Here is the question that lurks behind Donald Trump tweeting insults at civil rights icon John Lewis during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Is he trying to distract from another story — perhaps his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, making a strange call to the Russian ambassador during transition? Is he just so graceless and undisciplined that during a week when he is writing a speech his transition team promises will be about “uniting Americans,” he couldn’t stop himself from attacking the last person in the country you would want to pick a fight with? Both? Neither?
There is background here. Lewis, a popular member of Congress, said he wouldn’t attend Trump’s inauguration, and called the president-elect “illegitimate.” There were reasonable ways to respond to this. Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, modeled one of them.
To John Lewis, one of my heroes:— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) January 14, 2017
Please come to the Inauguration. It isn't about a man. It is a celebration of peaceful transfer of power.
Another completely plausible response would have been to say nothing. Trump chose a third path:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
It is, of course, repulsive to accuse Lewis of all talk and no action or results. As Michael Skolnik pointed out on Twitter, while Lewis was arrested 45 times ridding this country of segregation, Trump was dodging the Vietnam draft. Like with the Khan family after the Democratic convention, this is a fight Trump can’t win, doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want.
This is coming, after all, six days before Trump’s inauguration. And it begins amid devastatingly low approval ratings for the president-elect. A new Quinnipiac poll found only 37 percent approve of the job he’s doing. A new Gallup poll showed only 44 percent approve of the way he’d handling his presidential transition — a number that has fallen since December and puts him far, far below his predecessors:
Matthew Yglesias wrote this week about the role the words “I won” play in Trump’s psychology. He won doing all this stuff during the election, and so he’s going to keep doing it now that he’s president. Winning means you’re right. Winning means it worked.
And Trump did win. But that doesn’t mean this petty behavior is what worked for him. This is why he didn’t win the popular vote. This is why most Americans don’t like him. And this is, in ways Trump may not appreciate yet, how you end up losing as president. Being disliked makes you weak. It erodes your support in Congress. It limits what you can get done. The rules that governed Trump’s life up till now are not the same as the rules that govern the presidency.
In his 2007 book, Think Big and Kick Ass, Trump wrote, "When someone intentionally harms you or your reputation, how do you react? I strike back, doing the same thing to them only ten times worse." This is what he’s doing with Lewis. If Lewis won’t attend his inaugural, if he’s going to question Trump’s legitimacy and testify against his Cabinet nominees, then Trump is going to hit him 10 times harder — he’ll tell the whole world Lewis is all talk and no action, and say that his district, which includes some of the toniest neighborhoods in Atlanta, is “in horrible shape,” “falling apart,” and “crime-infested.”
This is a great strategy for a reality television star who needs to wrest back the spotlight from a critic. But that’s not what’s being competed over here. Lewis doesn’t need the spotlight. Nor, in truth, does Trump. But Trump needs the support of plenty of members of Congress who revere Lewis. Trump needs the support of members of Congress who worry about whether supporting Trump is going to make them look bad in the eyes of voters in 2018, not to mention the eyes of history. Trump needs the support of plenty of Americans who don’t want to hear on the news that the president-elect is calling a congressman who was beaten within an inch of his life to secure civil rights “all talk.”
Which brings me back to the original question. It doesn’t matter what Trump is trying to do here. If he were smart, he’d stop it.