President-elect Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset victory on November 8. And now, right under the media’s noses, he is maneuvering for another surprise: he is making sure that conservatives, not Democrats, lead the congressional opposition.
In meetings at Trump Tower, Trump is casting a wide net, holding forth olive branches to GOP moderates and even to the Democratic establishment, as represented by leaders like former Vice President Al Gore and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.
His prepared speeches have also adopted a more unifying and optimistic tone. The liberal Hollywood blog Deadline.com noted, with some degree of surprise, that Trump’s “thank you” speech in North Carolina on Tuesday was “villain-free.”
Yet in his impromptu statements to the cameras, and on Twitter, Trump has goaded the haters into the usual hysterical fits. His tweet about punishing flag-burners, for example, prompted his left-wing critics to reach, panting, for the nearest Constitution (a document whose value they have belatedly discovered). And his threats to Boeing, and to U.S. companies who move jobs offshore, irritated many conservatives, who rose valiantly to defend the “free market” in Department of Defense contracts.
Critics on both sides have a good point. The First Amendment exists to protect speech we don’t like. And Trump’s comments on Boeing — “We want Boeing to make a lot of money but not that much money” — sound eerily similar to President Barack Obama’s own infamous argument for government intervention: “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”
Why would Trump irritate these critics, both left and right? The answer is he wants to provoke them, even as he schmoozes the establishment.
And his reasons for doing so go far beyond petty point-scoring in the media, or the sheer fun of the fight.
On the left, Trump wants Democrats to keep doing what they have done for the past several months, and years — namely, obsessing over shiny objects and embracing identity politics. He wants to avoid them re-discovering some kind of ideological foundation, or popular constituency, for opposition. He wants them to stay inside their media bubble, talking to themselves.
By the looks of things, Trump is succeeding. Democrats re-elected Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), rewarding her failure again. They also elevated Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) to Senate Minority Leader, affirming the popular caricature of Democrats as a “bi-coastal” party. The only leader they have found from “flyover country” happens to be Minnesota’s Rep. Keith Ellison, formerly of the Nation of Islam. That triumvirate can only take Democrats further into the political wilderness.
On the right, Trump wants conservatives to be agitated. Yes, he is courting Mitt Romney. But he is also is poking the smoky coals of NeverTrump to stir their fire. He wants them — not, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — to be the loudest voices.
Trump prefers conservatives as adversaries at the negotiating table for two reasons. First, unlike left-liberal Democrats, who are already vowing to say “no” to almost everything Trump proposes, conservative Republicans actually want to make deals.
Second, conservatives already agree with Trump on the fundamental issues — the Supreme Court, for example. As Democrats learned over decades of “negotiating” with public sector unions, it’s easier when the other side is also on your side.
So when Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon (on leave as Breitbart News Executive Chairman) gives his first interview to the Hollywood Reporter and says, “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” there is a method to the madness.
Unlike Obama, who quieted internal opposition and marginalized the right, Trump is stoking internal criticism and letting the left marginalize itself.
He is not yet governing, but he is already re-framing the debate.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.