Marco Rubio, James Comey, the White House Correspondents’ Association.
These are but a few of the people and institutions who, in trying to discredit Donald Trump, have managed only to disgrace themselves.
It’s one of the most striking phenomena of the Trump era: not only do attacks on him not stick, they rebound on the attacker.
Call it the Teflon boomerang presidency.
Donald Trump has “small hands,” Rubio quipped at a February 2016 rally. “And you know what they say about men with small hands.”
Two weeks later Rubio conceded defeat, and exited the race.
Trump’s face is “slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles,” wrote Comey, who was the previous head of the FBI, in his tell-all high school memoir.
“Donald Trump is contagious,” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty correctly observed. “He turns everyone he touches into Donald Trump. Now he has done it to James B. Comey.”
“Like a porn star says when about to have sex with Trump: let’s get this over with,” said comedian Michelle Wolf as she opened her performance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner on April 28.
Two days later, a news headline in The New York Times read, “Did Michelle Wolf Kill the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?”
So, how has Donald Trump managed to withstand relentless attacks from the most accomplished and capable Democrats, Republicans, journalists, comedians — everyone?
There’s likely more than one answer.
With Rubio, the senator disgraced himself in the purest sense of the word. Here was a polite, well-spoken, honorable senator, who decided to speak like a rude, crass, boorish reality TV star. In dissing Trump, Rubio violated the public image of himself that he himself had constructed.
Trump has no such problem because the image he has crafted is one of a rude, crass, boorish reality TV star. It’s what we expect, so we’re not surprised, or even particularly unsettled when he acts in character.
Anti-Trump news coverage at outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, has, I believe, also had a Rubio effect. These mainstream outlets have long told Americans that they are objective, neutral, and just interested in the facts — character claims that they’ve violated in their undeniable zeal to discredit the president.
Comey, like Rubio, violated the public image of himself that he built over decades. A G-Man with integrity of the highest order cannot imitate Donald Trump and still have integrity. Pick one.
But what about the cases of Steve Bannon, Jeff Flake, and the NFL? None of them, in their showdowns with Trump, lost because of a dissonance between their actions and their carefully constructed public image.
Before Bannon told “journalist” Michael Wolff, “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” the public already saw him as a calculating, even conniving, political operative.
And yet, we’ve barely heard from Bannon since. One reason, particular to Bannon, is that his notoriety was directly related to having Trump’s ear. No ear, no PR. Also, Bannon drew first blood. This gave Trump, in the public’s mind, full rights to hit back. And hit back he did.
Trump’s counter-attack was devastating, savage, and final. He is a schoolyard brawler, and he knows how to cripple his opponents, how to strike where it hurts most.
Which is what he did to the NFL. Trump picked a fight with one of the richest and most beloved institutions in America, and he won because he dictated the terms: the American flag, something most Americans and most NFL fans care about even more than football.
It was a winning issue.
Finally, there’s the Jeff Flake strategy. There may be no more vocal Republican critic of the president in Congress. But his outspokenness is his weakness, and that of so many of the Defenders Of Democracy™ crew — Democrats and #NeverTrump conservatives alike.
They just sound so . . . breathless, even whiny.
“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake said on the Senate floor in January, referring to Trump tweeting that the “FAKE NEWS” New York Times, NBC, ABC, CNN, and CBS are “the enemy of the American people.”
Flake’s hyperbolic speech ended with a hymn from Mormon missionary John Jacques:
Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.
Eye-roll. With enemies like this, Trump doesn’t need allies.
So, if fighting dirty backfired on Rubio and the press, if waxing philosophical makes the public ignore the #Resistance and #NeverTrump, if the president preemptively strikes vulnerable targets and, when attacked first, has the public’s green light to counterstrike, who can win a cage fight against Donald Trump?
He is his only consistently successful opponent.
Americans like a fighter. But they don’t like a bully. And Trump looks like one when he picks the wrong target or punches too hard, or both.
The president’s opponents would do well to follow the advice Corey Lewandowski gave to Republicans:
It’s how he keeps winning. If his story ends as a tragic hero’s would, it’s also how he’ll lose.