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Trump’s Political Lesson: Humiliate, or Be Humiliated

Humiliation was the driving force of a presidential election in which the rules of decorum were laid to waste.

Drew Angerer / Getty

Humiliation is a part of every political campaign. It may even come to define a candidate—who can dish it, and who can take it. Once upon a time we reveled in John Kerry’s elitism (he windsurfs!), Mitt Romney’s patrician habits (he’s got a fancy horse!), and Al Gore’s coldness (he makes out with his wife in public!). This year, however, was a match between an inexperienced candidate who was an expert at personal humiliation, and an experienced candidate who proved to be a novice at political humiliation. The result was pure carnage.

Few people know how to humiliate like Donald Trump—he told his Twitter followers to check out a sex tape; he instructed Chris Christie to stop eating Oreos and forced him to assume the role of doting butler—but even fewer take humiliation as personally as Trump does. For eleven months, the Hillary Clinton campaign—as well as almost the entire Republican establishment—waged a war against Trump by attacking and undermining his claims that he was rich and smart and had a working penis. But you have to have shame to be humiliated, and Trump lacks it completely. The only thing these attacks achieved was the inevitable retaliation.

Trump gets a perverse sense of satisfaction from deflating his opponents—especially the heirs of the two great political dynasties from the last four decades, both of whom he gave demeaning nicknames. (Crooked Hillary! Low-Energy Jeb!) He made his humiliations as personal as possible, and the sheer number of people belittled, debased, and embarrassed in the crossfire was breathtaking.

But the Republican nominee wasn’t the only one responsible for creating this culture of humiliation: Our current political ecosystem is built to propagate it. Elections are now longer and more expensive than ever before, and the sprawling Republican field—17 candidates in all—meant there were plenty of less talented contenders who stayed in the race long past their expiration dates simply because they could, running through the millions in campaign cash stored away in their super PACs.

Humiliations also abounded this year because so much of the current political discourse takes place on Twitter. Twitter has erased the space between the elite and the less-than-elite. Social media—and digital media as a whole—shed light on the gulf between the people inside and outside the urban “bubbles” Trump supporters are so fond of mentioning. Disillusionment and disconnectedness meant that establishment politicians drifted from their base, and party leaders on both sides of the aisle bet on the wrong horses. Most of the pundits, pollsters, and journalists who make predictions for a living turned out to be flat out wrong. It all sparked a feeding frenzy of bizarre humiliations that almost no one could escape in 2016.  

Bill de Blasio

Once an up-and-coming liberal hero, Bill de Blasio completed his descent into Francois Hollande-ish oblivion this year. He had hoped to use his clout as New York mayor to nudge Clinton further to the left—something the Clinton team resented. When he suggested that he travel to Iowa to support her, the Clinton campaign coolly declined. De Blasio—who had canvassed in Iowa for John Edwards in 2004, and Clinton in 2008—offered to pay his own way. He ended up canvassing, alone, in and around Des Moines, meeting just 18 voters on his first day. Worst of all, he had volunteered for the indignity. 

Still, his biggest screw-up of the year would come in April, during a gala fundraiser called the Inner Circle. Clinton showed up as a “surprise” guest and needled de Blasio for failing to endorse her in a timely manner. “Sorry Hillary, I was running on CP time,” said de Blasio, referring to “colored people time.” Hamilton star Lamar Odum Jr, quickly stepped in. “I don’t like jokes like that Bill.” 

Both Democrats who supported Clinton and those who were reluctant to do so were embarrassed, but de Blasio, it seems, made the mistake of doing both, reaping double the humiliation. De Blasio was rewarded for all of his help by being granted a prime speaking slot at the DNC—mid-afternoon on the third day.

Martin O’Malley

People run for president for all sorts of reasons—half of the Republican field entered for the sole purpose of building their brands and winning television contracts. But it was never clear why O’Malley, one of the handful of Democrats who resisted the DNC’s efforts to clear the path for Hillary Clinton, was running—or why he stuck it out for so long. O’Malley was good on climate change; he had a nice smile and looked like he could play a president on TV. But unlike Bernie Sanders, who was pushing policy discussion to the left and building his transformative political movement, O’Malley never seemed to really connect with voters.

