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You’ll Be Back, Dummies
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You’ll Be Back, Dummies

How the former president outrages the media and wins over the anti-anti-Trumpers.

Dean Winters in ‘30 Rock.’ (Photo courtesy of Broadway Video/NBC Universal)

Brother Jonah Goldberg and my darling, Jessica Melugin, two people I love—albeit in very different ways—have both compared former President Donald Trump to the 30 Rock character Dennis Duffy, played by Dean Winters, the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate Insurance commercials. 

Duffy is the terrible ex-boyfriend of protagonist Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey. And his signature line to Lemon, “You’ll be back, dummy,” is very Trump. Lemon thinks she can do better, but again and again finds herself returning to him when she doesn’t want to put in the effort to have a more suitable partner. 

“That dumb creep makes me laugh. … Being with Dennis is easy. If you give into it you just start feeling kind of numb and warm,” she says. “And then you just get sleepy.”

Duffy even shares Trump’s ideology: “Social conservative, fiscal liberal.” It was an obvious gag for writers in 2008, since the exact inverse was the prevailing view among the upper classes in those days of gay-marriage culture wars, and embodied in then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who even makes a cameo appearance in the same episode.

But among New York billionaires, Trump was a lot closer to the electorate’s point of view—a free-spender who was also an enemy of cultural change—not unlike the Democratic Party that dominated American politics from 1932 to 1965.  

That’s not what makes Trump the Dennis Duffy of American politics, though. It’s the way we dummies all keep coming back.

Witness the media freakout this week around Trump saying that if he was elected next year he would not be a dictator “except for Day 1.” The line came at a televised gathering of Iowa supporters and in response to a prompt from one of his advisers, who was trying to get Trump to assure anxious voters that he would not “abuse power,” “break the law,” or “use the government to go after people.”

Here’s the next part of the exchange, as described by the New York Times:

“You are promising America tonight, you would never abuse this power as retribution against anybody?” he said. “Except for Day 1,” Mr. Trump said breezily. There was the smallest silence. “Except for—” Mr. Hannity responded, sounding a bit flustered. “Look,” Mr. Trump joked to the crowd watching him in Davenport, Iowa. “He’s going crazy.” … “This guy, he says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’” Mr. Trump said, referring to Mr. Hannity. “I said, ‘No, no, no — other than Day 1.’ We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

You can watch it here, but the write-up catches the spirit, including that “smallest silence.” That’s the sound of trolling. That’s Trump pausing, mid-blabber, when he senses that he’s got a live one on the line.

Hannity was asking Trump to join him and the rest of the pro-Trump media in pooh-poohing the fretful pieces pouring out at the Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. This triggers the old Republican autoimmune disorder of anti-anti-Trumpism, in which individuals who might otherwise object to Trump’s actual authoritarian tendencies get busy attacking those who overstate those tendencies.   

When Trump saw how much Hannity wanted him to say the appropriate, responsible thing, the former president knew he had an opening. And, blammo, he hits his triple bank shot.

By entertaining the idea of being dictator for a day, Trump gets to 1) explode the heads of the left and the media, 2) initiate the anti-anti-Trump immune response, and 3) tell actual nutbars who want him to be an authoritarian that he’s their guy. Bing, bang, boom.

And the part about sealing the border and drilling? That’s the trap door he built in to let himself out later. “Yes,” he’ll say, “I want to be a dictator when it comes to stopping the flood of migrants and opening up domestic energy.” Wink. 

Like his weasel wording around the support of white supremacists or his Muslim ban “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” the little fillip about the border and drilling leaves him room to maneuver but still delivers the white-hot outrage of his critics and establishes his defense, even from those who know better, around issues that are broadly popular.

It’s not that Trump is a genius, but that he has a genius for being able to exploit the political press and play the citizens in a bitterly divided republic against one another. His gift isn’t seeing those spaces—lots of politicians do—nor in his willingness to do it. There are thousands of aspiring demagogues in American public life these days, in politics and in the media. What makes Trump so good at it is how well he knows his audience: the lazy, lazy political press.

He trolls until he finds a fish on the line, and then he sets the hook and reels them in.

It was H.L. Mecken who said “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

And Trump, like Dennis Duffy, knows that applies to writers, too.


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 38.8%
Average disapproval: 57.4%
Net score: –18.6 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 4.2 points

[Average includes: Reuters/Ipsos: 40% approve-53% disapprove; NBC News: 40% approve-57% disapprove; Gallup: 37% approve-59% disapprove; Fox News: 40% approve-59% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 37% approve-59% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: STRIP CLUB 

Garden & Gun: “It’s just a typical day in the G&G office: Pen and paper in hand, twelve editors are huddled around a conference table covered with pans of fresh-cooked bacon. There’s thick bacon and thin bacon; strips of bacon so unbelievably crispy you might be able to shatter them with a glance, others so thick and chewy you need a knife and fork. The aromas permeating the room are intoxicating—and the giddiness of the hungry staff infectious. Everyone knows the South makes great bacon, and we have gathered nearly a dozen of the finest small-scale, mailable offerings in the attempt to find the region’s best. On the table, each tray is labeled with a number. We will taste them blindly, take notes, and rank them independently before tallying the results and revealing which is which. We may need to taste some again, just to be sure we got it right. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it.”


