Democrats need to learn how to be mean and funny
Lessons from the dull Jeff Sessions confirmation hearing
For anyone looking for a strong initial attack on the Trump presidency, the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions as attorney general were mostly disappointing. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee raised a series of largely ineffective questions about immigration, voting rights, religious liberty, and other issues. Sessions mostly dodged or batted them down by affirming his sole duty is to enforce the law as written.
However, it does provide a window into the developing Democratic strategy against the Trump administration. The raw material with which to attack Sessions was there, and there is palpable vulnerability on many points. All that Democrats are missing is a grasp of the current politico-media environment.
It's time to get funny and mean.
Only Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who made Sessions squirm a bit with a series of pointed questions about Russian involvement in the election, and Al Franken (D-Minn.), whose cross-examination forced Sessions to admit he had grossly over-represented the number of civil rights cases he had taken on in his early career, and later pressed him hard on a federal court's conclusion that North Carolina's voting restrictions were racist, made good use of their questions.
Elsewhere, Sessions casually walked straight into several shocking admissions. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) got him to say he would consider bringing back the old anti-obscenity division within the Department of Justice. He would not rule out prosecuting journalists for "doing their job." He flagrantly dodged a question about Trump's many conflicts of interest from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and claimed ignorance on many others.
But no one save Franken managed to press the attack in a remotely effective way. Nobody really nailed him on his racist history, or on Trump's history of sexual assault. The whole hearing was stuffy, bland, and monotonous. Perhaps most of all, it was clubby in that particularly Senate-y way. Sessions is a fellow senator, and most of the people questioning him have known him for years, if not decades.
David Weigel wrote an interesting article about how Democrats are struggling to get media attention and narrative traction in the age of Trump. The president-elect finds it trivially easy to get massive media coverage even for the tiniest actions, or stuff he didn't even have anything to do with. But as Weigel notes, buttoned-down Democrats haven't been able to develop any effective counter-strategy:
The traditional Washington ways of messaging have not changed either. Members of Congress speak from the floor to largely empty press galleries. They gather in TV studios, where few networks cut in to cover them. They respond to tweets with wordy press releases, columns, or open letters, each one staff-edited down to the last period after the last talking point. [Washington Post]
In many ways, Trump's use of Twitter and total disregard of traditional political norms is horrifying and dangerous. He seems petty and unhinged enough to start a nuclear war with 3 a.m. tweets if Putin criticizes the attractiveness of Melania.
Yet I think there are some things Democrats might learn from how he manages to totally dominate the discourse. Actually being an irresponsible maniac is a bad idea, but understanding and adopting some of his techniques for their purposes is frankly necessary.
Trump thrives because the old political discourse is dead, and a coarser, more frantic, and uglier discourse — basically, that of reality television and social media — has replaced it. What gets coverage is what is entertaining: conflict, humiliation, and, above all, humor. Democrats need to learn how to be biting, aggressive clowns.
It's not a coincidence that Franken was an actor, a comedian, and a sarcastic partisan before he was a senator. He's not even that funny, but he gets the basic structure of media these days. When facing someone like Sessions, the objective should not be to graciously allow him to defend his long record. It should be to attack, to undermine, and to humiliate. Find the most embarrassing parts of his record, and hammer him on them, with the objective of producing the most hilarious and cringeworthy soundbites, as Trump did to Jeb Bush. (In many ways this is a return to previous ages of politics. Abraham Lincoln once almost got in a broadsword duel over printing salacious lies about a political opponent.)
Of course, when it comes to the overall anti-Trump strategy, outside organizing is far more important. It's critical for the Democrats to rebuild, and for outside groups to mobilize. But propaganda and media really is important too.
It's hard to imagine Trump winning without his billions in free media coverage. Democrats are going to need to contest that ground in the future.