That may have been their loss, but it doesn’t change the fact that, in the lead-up to Iowa, the narrative surrounding O’Malley was one of futility. Only one person showed up to one of his rallies and that person wasn’t even an O’Malley supporter. His office had a hard time digging up enough pens. Then, to top it all off, while Sanders became one of Clinton’s most important surrogates, O’Malley was chopped liver. He’ll be back in 2020, but that doesn’t change the fact that 2016 was not kind to proto-Carcetti.

Ted Cruz

It’s no secret that Ted Cruz is one of the most hated men in Washington. “Nobody likes him,” Bob Dole said in January. He’s alienated former bosses, law professors, Supreme Court clerks, and his Republican colleagues in the Senate—and their critiques were dredged up again and again in early 2016. “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham joked in February, “nobody would convict you.” In fact, proving once and for all that no one wants to kiss Cruz, even his own daughter was taped bobbing and weaving when her father tries to give her a smooch.

Cruz had thought he’d be the outsider crusading against Washington, and in any other presidential election, that role would have fit him like a glove. But with Donald Trump in the race, even Cruz started morphing into a Washington insider. By spring, when the race narrowed to three, he had to court the very men in Washington—the Republican establishment—whom he had spent the last few years aggravating. To top it all off, after Trump won he dangled the job of attorney general in front of Cruz before handing it to Jeff Sessions—one last humiliation, for old time’s sake.

Jeb Bush

“Please clap,” requested Jeb Bush of a New Hampshire audience on February 2. Watching Jeb—and he was call-me-by-my-first-name Jeb this campaign, rather than a third Bush angling for the White House—beg for applause from a handful of soccer moms and Republican canvassers may have been the most pathetic moment in a campaign defined by patheticness. From the exclamation mark that punctuated his logo, to his insistence that he inhaled, to his struggling with a hoodie, to his adoration of new technology—including an Apple watch that he didn’t realize could take phone calls—Jeb’s campaign was one in which he practically begged voters to like him. They didn’t. In the year the schoolyard bully won, there was little hope for nerds in the Republican field. Jeb proved to be the candidate who didn’t need anyone else to humiliate him—he was doing just fine on his own.

Chris Christie

Embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal, Christie endorsed Trump in February, thinking he would be rewarded for his loyalty. Instead, Trump humiliated Christie again and again in 2016, first holding him hostage on stage at Mar-a-Lago, then forcing him to spend the remainder of the campaign running errands. Christie stayed by his side throughout it all, the permanent whipping boy of the 2016 campaign, because he had nowhere else to go.

In late February, Trump ordered the New Jersey governor to head home like he’d behaved badly on the playground and needed to be put in timeout. “Get in the plane and go home,” Trump could be heard telling Christie. “You go home.” “Okay,” Christie replied meekly. Then, on Super Tuesday, Christie tried his hardest to blend into the wallpaper on stage at the Trump victory party in Palm Beach.

On March 19, Trump ribbed the New Jersey governor about his weight. “I’m not eating Oreos anymore, you know that—but neither is Chris,” Trump said. “You’re not eating Oreos anymore. No more Oreos. For either of us, Chris. Don’t feel bad.” (Later, a former Apprentice crew member would say that Trump likes to have a “funny fat guy” around.) On June 13, Ryan Lizza quoted a source who told him that Trump had turned Christie into a “manservant” by making him fetch food from Trump’s favorite restaurant, McDonald’s. 

For all the errands Christie ran and public appearances he suffered through, he ended up being exiled from Trump’s inner circle. On Election Day, he cast his vote at a Mendham Township polling site in the wee hours of the morning, under cover of darkness—and weeks later, Jared Kushner purged the transition team of Christie associates, reportedly as revenge for Christie having sent his father to jail. Turns out that in Trump World, not even the most loyal early endorsers are spared the humiliation that was dealt out right and left throughout this election cycle.

