Donald Trump has dumbed down our politics, diminishing the discourse to the point that a cry at a rally or a tweet passes for a statement of principle. This is the political game that Trump has chosen to play. And he has played it well enough to dominate the debate for four long years.
But he is getting beaten this week by a better man. Beto O’Rourke is not going low in the way that Trump does. He is bringing more nuance, insight, and honest emotion to the dialogue. But he is waging the debate on all the platforms that Trump uses. And O’Rourke is winning.
After a horrific mass shooting that left 22 men, women, and children dead in El Paso, killed by a white man who targeted Latinos and whose “manifesto” echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant hate speech, O’Rourke responded not as a 2020 presidential contender (or as the Senate candidate some would like him to be) but as a passionate son of his hometown.
The former El Paso City Council member and congressman held nothing back. He condemned Trump as “a racist” who “stokes racism in this country.” He challenged those who might coddle Trump or make excuses for a president who takes no responsibility for vile words and deeds. O’Rourke refused to go along anymore with the standard candidate-reporter exchanges regarding the man he proposes to challenge. “What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” O’Rourke said of Trump. “I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck? Hold on a second. You know, I—it’s these questions that you know the answers to.”
That reply came in an emotional moment over the weekend that saw two mass shootings in 24 hours. And O’Rourke has not backed down. He has amplified his call for the media to do a better job of examining Trump’s destructive politics, declaring, “You cannot leave it up to me. Members of the press: You too have to call him out for being the most racist president since Andrew Johnson.” O’Rourke has proposed bold solutions, suggesting an openness to a mandatory gun buy-back program like the one implemented in Australia after a mass shooting. And he has kept calling the president out in stark and unrelenting terms.
On Monday, after Pod Save America host Jon Favreau asked why the media hasn’t been blunter in calling out the president’s racism, O’Rourke held nothing back. “I am so beyond frustrated at this point,” he said. “When in the history of the Western democracies has the leader of a country described a people based on their religion as inherently defective or dangerous and sought to keep them out or eject them from the country? That Greenville rally in North Carolina—those chants of ‘send her back’ were absolutely chilling.… That’s Nuremberg to me. That is a leader reveling in the hatred and the racism of the people that he purports to serve and to lead.”
O’Rourke’s general response—and, presumably, that reference to Nazi Germany—rattled the Trump White House and its amen corner in right-wing media.
White House apologist in chief Kellyanne Conway announced that she wanted to “name and shame” O’Rourke and griped that “Beto O’Rourke, from the Vanity Affair magazine cover to the vanity project candidacy, out there screaming and cursing about President Trump, that doesn’t heal a single soul, that doesn’t help prevent another mass shooting.”
Then, as the president prepared to make a trip to El Paso that local officials have criticized, Trump unleashed on O’Rourke—with a venomous Tuesday-night tweet that screamed, “Beto (phony name to indicate Hispanic heritage) O’Rourke, who is embarrassed by my last visit to the Great State of Texas, where I trounced him, and is now even more embarrassed by polling at 1% in the Democrat Primary, should respect the victims & law enforcement—& be quiet!”
O’Rourke responded immediately, and devastatingly, with a tweet that simply said: “22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I.”
Twelve hours after their Twitter exchange, almost 175,000 people had liked O’Rourke’s remark. Barely 90,000 had liked Trump’s.
Those are numbers even the president should understand. But, in case he missed the point, an able O’Rourke aide, Lauren Hitt, drove it home: “I can think of nothing more devastating to say to
@realDonaldTrump than to point out that Beto’s response already has more likes than Trump’s original tweet.”
Nor can I.