Politics by other means

We've never seen anything like it. You've never seen anything like it. No one's ever seen anything like it.

The remarkable strategic decisions being made on an almost daily basis by Donald Trump and his campaign -- particularly those that have come subsequent to the release of his disturbingly crude comments about women -- can only remind an observer of the words of David St. Hubbins, lead singer of the band Spinal Tap: "there's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

When those comments were made public -- when the American people saw and heard what is on that now-notorious tape -- Trump needed to respond to the firestorm he had kindled. He needed to explain why he said what he said, but he also needed to make the case that the comments shouldn't, in and of themselves, be enough to keep him out of the White House. He needed a framework inside which the comments could be just one component of a greater whole. He needed a narrative. He needed a story.

The obvious narrative, the one that he was no doubt advised to use, is the Redemption Narrative: the politician apologizes publicly for his "youthful indiscretions." The politician insists that, after a period of inner turmoil, he has now grown as a human being and abhors the thoughts and actions he's previously held or committed. The politician says that he is different, he says that he has changed -- but more than anything else, he says that he is sorry, without excuses. America is a forgiving nation. True contrition is looked upon with approval, and the basic Redemption Narrative tends to fall on open ears. With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are almost always second acts in American lives, if the American living that life admits that he didn't live it well, promises to do better, and says he's sorry.

That's the obvious narrative -- and it's the one he obviously didn't use.

The aphorism says that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and it's particularly apt in this case, because the narrative Trump chose is the Total War Narrative: the politician apologizes, quickly and cosmetically, and then goes on to insist that what he did isn't that bad because what his opponent has done is immeasurably worse. Generally, Total War will only be effective if it involves more than just one's opponent -- it will involve their loved ones as well, because its intent is to cow the opponent and make them hesitant to discuss the flaw for which the politician is apologizing.

And this is why Trump's use of Total War is so jarring: there seems to be no way that it can work. To say, "yes, my language about groping women was offensive, but it was just locker room banter, and anyway, it's just talk, and you should know that my opponent's husband actually abuses women and my opponent tries to shame those women into silence"...who is this narrative for? America's women? Presumably not. Undecided voters? Unlikely, because one who uses Total War often reveals a temperament fueled by rage and not by, for lack of a better word, temperance -- and this is a trait rarely sought in a U.S. president. Trump's core believers? He already had them on his side. Total War was not going to make the issue vanish. It was not going to control the damage. Its only purpose appears to have been to salt the earth and scorch the opponent with embarrassment.

Total War is a startling strategic choice to have made. There's such a fine line between stupid and clever; it seems clear which side this narrative falls on.