Saturday, June 30, 2018

It's Not About Civility; It's About Winning


An old friend of mine once told me he had two rules for living. Rule number one, people are assholes. Rule number two, you can't do anything about rule number one. I didn't quite understand what he meant, until I became a salesman.

On one particular day, a customer came into the store and was, shall we say, not in a good mood. Nothing seemed to please him, not my price or the selection of merchandise we had. I decided to get my manager involved. I walked into his office and said, "Rob, I need your help. There's this customer outside who behaving like an asshole."

My manager went out and introduced himself to the customer, asking how he could help him. Twenty minutes later, my manager took over $4000 of that asshole's money and turned him into a satisfied customer. He sold him a Mitsubishi big screen TV and a Bose Lifestyle audio system. He even got the customer to take a five year warranty on the TV.

After the customer left the store, my manager took me into his office and read me out. He told me that "asshole" was a customer and he deserved to be treated with respect. "Every one who walks into this store is a potential customer. Your job is to close them, not call them names. If the only people who came in here were easy customers, I wouldn't need you. I could hire a clerk. While you were bitching about him, I closed him. Closers close, bitchers bitch. Figure out which one you want to be."

Over the twenty plus years that have come and gone since that incident, I have encountered many such "assholes" and, guess what? I closed almost all of them. What I learned was that if I didn't lose my cool and sink to their level, I was able to maintain control of the transaction. I also found something else out: that most people, even the most difficult, are human beings with fears and frustrations just like me. Today in my capacity as a corporate account manager, I service customers from all across the country, many of whom hold political views that are the polar opposite of mine. And, heeding the advice my manager gave me, I continue to take their money.

The reason I tell this story is not to toot my own horn. Lord knows I don't need any help doing that. I tell it because this country is on the brink of a civil war and if we don't snap out of this madness that we're in, things will progress beyond the point where reasonable people will be able to step in and take charge.

I have seen posts on Facebook that have quite frankly alarmed me. People I consider friends are suggesting incredibly foolish things. The word civility has become a punching bag for an aggrieved segment of the population. To paraphrase that famous line from the movie Network, "They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore."

Well I'm mad too; I'm also embarrassed and deeply saddened that this nation, which has known hard times before, is on the brink of a social meltdown the likes of which hasn't been seen since the late 1960s. The tribalism that has infected the body politic is now so thoroughly imbedded, friendships and families have been fractured. I am not an historian, per se, but the parallels to ancient Rome are undeniable.

And the source of this tribalism is none other than Donald Trump. His presidency has been a cancer on this nation from the time he took office, and of that there can be no rational doubt. The animus that people have in their hearts towards him and those who serve in his administration is real and justified. The latest mass shooting that killed five people at a local newspaper in Maryland is directly attributable to the rhetoric that he has consistently employed since he launched his campaign; and that rhetoric has, no doubt, inspired the very worst elements of our society. You don't call the media the enemy of the people and then have the gall to offer up faint prayers when some maniac actually follows through and kills some of them.

Many people have called Trump stupid. In my opinion, that is not an accurate assessment. Yes, he is ignorant and suffers from, among other things, a staggering lack of intellectual curiosity that has not served him well in the Oval Office. But stupid he is not. In fact, politically speaking, he is nothing short of a genius; a mad and cruel genius to be sure, but a genius all the same.

From the moment he descended down that escalator in Trump Tower, he was on to something that no politician could figure out. You see, Trump knew where all our buttons were and he had absolutely no compunction about pushing them. He tapped into 200 years of white rage like a pro. Like the good snake oil salesman he was, he told those people who were in pain that he, and only he, had the cure for what ailed them.

Yes, many of his followers were, and still are, racists, but not all of them. Some were disgruntled blue-collar workers who had been abandoned by the Democratic Party. Some were conservative fundamentalists who were concerned about the Supreme Court. Trump played both those groups like a great violinist plays a Stradivarius. Indeed, the one constant theme of his presidency has been the way he has pandered to all three groups: the incarcerations at the border, the tariffs on foreign manufacturers and his nominations to both the Supreme Court and lower courts, are deliberately designed to keep these voters mollified. From a strictly political perspective, Trump has kept more promises than any president in modern times.

But the chaos and turmoil that has defined his presidency has plunged the country into a morass like nothing we have ever seen. This is not an accident; it is deliberate. David Graham in The Atlantic thinks he knows why. For lack of a better explanation, Trump needs crises to keep his supporters in line. Without them, he is just another president. In short, it is the crises and controversies that allow Trump to get on his soap box and proclaim himself the victim of a deep state out to remove him from power. It is the sort of mindset sociopaths often employ to justify their heinous crimes, but for Trump, it's just another day at the office.

