Why going low is better than going high
The Obamas say, “when they go low, we go high”. This is one of the many reasons I love the Obamas (and I do love them, maybe even as much as this girl). But watching Trump lay waste to his rivals, I have come to think that the opposite strategy might be better.
Trump has, in more or less words, introduced himself as corrupt, racist, inexperienced, dishonest, and incoherent. These things are on their face weaknesses, yet they paradoxically serve as the foundation of his rising candidacy. It feels like most of the world, including his rivals, are an audience mesmerized by magic tricks. But I think I see what’s going on.
Let’s start with corruption. That Trump is corrupt is so manifestly obvious that it doesn’t need stating (but he has done so nevertheless for those who lack perception). By going low and being openly corrupt, he comes across as candid. This is very effective — many of his supporters cite this as what they like about him. Going low also protects him if he’s caught — even if you produced a tape of him and Pam Bondi where he says “Listen Pam, how much money would it take for the Trump U case to go away?” many people would shrug because he’s already boasted that he pays off politicians.
If he claimed virtue instead, people would think he sounded phony “like a politician”, and he’d be vulnerable to attacks. And therein lies the key advantage to going low: it makes it much harder for specific allegations to stick for two reasons. First, the burden is on the accuser to prove the allegation is right. If one goes high, then even the presence of the allegation is a liability, and the burden is on them to disprove it. Second (and this is the “magic trick”), it’s much harder to prove that something did happen then to prove that something did not. (Prosecutors in criminal cases have to prove the defendant is guilty, otherwise they could just pick some poor sap up off the street who lacks an alibi and demand that they prove themselves innocent.)
You can see this play out when you compare the Trump Foundation with the Clinton Foundation. Clinton has gone high, and so she needs to prove that each donor received no compensation to avoid the appearance of corruption. News reports say things like “questions have been raised…”, and “… casts a shadow…”, an so on. Trump, on the other hand, goes low and so someone else needs to prove that, eg, he bribed Bondi. That’s vastly more difficult. Furthermore, since his opponent is vulnerable, he can always deflect by saying she’s the corrupt one.
From his campaign announcement where he said that Mexico was sending rapists to the US, to his theory that Judge Curiel was unfair to him because he was Mexican, to the full-page Harambe on Breitbart celebrating the trolling of the mainstream media this morning, Trump has announced his racism, albeit always one step removed. Note that he did not say, “Mexicans are rapists”, or “Judge Curiel is incompetent”, or “Obama is an ape”. You can’t quite get away with that level of directness in America, at least not yet. But he doesn’t have to. With just a bit of indirection, he can suggest the evil thing to curry favor among racists, and also disavow it in polite company.
Since Trump has already announced that he’s racist, he’s largely immune to being called one. Again, the burden is on someone else to show a specific instance of racism. He can deny that all of his open statements are racist, and even if you come up with a concrete case, it doesn’t stick, because “duh”.
Similarly, by claiming to be inexperienced, Trump brands himself as an outsider, free from the entanglements of career politicians. It also makes him immune to attacks — he has little public record full of hard-won compromises to defend, and when it comes to specific policies, he can just make them up as he goes along. The Iraq war is now viewed as a failure, so he can just say, “I was opposed to that disaster” and the burden is on someone else to prove that he actually supported the war.
Trump lies like a used car salesman, and produces conspiracy theories, baseless assertions, and incoherent utterances willy-nilly. Again, his supporters are pleased by his “blue collar” speech patterns since it makes him seem less pretentious than people who put together coherent thoughts based on facts and reasoning. Incoherence also gives him cover when he lies, because people were never quite sure what he was saying in the first place. When he says thousands of muslims were celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11, he doesn’t give specifics because they would be verifiable. He famously begins libelous statements like: “I don’t think this is true, but people are saying…”
When Clinton goes high and claims to be honest, every utterance is suspect. She constantly needs to assert veracity. In fact, often she even gets in trouble just trying to clear up something that’s already part of the public record, as she did with her claim that Comey had found her testimony truthful. She has to prove she’s truthful, someone else has to prove he’s lied.
I wish I had some pithy conclusion or corollary to this. I don’t. So I’ll conclude with this: as a software engineer, I have found this essay “Worse is Better” has resonated with my cynicism about many things in life, and inspired me to write this political post.