Dear Robert De Niro, Samantha Bee and other Trump haters:
I get that you’re angry. I’m angry, too. But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning. You think you’re raising your fist when you’re really raising a white flag.
You’re right that Donald Trump is a dangerous and deeply offensive man, and that restraining and containing him are urgent business. You’re wrong about how to go about doing that, or at least you’re letting your emotions get the better of you.
When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.
Of course, this is broader than De Niro, bigger than Bee and about more than profanity. It’s about maturity, pragmatism and plain old smarts—and the necessity of all three when the stakes are this high.
Many Democrats get that. Maybe even most do. In the recent primaries, Democratic voters by and large chose House candidates whose appeals were tempered and whose profiles make them formidable general-election contenders. They’re the best bets for wooing less fiercely partisan voters and snatching seats currently in Republican hands.
The results in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District were a perfect example. State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, a former federal prosecutor, won, and will take on the Republican incumbent, Barbara Comstock. That was precisely what Republican strategists didn’t want, and at the beginning of the year, they chattered hopefully about Wexton’s being thwarted by more strident Democratic rivals to her left. But she beat the second-place finisher by almost 20 points.
I’m buoyed by that and by what I’ve witnessed when I’ve met with Democratic candidates in potentially red-to-blue House districts. They’re not getting bogged down in impeachment talk, which can sound to many voters like a promise of ceaseless partisan rancor and never-ending Washington paralysis. They’re not frothing at the mouth about Trump.
They understand that they don’t need to. He’s the most exhaustively chronicled and psychologically transparent president in the lifetimes of most American voters, who already know how they feel about him. What they’re less certain about are their alternatives. If you want to make sure that at least one chamber of Congress is a check on Trump, talk to them about that.
And do so in a vocabulary that’s measured, not hysterical. Enough with “idiot” and “moron” (unless you’re directly quoting an administration official). They’re schoolyard and splenetic.
I’m not urging complacency. But when you invoke the darkest historical analogies, you lose many of the very Americans you’re trying to win over. What you’re saying isn’t what they’re seeing. It’s overreach in their eyes.
The more noise, the less discernment. The more fury, the less focus. Proportion and triage are in order, and that means an end, please, to the Melania madness. Floating the idea that she’s a victim of domestic abuse merely supports Trump’s contention that his critics are reflexive and unfettered in their contempt for him, and that all of their complaints should be viewed through that lens.
“When they go low, we go high,” said another first lady, Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. It’s a fine set of marching orders, disobeyed ever since.•
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Bruni is a New York Times columnist.