Americans may never rid ourselves of our collective need to narrate political conflict in military terms. Everything must be understood as a pitched battle between two clear opposing sides. This is not an especially illuminating way of looking at things—nor does it meaningfully narrate the messiness of the present. Still, for years now, media narratives have tended to flatten complicated dynamics into the simpler concept of battle. And Trump’s presidency has supercharged this tendency: His conduct is regularly described via words and metaphors that connote virility and warlike might. It’s a puzzling way to characterize a man in his 70s who’s sufficiently wimpy enough that he allegedly doesn’t fire people himself, and who alternates his eruptions of bravado with sulky retreats whenever he’s in a direct confrontation. The fact remains, however, that Trump is seldom credited with merely having said something. Instead, he “assails.” He “reasserts.” He “cracked down,” “ripped into” his enemies, and conducted “multifront wars.” These narrative decisions effectively launder his flaws: his poor judgment, his fits, his inconsistency, his moodiness—these, along with his ignorance and sulks, get rescripted as proofs of his masculine strength.
I finally wrote about this strange tendency several months ago because I fear it does real damage to our understanding of the world we live in now. Those metaphors and vivid verbs aren’t merely frivolous and imprecise in ways that favor our love of drama over fidelity to the facts; they also betray our lizard-brain instincts about power. Among other things, they show how easy it is for men to get credited with qualities we subconsciously associate with warriors at the top of their game—even when the men in question are old or confused or soft. It’s easy to understand why this happens. It is basically the bread and butter of both patriarchy and YouTube: Put any two pundits on television to argue and you’ll end up with two videos of exactly the same footage labeled, “X DESTROYS Y!” and “Y DECIMATES X!”
Trump’s opposition has struggled to counter the cultural impulse to find things impressive when they’re large and repetitive and loud. Trump’s messaging is hard to fight because it exploits our underlying biases about how gender and power and dominance line up. I’ve been encouraged to see small signs of progress—yesterday the Washington Post characterized Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi as a “squabble,” which has the merit of being accurate while managing not to imbue Trump’s barks about border security with gladiatorial magnificence. But the problem persists: Plenty of other headlines have him “vowing” and “threatening” because many news organizations still think “powerful writing” reduces to “active verbs.”
In their attempts to counter Trump’s messaging, Democrats are working with a stacked linguistic deck and a basket of bad ideas. Their efforts thus far—as my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out—have not been great. When Pelosi said in June that the Supreme Court had become the Supreme Corp., everyone groaned. “Horrifying wordplay,” Mathis-Lilley called it, correctly. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good when you’re punchy after hours of brainstorming and get an idea in your kitchen. Other Dem efforts have been equally weak. Chuck Schumer’s “Make America Sick Again” failed as so many feeble attempts at re-appropriation do: It’s not just derivative—it ends up proving the verve and appeal of the original concept.
If Trump, unlike the Democrats, is good at finding short phrases to repeat, it’s also true that his tactics haven’t all been winners. Like the Democrats, Trump is actually at his weakest when he’s using someone else’s comedic formula. For instance, in August, Trump faux-endorsed Nancy Pelosi, citing her effort to “take down the Democrat Party.” “Democrats, please do not distance yourselves from Nancy Pelosi. She is a wonderful person whose ideas & policies may be bad, but who should definitely be given a 4th chance,” he tweeted, sarcastically. If that feels a little wobbly, it should: It’s not quite Trump. He was imitating House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who in 2016, just after the election, did much the same thing: “I’m rooting for Nancy!” McCarthy joked. “She may have more support in our conference than her own conference.”
The way Pelosi handled that joke back in 2016 speaks to the different audiences these sorts of exchanges are implicitly addressing. Her spokesman, Drew Hammill, tweeted the following response: “I think Congressman McCarthy has demonstrated in multiple ways his inability to measure the support of his colleagues #AlmostSpeaker.” Now, if you know what he’s talking about, that’s actually a fairly solid burn. The trouble is that most people on Twitter, and in America, didn’t. The missing context there is that McCarthy didn’t have the votes to become speaker after Boehner resigned. He couldn’t get 218 Republican votes to support him. GET IT?
Hammill’s joke is pointed and personal: It’s meant to make McCarthy feel bad about his underperformance based on fairly wonky procedural details that McCarthy and Pelosi understand. But it isn’t a public burn; it isn’t legible to the American people, who don’t keep track of those things. So it doesn’t count as a “win.” People were just confused.
No one was more surprised than I was, therefore, when arguably the most satisfying recent rebuke of Trump came from Pelosi. Of her last words to Trump about preventing a government shutdown, Pelosi simply said, “I asked him to pray over it.” It wasn’t punchy or sarcastic. Coming from a woman with considerable negotiating power, she gave the impression, at least while she was saying it, of being sincere. It sounded like a simple statement of fact, an earnest expression of their shared public interest with only the thinnest trace of disdain.
If you can stop thinking about political exchanges in military terms for a second, it’s easier to appreciate the reason Pelosi’s maneuver works. It’s not, in the obvious sense, combative. It’s a thoroughly anodyne statement whose corrosive edge takes a minute or so to sink in. It appears to accept Trump’s claim that he’s a man of faith. Pelosi, despite the considerable power she holds, positions herself here as exactly the kind of supplicant Trump likes, particularly when they’re women. She’s not telling him but asking him, and what she’s asking him to do is something he says he does: pray. Anyone reading that line will supply the requisite snort of disbelief, and that’s the point: This is a collaborative burn, one that requires the listener to supply her own analysis of the target. The best insults don’t spoon-feed you the conclusion; that’s why Pelosi’s subsequent jokes about Trump’s masculinity—“It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing”—don’t land nearly as well. Of course, that was in a private meeting for Democrats. But you pitch your jokes to the audience you care about.
The Washington Post describing that episode as merely a “squabble” was a kind of progress. So was Pelosi’s wry invocation of Trump’s professed faith. But there are probably no big breakthroughs at play here. The media has been slow to learn important lessons about how to narrate Trump, and Democrats keep backsliding into old strategies that only show how much worse they are at petty combat than Trump is. Take Pelosi’s groaner of a line, maybe coasting off her victory: “It goes to show you—you get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”