Beating Trump in 2020 requires a specific kind of media savvy. Are Democrats ready?

President Donald Trump was talking about cheese — and Hitler. Specifically, he was describing to “Good Morning Britain” host Piers Morgan this month how Hitler was “going through countries like cheese” in a discussion about Winston Churchill. It was a brief comment in a wide-ranging, news-making interview that also included tangents on John McCain, Meghan Markle, transgender members of the military, climate change and more. New York magazine identified “9 must-see moments.” Chris Cillizza at CNN found the 31 most “noteworthy lines.” Chuck Todd on MSNBC selected it as something he was “obsessed” with.

It, like many things Trump does, dominated the Twitter conversation — for a day or two at least, until Trump tweeted the next thing.

As the yuge field of Democratic candidates prepare to battle it out on the debate circuit beginning later this week on NBC, part of the test will ultimately be who can compete with the incumbent on the biggest stage during the general election.

Morgan has a penchant for extracting buzzy moments from his interviewees — and for making them. But the interview also highlights a key explanation for how Donald Trump, the reality TV show host, became Donald Trump, the president — he possesses a preternatural ability to drive the modern news cycle. As the yuge field of Democratic candidates prepare to battle it out on the debate circuit beginning this week on NBC, part of the test will ultimately be who can compete with the incumbent on the biggest stage during the general election — and compete under the lights of the always-on multiplatform program known as “The Trump Show.”

During the 2015 and 2016 primaries, the media was more than happy to unofficially team up with Trump — to the tune of an estimated $2 billion in “free media.” Trump exhibits a general mastery of our current cultural climate as well as the media’s insatiable appetite for drama and controversy. However, his medium of choice is the tiny, 280-character, stream-of-consciousness thoughts he can fire off into the social media atmosphere on Twitter.

Trump, confusingly, attempted to clear up reports he called Meghan Markle “nasty” by essentially repeating the accusation.

“I wasn’t referring to ‘she’s nasty.’ I said she was nasty about me. And essentially I didn’t know she was nasty about me.” https://t.co/Y9Qhn1BqoZ pic.twitter.com/QqaGr3Ow3t

— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 5, 2019

On MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ podcast last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates correctly diagnosed the Trump-Twitter phenomenon. “He’s the perfect Twitter user,” Coates said. “An artist being matched to his genre.”

This means Democrats who want to beat Trump have to beat him on his home court. Trump employs a peculiar form of media warfare you simply can’t prepare for — the kind that so flustered odds-on GOP primary favorite “Low Energy” Jeb Bush he couldn’t even make it to Super Tuesday.

On one level, Trump has a tremendous leg up on his opponents when it comes to digital guerrilla warfare. The Democratic field of front-runners have Twitter followers in the 1 million to 10 million range, with Pete Buttigieg (1.1 million), Elizabeth Warren (2.5 million) and Kamala Harris (2.6 million) at the low end, and Bernie Sanders (9.3 million) at the high end. Joe Biden is somewhere in the middle, with 3.5 million. Trump sits at just over 60 million followers. But it’s not just about quantity.

Authenticity is going to be an enormous component to successful combat. I’ve written before about how running for president is unlike running for any other position, because it requires a sort of aspirational, abstract element that extends beyond policy and even personality. Likability is less necessary than being fully and truthfully “you” — and displaying both habits and flaws with some level of relatability.

It’s what made Barack Obama such a successful candidate. George W. Bush, too. Bill Clinton, who was elected before Twitter was even an idea, had this secret ingredient in spades. And Trump oozes it, too — a combination of relatable and incredible, he wears his personality traits on his sleeve like a gigantic cufflink.

Biden also seems to have this quality, embodying as he does the habits and flaws of an aspirational friend. But can Biden successfully be the foil to Trump’s antics? Or will he join the fray and come out looking like a Trump double, generating his own set of embarrassing headlines?

Bernie Sanders has shown he has the ability to stay remarkably on message. But he has been in the game a long time, and if he makes it to the general election, he’ll be facing an opponent unlike any he’s had to deal with before — meaning for the first time in his remarkably consistent political life, he’ll have to adjust on the fly.

Trump oozes it too — a combination of relatable and incredible, he wears his personality traits on his sleeve like a gigantic cufflink.

Warren has this secret ingredient as well, but she must find a way to translate it to a wider audience. Her forays into beer chugging on Instagram Live were not a promising start (and were subsequently mocked by Trump on Twitter). But she has made policy her weapon of choice, attracting some unlikely praise from the Fox host Tucker Carlson. When Trump begins throwing around the racially charged nicknames we know are coming should she win the primary, she must stay herself and not mimic her opponent in order to come out victorious.

For Harris and Buttigieg, beating Trump will likely require an evolution into more clear versions of themselves. Harris has a professional background that could be appealing to a wide array of Americans. She has experience and personality. But she must deliver what the media thirsts for — moments, nuggets, headlines — or she’ll fail to generate the attention necessary to win. Buttigieg has no shortage of attention following a massive media blitz over the past two months. But when he gets on the debate stage, he’ll have to distinguish himself as a credible foe despite his relative inexperience.

The Democratic primary will be a long one, and perhaps another candidate will emerge — Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, or any of other 20-something hopefuls now running. But the winner of this marathon primary will have only fought the first battle of a digital war.

On Twitter, Trump opines about everything from horse racing to Daylight Saving Time. But he’s most adept at using Twitter as a megaphone for conversation-starting, and conversation-changing, bombs. Trump’s the bride at the wedding who tosses the bouquet and then gleefully watches the media fall over themselves trying to catch it. To succeed in this world, against this opponent who refuses to play by the rules, Democrats will have to manufacture the news cycle in the same way Trump does.

That doesn’t mean taking his bait. But it does mean introducing new, more interesting storylines into the culture and consciousness. Don’t mirror his game — when Bill de Blasio tried to mimic Trump’s nickname habit, he came off looking false and hacky. Don’t get flustered by the insults, the way Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the rest of the GOP field did in 2016.

The Trump circus is coming back to town and Democrats have to avoid joining it while also repressing the urge to try to shut it down. If you want to win in this new era of media micro-cycles and Twitter warfare, you better get ready to put on your own show next door.

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