Chuck Todd: Confronting Trump

It’s the challenge that everyone in politics faces as we start this election year. There has never been a debate about whether former President Donald Trump should be confronted for all of his deeds and misdeeds, normal acts and undemocratic acts, hateful rhetoric or irresponsible governance — the question has always been “what’s the most effective way” to do it.

So far, President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign has provided the clearest example of success, if success is measured by defeating Trump in an election. Of course, he had the advantage of running against Trump as an incumbent in the middle of a governance failure (Covid-19) that made it frankly quite easy for Biden to find his voice and find the best way to confront Trump. And even though he won the 2020 election, Biden’s surprisingly close victory raises the question of whether Biden simply benefitted from the exhaustion the country had with Trump as their leader at that time, as opposed to anything about him.

I raise this Biden question about 2020 because, as I watch the Biden campaign essentially try to run the same game plan against Trump in 2024, I’m not sure it’s going to be that effective. Biden is the incumbent, and it’s going to be a lot harder for him to keep the campaign about Trump and somehow avoid being a focus himself. But I don’t think the Biden campaign is wrong to make Trump the focus of this election. Let’s see how they execute their plan.

The impact of the 2024 election is going to be enormous. If Trump wins, the U.S. role in the world is going to dramatically change. Perhaps it’s what some voters want — but make no mistake, the consequences will be huge. From the war in Ukraine to plans for peace in the Middle East to confronting China, the difference between Biden for the next four years and Trump couldn’t be any starker. And yet, even as the stakes for the future of America as a beacon of freedom and democracy couldn’t be higher, it’s clear this isn’t where the voters are right now.

Just because an election is this important to the future of the world doesn’t mean the voters of this country will stop viewing things through their own prisms. Many an American election has taken place without voters seeing the consequences until after the fact, with 2000 and 2016 the most recent that come to mind. Campaigns that were so small and petty ended up being so important to the direction of the nation.

I spent some of my personal time over the holidays traveling with my family to Germany. While it wasn’t my first time in the country, it was my first time in the country that didn’t involve work, which means I had time to focus on the country’s relatively recent history.

Germany has done a tremendous job owning its history, from the museum on the brutal nature of the Nazi regime in Berlin (the Topography of Terror) or the city’s Jewish museum, which chronicles the 12-year systemic campaign to dehumanize and eradicate the Jews from Europe. (One exhibit details when the Nazi regime actually issued a decree that barred Jews in Germany from walking in public.)

And then of course, there are the concentration camps, which have been preserved for history so that the world and Germany specifically can “never forget.” All of these exhibits are incredibly impactful to all but the truly soulless.

As you soak in all this history, it’s chilling to realize how recent it was. This wasn’t the work of a mad king or feudal lord from the Middle Ages, this happened in the 20th century — after the start of the Industrial Revolution, in one of the most industrialized countries in the world. As many a scholar and victim of the Nazi regime has wondered aloud, how did such a civilized nation like Germany end up bringing a tyrant like Adolf Hitler to power? Why wasn’t he stopped sooner? Why did it take a global war to stop him? Why did the German people usher him in, in the first place? Why didn’t the German people rise up themselves and stop him and the Nazis?

There’s no doubt that this recent history is what has motivated so many entities in American politics to make decisions on their own to confront the perceived threat of Trump. The lesson we all have taken from history is to stand up to tyrants, not to cower.

In fact, there’s been no shortage of attempts to confront or “stop” Trump — just far more bad attempts than good ones. But all of these attempts were done with some noble reasoning behind them. Be it the impeachments, the criminal charges, the civil suits, the social media and mainstream media de-platforming, or the efforts to keep him off state ballots, one can understand the motive behind the attempt even if one disagrees on the effectiveness of the confrontation.

But let’s be honest: It’s not clear any of these attempts to stop Trump are going to work. If anything, some of them may backfire and instead strengthen him — like the attempts to keep him off primary ballots in Colorado and Maine.

If there is one overarching belief I’ve built up when it comes to what works when confronting Trump, it’s sunshine. Anything that attempts to confront Trump with a bank shot, is simply a missed opportunity.

Take the decision by social media companies (and a lot of mainstream media outlets) to de-platform Trump post-Jan. 6, 2021. The motivation was noble: He can’t be given unfettered access to the public if he’s going to use that access to foment insurrection.

But how did it turn out in practice? Trump simply created his own social media ecosystem, which allowed him to communicate his crazy grievances, and his grievance-driven politics, directly to his supporters without any pushback or notice from mainstream America. In fact, I’m convinced Trump wouldn’t have half the support he currently has from elected Republicans if the social media companies and mainstream media outlets were platforming Trump as aggressively in 2023 as they did in 2016. I think fewer elected Republicans would be feeling good about endorsing Trump for another term because they would be leery of having to answer for Trump’s various grievances. But if those grievances are only being heard by the base, then the fear of association lessens.

Before Jan. 6, there was clearly exhaustion with how much Trump was using Twitter to alter the political conversation. His constant tweeting wore the public down and got enough voters so exhausted that they did not want another four years of it. But Trump still isn’t on mainstream social media (though he’s allowed to be if he wants), and the mainstream media has occasionally re-platformed him, but selectively. And when they do, they end up presenting him more seriously and soberly than he actually is.

Editing Trump or protecting the public from what Trump does and says only shields him from outrage. If anything, the media are probably under-covering Trump and what he’s promising to do. Trump should be interviewed more, not less; he should be questioned confrontationally, but in different ways. He should be questioned not only for the actions he did take on and around Jan. 6, but also about the actions he did not take in that same period.

Trump always wears out his welcome when he’s in the spotlight too long. And if he does win again, the public should know well in advance what they are buying into, not wonder after the fact.

I do think the same mindset should be used by the Republicans running to defeat Trump. Both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are running campaigns that, at best, “bank shot” their attacks on Trump. They are constantly worried about their standing with Trump voters and because of that, they pull their punches on how they go after Trump. From DeSantis trying to bizarrely attack Trump for Covid lockdowns (which he claims is him being tough against Trump) to Haley being afraid to utter the word “slavery” in a question about the cause of the Civil War, it’s clear they are desperately clinging to this myth that Trump voters can be separate from Trump himself. 

I’m skeptical of Chris Christie’s motivations for running for president, but I do give him credit for sticking to a message that directly confronts Trump. He’s not trying to apologize for attacking him in an effort to preserve his ability to win over Trump voters one day. He’s simply telling it like it is. Now, is he doing it because he knows he made a dreadful mistake helping to mainstream Trump in 2016 or is he simply hoping to make himself the accepted Republican to have on corporate boards for the rest of this decade?  Discerning motive in political decisions is always a tricky business, but one thing’s crystal clear: Christie is making a direct case against Trump questioning his fitness for office. If more Republicans were doing this, it would probably be a different primary campaign. 

Ultimately, as hard as everyone outside the GOP is trying to honestly confront Trump, it’s the Republican Party members who are either going to have to do it or lose their careers trying. Because one day, association with Trump won’t be a golden ticket to winning a GOP primary, but a mark of shame in the history books. Let’s hope we won’t need to build new museums or exhibits to prove to the American public we’ve learned a lesson.