If you ever doubted Pete Buttigieg’s ability to handle Donald Trump’s punches, his response to the president’s opening salvo should assuage your concerns.
After Trump made a hilarious comparison between Buttigieg and Alfred E. Neuman, the fictitious mascot of MAD Magazine, Mayor Pete responded: "I’ll be honest. I had to Google that. I guess it’s just a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference.”
In other words, “OK, grandpa.”
It was a very subtle, if devious, way of playing the age card—one that preserves plausible deniability. He doesn’t want to offend older voters (who tend to vote in large numbers and who probably think Buttigieg is likable) by joking about the need to get home in time to watch Matlock reruns.
It suggests to me that Buttigieg has given some serious thought regarding how to effectively rebuff Trump’s coming taunts.
Keep in mind, Trump’s superpower is humiliating people and revealing and exploiting their flaws. He defines people by assigning them nicknames and mocking them (usually for things that have at least a hint of truth). He may point out that his wife is hotter than yours, give out your personal cellphone number, or accuse your dad of being involved in the JFK assassination.
As such, being able to take a punch—and effectively counterpunch—is one of the most vital skills a potential Democratic nominee can possess.
Indeed, as Democrats consider criteria for choosing a nominee, they seem to be keeping tabs on who can stand up to Trump and who can’t. Let’s take, for example, Elizabeth Warren. Her botched “Pocahontas” response was devastating, precisely because it undermined the notion that Warren could stand up to Trump’s insults and come out unscathed.
So how do you beat him?
Some of this is simply how you are hardwired. Mayor Pete—maybe partly due to his youthfulness—seems to have preserved an almost childlike quality, without being childish. He seems to have fun, he has a thick skin, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
That’s half the battle, but there’s definitely strategy involved.
Think of a boxer. Some pugilists stand toe-to-toe and try to knock you out (think Mike Tyson), while others dance around you (think Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard) before exhausting you or winning the match on points.
The important thing is not how you win, so much as that you win (by not getting knocked out).
Donald Trump is a heavyweight fighter, and it’s possible to imagine a mano-a-mano matchup where he loses to another heavyweight—say, for example, a younger Bill Clinton (in his prime).
But it’s also possible that someone might simply outmaneuver Trump (think Barack Obama) by staying cool and ducking his haymakers—by depriving him of the type of toe-to-toe slugfest he wants. Buttigieg, as others have observed, has modeled himself after Barack Obama.
So how, in practice, might this strategy work against Trump? One idea is by redefining the paradigm from a strength-and-masculinity template to one of youth and hipness.
Rather than validating Trump, you patronize him—you treat him as being out of touch, irrelevant, and a doddering fool (in the vein of Grandpa Simpson).
In other words, play the age card.
We’ve only witnessed a hint of this strategy, but Mayor Pete executed it in a deft and subtle manner.
This is also where Buttigieg’s consultants would point out that this isn’t so much a “negative” message as it is a “contrast” message. The positive side of the ledger is an inspirational message about generational change—a bridge to the future and not the past. Hope and change. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. All that jazz.
The added benefit is that this contrast message only really works for Buttigieg and Beto. Aside from serving as Buttigieg’s escape hatch from Trump, this message also differentiates him from Democratic front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Even if this doesn’t put him over the top in the Democratic primary, it could increase Buttigieg’s odds of being tapped as the nominee’s running mate as a sort of insurance policy to balance the ticket.
By effectively fending off Donald Trump’s first foray into mockery, Buttigieg seems to have identified an effective strategy for countering Trump’s childish taunts. In 2020, this skill will be more precious to Democrats than money or experience.
Round one goes to Mayor Pete.