CONGRESS LIMPS TOWARD RETIREMENT RECORD

Axios: “Lawmakers are fleeing Congress at a record clip, with 13 senators and representatives announcing [in November] they won’t seek re-election — the highest number in more than a decade. … Rancor and recriminations from the House speaker’s battle, a surge in partisan censures and impeachments and yet another government shutdown threat have created a perfect storm for retirements. … The vacated seats offer Republicans potential pickup opportunities in the House and Senate next year — and could open the door for more partisan lawmakers on both sides. Apart from Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), all of the House GOP departures are from reliably red districts. Several districts being left by Democrats are competitive.” 

McCarthy surrenders: Politico: “Kevin McCarthy is officially leaving Congress. The ousted speaker is resigning from the House at the end of the year,  concluding a nearly two-decade congressional career long-marked by his open aspirations to the chamber’s top spot, only to lose it after nine turbulent months. … Few expected him to stay in the House as a rank-and-file member for long. Still, McCarthy is expected to remain active in party affairs. … His retirement will also kick off a race for his Bakersfield-based district seat, which is solidly red. And there are plenty of ambitious GOP politicians eager for a rare shot at a safe seat.” 

As battleground moderates lose their big benefactor: Cook Political Report: “[McCarthy has] relentlessly crisscrossed the country recruiting swing district candidates who didn’t look or sound like Trump (including scores of women, minorities and veterans), stealthily backed ‘governing-oriented’ Republicans in safe open seats. … Luckily for House Republicans, they enjoyed a strong candidate recruitment streak under McCarthy before the conference descended into leadership chaos. … But that could change now that Biden-district moderates are operating under a different reality. McCarthy’s exit in particular adds to the exposure of vulnerable California members who benefited from the tens of millions McCarthy helped raise for them, including Reps. John Duarte (CA-13), David Valadao (CA-22), Mike Garcia (CA-27), Ken Calvert (CA-41) and Michelle Steel (CA-45).” 

Levin: McHenry and the Matter of Institutional Decline: National Review: “[Rep. Patrick McHenry’s] departure will be a terrible loss not only for Republicans but for Congress as an institution, and it offers some lessons about the state of the first branch at this point. … Although he’s still relatively young for a House member, at 48, he is by now a member formed by the House to serve both his constituents and his country as a seasoned legislator. He has a deep understanding of how the House works and doesn’t. … The House has grown increasingly repulsive to precisely the kind of member who will be necessary if that next great turn is going to be a turn for the better. … But the problem is not just the partisan culture-war circus. It’s also the way that House Republicans discourage experienced leadership at the committee level [because] Republicans limit their chairmen to six years in the job — just about enough time to learn to like it and to do it well.”

DESANTIS PAC ON THE ROPES AS STAFFING CHURN CONTINUES

Reuters: “A pair of key figures at the main super PAC supporting Ron DeSantis‘ presidential bid have left the organization … as internal squabbles among the Florida governor’s allies intensify in the weeks before the first Republican nominating contests. Kristin Davison, the chief executive officer of the Never Back Down super PAC, and Erin Perrine, the communications director, have parted ways with the group. … Davison was on the job for less than two weeks, after replacing the former chief executive of Never Back Down in late November. … The ongoing drama at Never Back Down, known widely as NBD, is a serious issue for DeSantis, as the group has played a critical role supporting the Florida governor’s election efforts. … Senior campaign officials have increasingly lost confidence in NBD over the last few months. … DeSantis allies recently formed a new Super PAC, dubbed Fight Right, which is focusing on attacks against former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.’”

Trump sets Haley’s home-state ceiling: New York Times: “If she is to make a real play for the Republican presidential nomination, South Carolina is where Ms. Haley needs to prove that the party’s voters want to turn the page on the Trump era. … But Ms. Haley’s road to victory on her home turf will be steep. … [Trump] has a tight hold on most of the Republican establishment, appearing recently with both Gov. Henry McMaster and Senator Lindsey Graham and boasting more than 80 endorsements from current and former officials across the state. … But Ms. Haley’s efforts have so far been less pronounced in South Carolina. She has spent 58 days campaigning almost evenly between Iowa and New Hampshire, but only 12 in her own backyard. … Ms. Haley’s political base in the state remains the same as it was when she was governor: the affluent — and more moderate — Republicans along the coast and in Charleston.”

Burgum bows out: Wall Street Journal: “North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum dropped out of the Republican presidential nomination race Monday. … Burgum, 67 years old and known for a casual style and noninflammatory rhetoric, was never a significant presence in the race. He participated in the first and second primary debates in the late summer and early fall, but failed to qualify for subsequent debates. … In his native North Dakota, Burgum built Great Plains Software from a small startup into a company acquired by Microsoft for $1.1 billion in stock in 2001.”

