There is no Magic Bullet

I was sitting in an airport last night, waiting for my connection, refreshing Twitter over and over again on my phone, riveted to what was unfolding with respect to Donald Trump’s tax returns. But I wasn’t excited about the news itself. I was flummoxed at how desperately people seemed to need the impending report of them to contain a bombshell.

The report did not contain a bombshell. We learned that Trump earned $150 million and paid $38 million in income taxes in 2005. This may be interesting and may lead to later, more interesting reporting about Trump’s financial dealings, but it is not the sort of thing that will damage Donald Trump in and of itself. Indeed, I question whether any given revelation regarding Trump’s curiously withheld taxes will ever be as exciting as people want them to be. After all, it’s not like there’s a line on your 1040 that says “Shady payments received from Russian oligarchs $_____” and Trump is unlikely to have included a 1099-MISC from “PutinCorp” in his 2014 return. 

It’s also worth noting that, as far as bombshells go, Trump has survived far greater ones. This is a man who, weeks before the election, was caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault. This is a man who has mocked the disabled. This is a man who has proudly insulted war heroes and families of fallen soldiers. These and many other missteps and mini-scandals would have ended the political careers of almost anyone who came before him, but they did not stop Donald Trump. If we’ve learned anything in the past year, we have learned that a scandal only stops a politician if the politician consents to being ruined via the operation of a basic human sense of shame. That’s something Trump never has and never will possess.

All of which is to say that, contrary to the palpable and in some cases desperate hope of the people I saw waiting for last night’s non-revelation, there is no magic bullet that will bring down Donald Trump. Waiting for one to do so will result in nothing but disappointment. 

Part of this is due to Trump’s shamelessness, but only part. A much bigger part of it has to do with Trump’s appeal. He’s an odd sort of populist, but he’s a populist, following the basic populist playbook. He has found a wound common to many. He has told his supporters that he knows they are wounded. He has found others to blame for these wounds and he has demonized them. What’s more, he has told his wounded supporters that some of the evil ones who have helped inflict these wounds will come after him because they are jealous haters and losers who peddle fake information. And last night, as they have so many times before, they came for him. Rachel Maddow could’ve held up a signed and notarized 1040 form that had “I, Donald Trump, did 9/11!!” scrawled on it in red crayon, and would not force the sort of end game of Trump’s power that so many seem to want set into motion.

We know this because the politics of personal discreditation have never worked against populist despots. As Andrés Miguel Rondón wrote in the Washington Post back in January, the Venezuelan opposition tried this with Hugo Chávez for years. They attempted to point out Chávez’s villainy and repugnance, believing that his supporters would see the light, but they didn’t. They tried a campaign based on personal contempt, but it fell on deaf ears. Eventually they tried boycotts and coups, all of which, in their own way, are magic bullet strategies similar to those which people opposed to Trump hope will end his madness, even if they are more extreme. They never worked there and they will not work here. 

They’ll never work because human beings — especially ones primed with a populist message like Trump’s — are conditioned to fight off enemies, perceived or otherwise. If you are coming at them or if you are coming after someone they love, they will assume a defensive posture and do whatever it takes to repel the attack. It’s a totally understandable response with millions of years of selection behind it. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are all still basically tribal beings and we will ignore the faults and failings of the members of our own tribe when they are subject to external attack. Even if it’s a modern day, high-tech attack conducted over cable television or the Internet. 

None of which is to say that defeating Trump is hopeless. It’s simply to say that the opposition will not prevail by defeating Trump himself, especially via the workings of some magic bullet. We will prevail by defeating his agenda and his policies.

We will prevail by persuasion. Basic political persuasion, effected not by theoretical or philosophical argument or by the claim, implicit or otherwise, that his supporters are stupid or have been duped, but by the simple marshaling of facts and data which demonstrate that Trump’s policies are bankrupt and will harm those who he claims to be serving in concrete and quantifiable ways. We will prevail, not by casting ourselves as righteous and those who disagree with us as wicked, but making and supporting a claim that some policy outcomes are good and some are bad, why that is so, and that Trump’s will lead to more bad outcomes. 

We will prevail, not by defeating a tribe or, in Trump, a tribal leader, but by demonstrating, in both our words and our deeds, that we are not from different tribes at all. By showing that there is not “The Regime” and “The Resistance” and that there is not a “Real America” and whatever the name is for the fictional locale non-Trump voters are presumed to inhabit. That we are all a part of the same tribe — the same nation — and that defeating Trump’s agenda is not a matter of civil war or hostile takeover but a matter of basic family business. That Trump is not the only choice available for tribal leader.

Demonstrating that more people will suffer via a given policy decision may be less exiting than gathering around our TVs, computers and phones waiting for a big, shocking reveal. Doing the legwork to show that a given law or regulation is less preferable than another is far less thrilling than the anticipation we get for a press conference from a U.S. attorney, the Director of the FBI or some producer or starlet who has decade-old dish on Donald Trump. Reaffirming our values, stating our goals and charting the best practical course to honor and achieve them may be mundane business, but that stuff will discredit Trump and get us out of this mess far more quickly and effectively than breaking (!), exclusive (!) investigatory reports from some Anti-Trump I-Team.

Part of me hopes that some damning fact or startling revelation will spark something in either the populace or in the conscious of Donald Trump that will stop the madness into which our country seems to have descended and, obviously, any information we learn about Trump and his dealings is relevant and potentially important. But I am not holding my breath. Magic bullets are, by definition, magic, and actual magic is pretty damn rare. I’d much rather place my faith in hard work and the people who do it than waiting for some kind of miracle. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.