Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Maggie Haberman tweeted something a couple of days ago that keeps coming back to me as I peruse the news. She said that a Trump advisor told her that, “the president, whose own approval ratings have stayed upside down, needs voters to feel negatively not just about his opponents but about longstanding institutions.” That was in response to the kind of thing we hear from Trump quite regularly.

It’s not just that Trump doesn’t like what the media reports about him. For years now he’s been doing everything in his power to make voters feel negatively about the entire institution—even going so far as to call them the “enemy of the people.”

Here is another institution that Trump wants to undermine.

As I’ve noted before, the president has referred to our entire justice system as a “laughingstock.” These are all of the institutions that have the capacity to hold Trump accountable. The calculation he’s making is that, if we view those institutions as poorly as we view him, they won’t be able to do their jobs.

As the Trump advisor told Haberman, this is also how he handles his political opponents, which is important to keep in mind heading in to the 2020 election. Whoever becomes the 2020 nominee will face the same attempts from Trump to bring them down to his level.

I very rarely agree with Matt Taibbi, but he recently talked to RJ Eskow on “The Zero Hour” and did an excellent job of analyzing how Trump operates. The first thing he offered was that, in the run up to the 2016 election, most pollsters were suggesting that Trump couldn’t win because his favorability numbers were never high enough to win a majority of registered voters. However, Trump ended up winning voters who viewed both candidates unfavorably by about a two to one margin. That is precisely why one of the president’s advisors told Haberman that Trump needs voters to feel negatively about his opponent.

Taibbi went on to talk about how, during the Republican primary, candidates like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio tried to out-Trump Trump in order to gain traction. Remember how Rubio engaged in a discussion about “hand size” during one of the debates? When the conversation sinks to that level, Trump wins.

We can all rest assured that Trump and his enablers will sling the same kind of mud and innuendo at the 2020 nominee that they threw at Hillary Clinton. They know that it is likely to gain more traction—especially in the media—if it tees off of a complaint that is already present on the left (see: “corrupt Hillary“). If the nominee becomes engaged in dealing with those slurs, the game will be played on Trump’s home turf and he will succeed in once again convincing some voters to view both candidates unfavorably.

The round over Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage is the perfect example of how that works for Trump. Entering Trump’s arena by having her DNA tested played right into his hands, primarily because, for an extended period of time, that was all we heard about Warren in the media. Hopefully, that was a cautionary tale for both Warren and the other candidates.

All of this is why I am a bit skeptical when Democratic candidates try to sell themselves as the best choice to “fight” Donald Trump. If what they mean by that is that they think they can play this game better than the president, they haven’t thought that one through very well. It’s not that Trump is smarter at playing that game, it is that it’s his game and the entire purpose of playing it is to get opponents to go down into the gutter with him. He will always be willing to go lower than anyone else. That is why I agree wholeheartedly with David Roberts.

I really hate the discourse about “who can take on Trump,” like he’s some big, scary monster. He is a sad, flailing fraud, a serial failure enabled by crooks & plutocrats. Mock him. Pity him. But don’t “take him on” by trading insults, it grants him too much credit….

Point is, Trump is not some intimidating tough guy. He’s…an emotional & intellectual toddler who’s been protected from his serial failures by a rigged system…

Debating a toddler doesn’t require courage so much as patience & focus. The toddler will scream & throw his own feces around. But every childcare worker or parent knows the worst thing you can do is engage a toddler on his own level. “No YOU’RE the poopy-head!” The way to expose Trump as an overgrown manbaby is to treat him like one.

If you want an example of how that’s done, here is a reminder of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.

With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models. And let me tell you, Barack and I take that same approach to our jobs as president and first lady because we know that our words and actions matter, not just to our girls, but the children across this country…

And when I think about the kind of president that I want for my girls and all our children, that’s what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere, someone who knows this job and takes it seriously, someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.

Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.

I want a president with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed. And we give back even when we’re struggling ourselves because we know that there is always someone worse off. And there but for the grace of God go I.

I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.

She never once uttered his name, and yet it was clear that, as Michelle described the president she wanted for our children, it was the opposite of Donald Trump. By painting that contrast, Michelle made him look weak and tapped into the values that every American shares about what we want for ourselves, but more importantly, for our children.

Of course, Democrats need a candidate with strong policy proposals that they are able to articulate clearly. But they also need someone who sees Donald Trump’s weakness and refuses to play his game. Rather than getting dragged into the gutter with him, it needs to be someone who can rebuild the story of America from the rubble of a Trump presidency.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.