The Media

It’s not so much that the pundits were unusually wrong this year—pundits are often wrong to an extreme degree. (See: Kristol, Bill, the career of.) What was unusual is that nearly all the pundits were wrong. In prognosticating American presidential elections, a pundit generally has 50/50 odds, but the unlikelihood of a President Donald “well-done steak” Trump was such that very few pundits, no matter their political affiliation, remotely considered he would win. (“He can’t win,” was the familiar turn-of-phrase.) RedState founder and New York Times assailant Erick Erickson said Hillary Clinton would win, as did the aforementioned Kristol, as did plenty of Republican pundits who were offended by the prospect of a Trump administration, like frequent CNN guest Ana Navarro. Practically the only pundits who were right were Michael Moore and Bill Mitchell, a strange man who based his predictions on nothing in particular.

And then there was Ross Douthat. One could single out any number of bad predictions by pundits in 2016, but it was Douthat’s zeal and sense of conviction that distinguished him from the thousands of other Acela Corridor-proximate wrong people inexplicably paid to make poor predictions, promising again and again that Donald Trump would never become the Republican nominee. Like so many of his colleagues, Douthat treated punditry as a form of wish fulfillment. It couldn’t happen, because he couldn’t imagine it happening, because he didn’t want it to happen. 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

On July 22, WikiLeaks published a trove of 20,000 Democratic Party emails—including some in which DNC officials dismissed and derided Bernie Sanders—and amid growing protests, Wasserman Schultz announced she would step down just one day before Democrats descended on Philadelphia for their convention. The next morning, she was booed at a breakfast with her hometown delegation. It foreshadowed the humiliation that would engulf the Democratic Party as a whole after the election: Wasserman Schultz was just one Democratic leader whose stock plummeted in the aftermath for misreading the electorate and sticking to a flawed playbook that helped let Trump waltz into the White House and left Democrats with fewer seats at the state level than they’ve had in generations. Now, Democrats are left with no new leaders and no new plan to take Washington back from the Republicans.

Anthony Weiner

This year, we learned that it was possible for a nation to collectively groan. Anthony Weiner was back, and he was doing what Anthony Weiner does best: sexting with strangers. But this time, his sexts included images of his son, Jordan, a toddler, and when Huma Abedin learned the New York Post was about to publish the photos, she announced she and her husband would separate. To add insult to injury, Trump, of course, weighed in: “Huma is making a very wise decision. I know Anthony Weiner well, and she will be far better off without him.” It seemed, for a moment, we’d finally seen the last of Anthony Weiner—Huma would still have her revenge, ascendant as Hillary’s chief of staff. But Weiner’s return was partly responsible for bringing down the Clinton campaign in the days before the election, as the investigation into Weiner led to FBI director James Comey’s notorious letter. It was Joe Biden who spoke for us all this year, when he was told during an interview with CNN that Weiner was involved in the ill-timed return to Server-gate: “Well … oh God.”

Barack Obama

On November 11, President Barack Obama welcomed his successor to the White House—a man who questioned, publicly and repeatedly, whether he was indeed an American citizen qualified to sit in the Oval Office, who argued that he founded ISIS, and who promised to dismantle many of his reforms. Trump appeared to have nothing but respect for the president in that first meeting, and their relationship has remained cordial ever since. He has even taken to calling Obama regularly, and the president has said he would take more time to help (read: school) his successor in the office he is about to inherit.

Mitt Romney

Of all of the people we never expected to see or hear from again, Mitt Romney made a last minute reappearance in 2016 as a candidate for Trump’s Apprentice-like competition for secretary of state (“I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” Trump tweeted on November 15). Perhaps the most virulent Republican critic of Donald Trump during the primary, Romney on November 19 went to Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey to kiss the ring. “There’s a scene in Pretty Woman,” Newt Gingrich told radio host Laura Ingraham last week, amid speculation that Romney would be the next secretary of state, “where Richard Gere goes up to the salesman on Rodeo Drive and says, ‘We need a little sucking up here.’ You have never, ever in your career seen a wealthy adult who is independent, has been a presidential candidate, suck up at the rate that Mitt Romney is sucking up.” Not only does Romney have to woo a man he once said “lacks the temperament to be president,” he also has to deal with his former rival for the 2012 Republican nomination likening him to a prostitute. In a widely memed photograph from a November 29 dinner at Jean Georges, Romney stares out at the camera dead-eyed while Trump smirks. On SNL that week, Alec Baldwin as Trump pouted about the planned dinner. “Can we at least have a picture of us together where he looks like a little bitch?”