The Atlanta Falcons got to the most important place a football team can ever reach, into the Super Bowl. They took a lead that surprised almost everyone in the United States, including many Falcons fans, against a New England Patriots team that has been a dominant force for years and is led by two people — the greatest coach and the greatest quarterback — ever to play in the NFL. (For the record, as a Broncos fan, it’s not easy for me to say nice things about the Pats.)
Then, by making the understandable but fatal error of believing that the strategy that got them to the game would be the same one to take them through the game, the Falcons squandered what will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for at least some of their players and became the victim of (by far) the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
By continuing to react to approximately everything with angry tweets, shouts of “dishonest media,” personal critiques of judges, and by continuing to refuse to criticize one of America’s most determined and wily enemies, President Donald Trump is already closer than he knows to doing to the same thing to his presidency that the Atlanta Falcons just did to their season, and due to the same error: expecting that previously successful tactics that got him to the presidency are the same ones that will make a success of his presidency.
Mr. Trump’s error is a fundamental but predictable one: By speaking to the vast literal and figurative middle of America in simple terms about issues that “ordinary Americans” care about and feel that government is failing to address, Trump won an improbable victory over a betting-line-favorite foe.
What he seems not to have understood is that once winning election, the target audience for his messages immediately expanded, whether he wanted it to or not, to include members of Congress, foreign leaders, and corporations along with, more important than those companies’ employees or CEOs or shareholders, their tens or hundreds of millions of customers.
Just because Mr. Trump and his supporters would prefer not to consider this new audience doesn’t mean he can, or will, get away with ignoring or antagonizing it. As Pericles put it nearly 2,500 years ago, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Donald Trump’s recent tweets have included attacks on the Seattle-based federal judge who halted implementation of the president’s executive order imposing a temporary travel restriction on citizens of seven countries, including calling him a “so-called judge.” I believe the judge is wrong on the law, but Trump’s style of response is already wearing thin.
Trump has railed against the media for not adequately covering terrorist attacks; included in the list of such under-covered events were the attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, and Nice, each of which was the subject of “saturation coverage,” as one Fox News reporter put it.
And he has suggested that since Barack Obama made a deal with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, it’s OK that he imply that the United States government is on an equal moral plane with Vladimir Putin, a man who invades neighboring countries and orders the assassination of journalists who write negative stories about the Russian tyrant. Indeed, Donald Trump’s reaction to Bill O’Reilly’s questioning about Mr. Putin was the most outrageous and harmful thing I have ever heard come from his mouth, and that’s saying something.
Each of these Trump reactions might appeal to his existing base of support, as they did during the campaign, but they do nothing to further Mr. Trump’s ability to actually govern the United States or to serve as “the leader of the free world.” To the extent that Trump’s behavior emboldens Democrats to attack him and encourages Republicans to keep their distance from him, by sticking with his pre-election strategy Mr. Trump risks kneecapping his presidency from its earliest weeks.
While all of those stories dominated headlines in recent days, however, it is something more under-the-radar that’s become the biggest threat to Donald Trump: the amici curiae brief joined by at least 127 corporations, mostly technology companies, siding with the States of Washington and Minnesota against Trump’s currently stayed executive order.
No matter what you think of any political bias of their CEOs, organizations like Facebook, Uber, Netflix, Etsy, Apple, LinkedIn, HP, Kickstarter, GoPro, Spotify, Pinterest, and Yelp don’t just drive technology; they drive culture.
When known liberals who run some of these companies campaign for Hillary Clinton, their effect is, as shown in November, quite limited. But when nearly every famous American technology company announces in one unified voice that the president’s order is anti-American by being anti-immigrant and that the order poses a substantial threat to the American economy, many Americans will listen in a way they didn’t when this was only about liberal billionaires being liberal billionaires.
These companies must believe, much like impalas who fear the attack of a lion, that there is safety in numbers. They may be right: It’s been interesting to see Donald Trump not react to this direct attack by such prominent corporations. Perhaps he realizes he can’t take on dozens and dozens of companies that are, and will remain, more popular than he is.
If these companies are successful in motivating their customers to be skeptical of, much less in outright opposition to, Donald Trump, Democrats (especially in the Senate) will feel that much more emboldened to obstruct any and every effort of this president. More importantly, Republicans in both the House and Senate might feel the need, for their own political survival, to distance themselves from the president.
To appear anti-immigrant is not going to help President Trump outside of his base, which is, at this point, not where he needs to focus politically to maximize the chances of long-term success. While Mr. Trump himself has in fact argued, albeit with populist overtones, that legal immigration should be maintained at “levels within historic norms,” many of his supporters don’t realize that, and, if they did, they’d disagree with him.
But polls show repeatedly and clearly that Americans, including a majority of Republicans, are not anti-immigrant. Indeed, a majority of Republicans support a path to legal status (but not citizenship) for illegal aliens who have been in the United States for years without committing a crime (other than illegal entry or illegal overstay of a visa).
On Tuesday evening, Senator Tom Cotton, a man who likely has presidential ambitions, introduced legislation to slash legal immigration into the United States. The left-leaning Politico’s headline read: “Cotton and Trump plot crackdown on legal immigration.”
Again, this will please the populist anti-immigrant subsection of the Republican Party and of Trump’s base (I don’t believe that a majority of either would support this bill), but it will turn approximately everybody else in the country — including many Republican politicians — against Mr. Trump as the Democrats and their media pawns portray the administration and Tom Cotton as xenophobes and racists. Some Republicans in the House and Senate will have little choice in their next elections but to run against, or at least away from, Trump, much as some Democrats ran away from Barack Obama in 2012 and 2014. That’s no way to build political capital, and this is a president who desperately needs to build up that savings account.
Donald Trump and other Republican politicians with populist instincts should take careful heed: Trump is much closer than he and his supporters believe to turning too many Americans against him to be able to govern effectively, to achieve many of his campaign’s goals and promises that require the cooperation of Congress, and to lead the Western world against Vladimir Putin and the civilized world’s many other competitors and enemies.
The president’s advisers must get him to realize that the winning campaign strategy is not likely to be the winning governing strategy, a lesson the Atlanta Falcons proved by analogy. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump is a Patriots fan, so I’m not holding my breath that the lesson will be easily learned.
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