the only ways to really capture the nature of what’s happening in these dramas.

Take Trump’s evisceration of Jeb Bush.

Trump’s comment about Jeb’s being “weak”, “low energy”, “pitiful” … these are demeaning and denigrating phrases. They seem frankly gross, with an emotional tenor we’d expect from street toughs or frat boys trash talking each other. It’s raw and primal and all about dominating by denigrating. But what has really hurt Bush is not so much that Trump is calling him names. It’s that Trump has used these attacks to demonstrate that Jeb is unable or unwilling to defend himself. Trump hits him and Jeb takes it. His responses are hapless and weak and generally meaningless. You probably barely remember them. The impact of this is not tied to Trump calling Bush “weak.” Trump is engineering encounters that show that Bush is weak.”

-Josh Marshall, “The Triumph of the Will”

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