Scott won’t endorse “anytime soon,” denies VP speculation: NBC News: “‘I said when I withdrew from the presidential race that I would not be endorsing anytime soon,’ [Sen. Tim Scott said.] ‘It certainly won’t happen this year, If I do it at all.’ … Scott also highlighted Trump’s sustained polling lead in the GOP primary, expressing doubt that any of his former 2024 opponents could ‘catch him right now.’ … He also made clear … he was not actively seeking a spot on one of the remaining Republican tickets as a potential running mate. ‘Being vice president has never been on my to do list for this campaign, and it’s certainly not there now,’ Scott said.”

Pair of January debates set with higher polling thresholds: CNN: “CNN will host two Republican presidential primary debates next month in Iowa and New Hampshire. … The first debate will take place on January 10 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, less than a week before Iowa caucusgoers weigh in on the Republican presidential race. The second debate will be January 21 at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire. … To qualify for participation in the Iowa debate, candidates must receive at least 10% in three separate national and/or Iowa polls. … Former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have hit 10% in at least three qualifying polls, including one of likely caucusgoers in Iowa. DeSantis said Thursday in a post on X that he is ‘looking forward to debating in Iowa!’”

BRIEFLY

Squad member Jamaal Bowman draws primary opponent—Lohud

Dems tap former Congressman Tom Suozzi for Santos seat—New York Newsday

Despite Georgia GOP gerrymander, McBath vows to remain in Congress—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

NYC progressives prep challenge to Mayor Eric Adams—Politico

WITHIN EARSHOT: THE LIKES OF WHICH YOU’VE NEVER SEEN

“I’ve often said, Al Capone, he was one of the greatest of all time, if you like criminals. … And he got indicted once. I got indicted four times.”—Former President Donald Trump one-ups notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone during a campaign event in Iowa. 


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the peripatetic Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: AND DON’T CALL HIM SHIRLEY

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in the spin room following a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Georgia, on November 30, 2023. (Photo by Christian Monterrosa/AFP/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in the spin room following a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Georgia, on November 30, 2023. (Photo by Christian Monterrosa/AFP/Getty Images)

I can make no defense of my preference for this week’s winner. It’s a nostalgia play, a pop culture reference, and regional bias. Our winner found so many of my weak spots that I just couldn’t resist. You know it’s a dated reference when readers under the age of 45 will need the following setup: In the 1970s, General Foods’ Yuban Coffee—a portmanteau of “Yuletide Banquet” from the name the original brand’s Pittsburgher founder, John Arbuckle, gave to the special blend he handed out at Christmastime—introduced an ad campaign in which viewers heard the anxious inner monologue of a wife who is stunned to hear her husband’s preference for another hostess’ coffee. Her husband seems like a real creep, and the ads were a popular target of parody, most famously in the 1980 movie Airplane!  The winner grabbed that reference for a photo that begged for a cutline that spoke to the internal monologue of a pensive, dour Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Like I said, a long way to go to explain the joke. Just call it my own Yuletide Banquet …

“Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home…”—Matt Hannon, Fruita, Colorado

Winner, Many People Are Saying Division:

“… Sad! …”—Donnie Bishop, New Castle, Virginia

Winner, Shucked Division:

“I really don’t like corn, but if I don’t eat it, they’ll never vote for me.”—Dave Kilborn, Saskatoon, Canada

Winner, A Bird in the Hand Division:

“Mm, being the governor of Florida ain’t so bad!?!?”—Cliff Painter, Wendell, North Carolina

Winner, Tort-ured Division: 

“DeSantis ponders switching career to personal injury law.”—David Sneath, Little Mountain, South Carolina

Winner, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi Division:

“Gov. Ron DeSantis announces he will hold his breath until his campaign gets its act together.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, We See What You Did There Division:

“Do you like the new pose? I came up with it after November 2020. I call it, ‘Blue Steal.’”—Jonathan Mahlum, Orting, Washington

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


TOUGH CALL

WJW: “A woman found guilty of throwing her Chipotle order at an employee was sentenced to jail. She was also given the chance to work off part of the sentence by working at a fast-food restaurant. Parma [Ohio] Municipal Court Judge Timothy Gilligan sentenced 39-year-old Rosemary Hayne on Tuesday. … ‘You didn’t get your burrito bowl the way you like it and this is how you respond?’ Judge Gilligan said during sentencing. ‘This is not real housewives of Parma. …’ Video played during the hearing shows Hayne bring her Chipotle bowl to the counter and slam it down, confronting the worker. Seconds later, she is seen throwing the entire bowl in the worker’s face. … The judge sentenced her to 180 days in jail and suspended 90 of those days. He said he would give her 60 days jail credit if she worked at least 20 hours per week at a fast food restaurant for two months.”

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.