That's why he can accuse the media of being fake news one day and then the very next express remorse that members of that same Fourth Estate could be murdered in broad daylight; and it's why he can blame his predecessors for a policy he put in place, then sign an executive order lifting that very same policy, all while claiming credit for the solution to a problem he created. I've worked with salesmen who consider themselves quite accomplished that would give their eye teeth to be able to pull off just once what Trump seems to get away with on a daily basis. If he were a bank robber, the money would be in the Cayman Islands before anyone knew it had been stolen. Houdini had nothing on this president.

But it isn't just his slight of hand that is the secret to his success. Part of playing the role of the victim is knowing that if you can drag your opponent down to your level you can ostensibly eliminate his advantage. Bullies do this all the time. If you've ever watched a hockey game or two, like I have, you'll know that invariably it's the player who retaliates that gets penalized. The Philadelphia Flyers bullied their way to two consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the mid 1970s by instigating fights or skirmishes with better skilled players. When the ref called a penalty on the player who retaliated, the Flyers would score a power play goal. It wasn't until they faced the Montreal Canadiens in '76 that the Flyers finally met their match. The Canadiens resisted the urge to retaliate and instead stuck to their game plan, which was to skate as fast as they could past a much slower Flyers team. They swept the series 4 games to none.

Trump is the political equivalent of the Broadstreet Bullies, as they were known in their day. He has often said he doesn't initiate; that he waits for someone to come after him, then he hits back "ten times harder." Part of that is true, but make no mistake about it, Trump is the Dave Shultz of his era. He sucker punches his opponents, then waits to see if they will retaliate. Look at the list of inflammatory statements he has made over the last three years; all of them, without exception, have been designed to provoke a response. He wants people to react; in fact, his success depends on it.

Just look at the twisted relationship he has with the press. He ridicules the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN for their "fake" news coverage, yet, without that coverage, he would be nothing. That is the paradox of Trump's rise to prominence. It was built on the very shoulders of the people he despises the most. Think about it: if the media had cut him off in 2015 he might not have won the Republican nomination, much less the presidency.

Leveling the playing field is the method to Trump's madness. One look at the 2016 campaign is all you need to verify that claim. The personal attacks levied against him by Marco Rubio didn't hurt Trump; if anything they helped him, because Rubio had taken the bait and sunk to his level. I have seen enough sporting events in my life to know that if you're playing your opponent's game, you're probably losing. Without exception, every political opponent who employed Trump's tactics against him failed. When you go gutter against someone who's lived his whole life in the gutter, you end up on the short end of the stick.

And that's why the Left's strategy to harass Trump and his officials is a fool's errand. It is doomed to failure. Not because there isn't some justification behind it. What these people have done should be rightly called out. But throwing someone out of a restaurant is not the way to do it, anymore than shouting someone down in public is. If anything such conduct will ironically end up helping Trump. In hockey terms, it is the equivalent of throwing a retaliatory punch. Only instead of getting five minutes for fighting, the cost is a drop in the polls.

Let's not forget that Trump won the presidency with a 46 percent approval rating. According to the RCP average, he currently sits at 43.5 percent. That means he's two and a half points away from the number that allowed him to capture the White House. The last thing any of us should want is to allow him to manufacture a phony scandal in which he is the victim of OUR actions. What Maxine Waters said may have resonated with a lot of progressives, but to a good percentage of the country it was interpreted as a threat. It would not surprise me one bit if Trump's poll numbers didn't go up a point next week as a result of this and other ill-conceived attacks.

Last night I watched Bill Maher and I was deeply concerned over the rhetoric I heard coming out of the mouths of some of the guests. However, there was one guest, Jennifer Rubin, who offered up a constructive suggestion; one that I hope progressives will take to heart. To sum up, what Democrats need to do is harness that energy and vote this November. Marching on Washington won't solve anything; pulling a lever for a Democrat will.

To circle back on that experience I had in my early days as salesman, the goal is to take an asshole's money, not get into a shouting match with him. It seems the best way to beat Trump is to bite our lips and bide our time. Leave him alone and he implodes all by himself. Indeed, if you look at the periods of his presidency when his approval numbers were at their lowest, it was when he was his own worst enemy with no one to torment him. Despite all the smoke and mirrors, the simple truth is that Trump is like a raging fire that needs oxygen to sustain itself. Deprive him of that oxygen and the flame flickers out. Give him what he wants, which is a mud-wrestling match on his terms, and the inferno consumes everything in its path.

My friends, we cannot beat this man using his tactics. To do so would be suicide, both politically and morally. If we take the bait, if we give in to our darkest fears and our deepest resentments, we will not only lose the 2018 midterms, but the 2020 presidential election, as well. And if that happens, Heaven help us all.

Remember, the biggest challenge those of us who hold the moral high ground have is not ceding it. I know it is difficult path to travel, but the words of Robert Frost from his poem "The Road Not Taken" should comfort us.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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