Hank Minor: On "Donnie"

Sunday, November 5, 2017 - 5:57pm

There’s something cathartic about parody, especially when it’s directed toward the politically powerful. Donald Trump is somewhat unique in this respect — not just with regard to Alec Baldwin’s famous appearances as him on SNL, but in the way many Americans have started to talk about him in day-to-day life. Other politicians have, of course, been the target of parody (Sarah Palin and Barack Obama), but none have garnered such sustained and intense ridicule.

This habitual mockery — the use of Drumpf, for example — is becoming something of a legitimate problem. When we engage with the reality of a Trump presidency through these layers of humor and, for lack of a better word, zingers, we blind ourselves to the real climate of our political environment. Americans who prefer a stable head of state would be well-served to be more cautious in the way they talk about Trump.

Mitt Romney won the 2012 Republican primary when I was in eighth grade, much to my disappointment. Looking back on Romney’s stunningly awful general election campaign (remember the 47 percent line?) and right-wing media reactions to this controversy at the time, though, I can’t help but see parallels to the way we’re engaging with Trump in 2016.

There was a sense that Obama was bound to lose, almost regardless of who won the Republican primary. Sure, some had their favorites, but it was in large part a partisan struggle, and the Democrats were stuck with Barack (Hussein!) Obama as their candidate. How could a Kenyan socialist compete with the all-American capitalist? This parody version of Obama, built by factions on the right, became the way Republican opposition and the Romney campaign engaged with their opponent.

This sort of behavior is where the anti-Trump faction in American politics has miscalculated. Building a caricature of Trump and engaging with it, instead of the actual man, might have some psychological benefit in enabling Trump’s opponents to cope with his often-frightening behavior. The downside, though, is that it skews the national perception of his actual character. No matter how wild or authoritarian his actions become, it fits within the construction. It’ll be Trump, acting the way we assumed he’d act.

Though they could not be more different on a personal level, Obama was treated much the same way in the run-up to 2012. Right-wing media spent at least a day lambasting him for the way he ate a hamburger and for the color of his suit. Glenn Beck treated us to daily doses of madness with his chalkboard. A Romney victory appeared inevitable.

And then he lost 332 to 206.

There are a lot of wonderfully sadistic clips of the meltdown that night — Karl Rove ordering Megyn Kelly to “check (the numbers) again” is a particular highlight — but now I can’t help but see them as eerily prophetic of the left’s own future come 2020, if it’s not careful. There is an immense risk of overconfidence that could enable even a serial incompetent like Donald Trump to secure two terms.

The shock over Romney’s loss came largely from a Republican overindulgence in self-congratulation. The Tea Party had gained a number of House seats in prior elections, the Democrats had been rendered ineffective in the House and Senate, and I guess it was easy to feel that the presidency would be next to fall.

When we constantly refer to Trump and his supporters through a layer of parody — “Trumpkins,” “Drumpf,” “Little Donnie” — we lose the ability to properly evaluate the threat he actually poses (or doesn’t pose). Furthermore, the left, unlike the Tea Party in 2012, isn’t even in power. The delusion that could rise — that I think is rising — from treating Trump like a joke will be even greater.

To be fair, Donald Trump has a much lower approval rating now than Obama did during November of his first year or even before the 2012 election. Legitimate scandal — about Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation — might make some impact, but probably not as much as one might hope considering the significance of the events. Our national reaction to scandal has been numbed, particularly with regard to Trump. I can’t help but think that his perpetual parody is feeding into this by making him more of a character than a political figure.

Three years from now — given nearly a thousand more days of incoherent tweets, controversy and routine scandal — the left might find itself having neglected to run a proper campaign, with improperly calibrated opposition tactics. It’s going up against the fool Donald Drumpf, after all. It seems eminently possible, though, that come November 2020 one will hear a bewildered Democratic Party echoing Republican sentiment in 2012: “But we hated him so much.”

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.