Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 22 March 2024


Once again Donald Trump’s enemies do him a favour

The Times

A few months ago, Jim Messina, a political consultant who helped to guide Barack Obama to two presidential election victories and then, in a move that speaks volumes about the modern-day Conservative Party, glided effortlessly across the Atlantic to similarly assist David Cameron, expressed frustration at his fellow Democrats’ growing panic about their prospects in the forthcoming US election. “We are all f***ing bedwetters,” he told Politico.

This was startling news. We are familiar with Joe Biden’s advanced years, but the revelation that the entire Democratic Party was now suffering from involuntary nocturnal micturition received surprisingly little media attention.

In fact the diagnosis got no coverage at all. Everyone naturally chose to interpret the Democratic guru’s remarks exactly as they were meant — a colourful if slightly vulgar figure of speech designed to convey and ridicule the mental state of his fellow Democrats. Anyone who has ever heard a political figure speak will be familiar with the fact that much of the language used is figurative, from the medical to the maritime to the meteorological to the martial.

But this week Politico took a different approach to the interpretation of political rhetoric. Donald Trump, speaking at the weekend in Detroit, which most people will know is the historic home of the US car industry, claimed to an audience that included many car workers that if he, with his planned measures to protect the sector, lost in November it would be a calamity for the industry and his listeners’ jobs.


“We’re going to put a 100 per cent tariff on every single [foreign-made] car… Now if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the whole country; that’s going to be the least of it.” This time the ability of Politico’s journalists to distinguish between literal and figurative speech deserted them. “Trump says country faces bloodbath if Biden wins in November”, ran its headline on the story.

Politico wasn’t alone. Almost every major media outlet played the story the same way. Trump was issuing a dark warning that if he lost there would be mass violence on the streets, the nation’s rivers foaming with blood as his jackbooted followers unleashed havoc on the nation.

It was obvious what Trump was saying, but all but a handful of his opponents refused to acknowledge that his words were a characteristically hyperbolic prediction of economic conditions rather than call for mass slaughter. Politely, we might call this media treatment a kind of selective literalism. Less politely, we can call it what it is — lying. And it explains perhaps better than anything why Donald Trump, despite his many evident flaws, continues to be such a potent political force.

God knows, the man says enough outlandish and disturbing things. And yet somehow the media crowds just can’t resist the temptation to take almost everything he says and portray it as an explicit threat to life, liberty and happiness. So consumed are they with their self-appointed role of telling us what to think that they have to make up things to illuminate it.

From his famous “good people on both sides” remark about the riots in Charlottesville in 2017, in which he was supposedly expressing approval for neo-Nazis (he wasn’t) to the claim that he urged people to drink bleach to cure Covid-19 (he didn’t) to the reports that he said if he were elected he would tell Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” with Nato countries (he didn’t), they can’t help themselves.


This overreach is true of almost all Trump’s enemies, and was also on display this week with the latest developments in the endless succession of legal cases he faces. Again, to be sure, you don’t need to be a critic of Trump’s to think it highly likely that the man has spent years barely dodging the criminal and civil law. But his enemies can’t help themselves from destroying their credibility with their own excess.

Letitia James, the Democratic attorney-general of New York State, gleefully announced she would start seizing Trump’s real-estate properties if he can’t come up with a bond to cover the amount of the fine handed down by a court for supposedly inflating the value of his assets to obtain loans while he appeals against the decision. All but the most extreme of anti-Trump zealots think the $454 million fine was way over the top for the seriousness of the alleged wrongdoing in which there were no victims. When they see a judgment like this handed down by an elected Democratic judge at the behest of an elected Democratic prosecutor they see politicised overkill.

The particular tragic irony of course is that their extreme efforts to twist the truth and bend the law undermine the very values Trump’s media and political enemies claim to be defending. Posing as arbiters of truth and justice, defenders of virtue and morality, guardians of democracy, they actually subordinate all these ideals to their own political agenda.

When reporters and editors insist that Trump is a lying scumbag who desecrates the truth, and then they themselves mislead, misdirect, and yes, lie about him, they corrupt the very case they are making. When lawyers present themselves as defenders of the sanctity of the law, indomitable protectors of justice, and then twist the law and distort the facts, they erode faith in the judicial system itself.

And if that isn’t enough to get his enemies to rethink their ways, consider this: the more they overreach, the more it helps Trump in the polls. For success in politics, having the right friends is always helpful. But having the right enemies is absolutely essential. In this, as in so many other aspects of his life, Trump is an undeserving, lucky man.

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