By Robert B. Reich
When I was a boy and lost just about every sporting event I tried, my father told me, “What counts isn’t whether you win or lose but how you play the game.”
Most parents told their kids this. It was part of the American creed. But I doubt Fred Trump passed on the same advice to little Donald, who seems to have learned the exact opposite: It’s not how you play the game but whether you win or lose.
If there’s one idea that summarizes Donald Trump — his character, temperament, career, business strategy, politics and worldview — it’s winning at any cost.
That’s the art of the deal.
The worst insult Trump can hurl is to say someone’s a “loser.” The only thing he can say about himself — and he says it over and over — is “I’m a winner.”
If his ancestors hadn’t changed the family name from Drumpf to Trump, Donald would have had to change it, because the central goal of Donald’s life has been trumping others. Playing the game well or honorably is irrelevant.
This approach to life didn’t cause too much damage when Trump was wheeling and dealing in real estate (although don’t tell that to workers left holding the bag when Trump’s casino went bust, or to people who lost homes when Trump used the power of eminent domain to displace them). But now that he is the presumed Republican nominee for the highest office in the land, this view is outright dangerous.
Government is about process. Democracy is about law. The Constitution establishes the rules of the game. A tacit social contract binds us all together.
So when, as the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Trump says a federal judge who’s considering a case against him is a “disgrace” and a “hater” who shouldn’t be hearing the case because the judge’s parents were Mexican, he’s doing more than insulting a member of the judiciary. He’s attacking our legal system.
When Trump spreads baseless conspiracy theories — that health vaccinations cause autism, for example, or that a recently deceased justice of the Supreme Court might have been murdered — he’s not only fueling fear. He’s sowing distrust about the integrity of our governing system.
When Trump threatens his critics, saying he’ll “loosen” federal libel laws to sue news organizations and unleash federal regulators on those who oppose him, he’s not just bullying. He’s endangering our democracy.
And when Trump foments bigotry, demanding that people of a certain faith not be allowed into the United States, or claiming without any evidence that “thousands and thousands” of Muslim Americans in New Jersey celebrated the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, he’s not just telling lies. He’s threatening the social contract that binds us together.
If governing is not done correctly and respectfully, the entire system we rely on is weakened. The candidate or public official may win some short-term victories but at the expense of all future players.
Trump is the extreme, but his candidacy is the logical culmination of years of win-at-any-cost politics.
If any single public official is responsible for starting us down this bleak road, it’s Newt Gingrich — who, not incidentally, is on Trump’s list for vice presidential picks.
Gingrich scolded Trump for his recent comment about the federal judge, but Gingrich’s approach to politics has been almost as divisive and destructive.
After Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, Washington was transformed from a place where legislators sought common ground into a war zone. Compromise was replaced by brinkmanship, bargaining by obstruction.
According to respected political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, “the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base — most recently represented by Tea Party activists — and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress.”
Under Gingrich’s lead, House Republicans closed down the government when they didn’t get their way on the budget. Then they voted to impeach Bill Clinton.
Gingrich left the House under a cloud, but his legacy lived on.
House Republicans shut down government again in 2011 in a dispute over raising the federal debt ceiling — which could have triggered a government default and risked the creditworthiness of the United States.
Gingrich himself has continued down his destructive path. In the presidential campaign of 2012, he even asserted that public officials aren’t bound to follow the decisions of federal courts.
Trump’s attack on a particular federal judge is tame compared to this.
Winning by weakening our system of government is heinous. So why are Republican voters prepared to make Trump president?
Maybe it’s because so many of them have been losing economic ground for so long they want a winner on their side, even if that winner sacrifices democracy along the way.
They are deluded. The only real hope for positive change is to make democracy stronger, not weaker. The Trump bandwagon is marching down the road to tyranny.