The liberal rank and file are more energized than they have been for years. Political novices are signing up to run for office across the country. Democrats are well ahead in nearly any poll you care to mention. But still, I give them only a fair-to-middling chance of ultimately defeating him.
Why? Because you go into political combat with the party you have, not the party you wish you had. And the Democratic Party we have today is not particularly well suited to the essential task of beating Donald Trump.
It is true that the Democrats’ fighting instincts have been aroused by the ascendancy of Trump, and this is a healthy thing. Fewer and fewer American liberals worship at the shrine of bipartisanship, as they have done for most of the past few decades. Instead, they are outraged. They are horrified at what has happened. Descriptions of Republican misgovernance that were formerly considered extreme are now taken for granted.2 That a quality person like Hillary Clinton, who prepared to be president all her life, should be bested by this vulgar, racist ignoramus — it is unthinkable. It is unacceptable.
I understand this reaction. I have felt it myself. But it has led the Democrats into a trap familiar to anyone with experience of left-wing politics: the party’s own high regard for itself has come to eclipse every other concern. Among the authorized opinion leaders of liberalism, for example, the task of deploring and denouncing the would-be dictator has crowded out the equally important task of assessing where the Democratic Party went wrong. Indeed, the two projects appear to them to be contradictory — they find it impossible to flagellate Trump one day and examine themselves the next. Of the two, it is introspection that must hit the bricks. And it is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened — a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.
This is unfortunate, because what happened in 2016 deserves to be taken seriously. This country of 320 million people was swept by a tidal wave of populist rage. Alongside the ugly eruption of bigotry there swirled perfectly natural concerns about deindustrialization, oligarchy, the power of big banks, bad trade deals, and the long-term abandonment of working-class concerns by the Democrats. I am condensing many strands here, of course, but what is important is that for all its awfulness, there were elements of the 2016 revolt that liberals ought to heed.
But most leading Democrats can’t seem to see any of that. They don’t know what to make of Trump and his supporters, so violently does Trumpism transgress the professional norms to which they are accustomed. It is distasteful to them that they should be required to learn anything from a clown like the current president — that they should have to change in any way to accommodate his preposterous views. And so they cast about for leaders who might allow them to prevail without doing anything differently: a celebrity who might communicate better, a politician who might turn out the base more effectively. They devour articles about Trump voters who have had a change of heart and now beg forgiveness for their sins. They chide other liberals whom they regard as insufficiently enthusiastic about the Democratic Party. Above all, they dream of a deus ex machina, a super-prosecutor who will bring down justice like fire and reverse the unfortunate results of 2016 without anyone having to change their talking points in the slightest.
The price of going down this path is that it encourages passivity and delusions of righteousness. Their job, Democrats think, is to wait for Trump to be led out of the Oval Office in flex-cuffs while they stand by anathematizing him and his supporters. They don’t need to convince anyone. They need only let their virtue shine bright for all to see.
Now, this is a morally satisfying position, and it might even work. Maybe some prosecutor has really and truly got the goods on this scoundrel. Maybe the outpouring of anti-Trump feeling will suffice to defeat him: being against him may be all that voters require from a candidate in the midterm congressional contests.
On the other hand, in the vast catalogue of social posturing, there are few more repugnant sights than rich people congratulating themselves for being righteous. In particular, it is a terrible way to win back the blue-collar white voters who were responsible, even more than were the Russians, for Trump’s win. For insight into the thinking of this cohort, I turned to Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which canvasses working-class neighborhoods around the country. Karen Nussbaum, the organization’s executive director, was blunt about it: “If Democrats just want to keep piling on Trump, that will be the way to get Trump reelected.” Resisting the president’s agenda is important, of course, but when Working America canvassers knock on doors, she added, they never point the finger at Trump voters. “We don’t say, ‘Aren’t you sorry you voted for him?’ That’s the last thing you should talk about with them.”
The real concerns of these voters, Nussbaum told me, are such bedrock matters as jobs, wages, schools, Social Security — the very things Trump made such a loud display of pretending to care about in 2016. The Democrats, of course, did their pretending in the other direction that year. They identified themselves with globalization, with trade agreements, with Silicon Valley, addressing the public as complacent representatives of this triumphant economic order. It was an old line of patter, the philosophy of the Nineties, reiterated mechanically at a time when no one believed it anymore.
Yes, the Democrats also promised to “break barriers” so that the talented could rise regardless of race or gender. The system itself, however, was judged to be in excellent health. As President Obama put it just before the election, “The economic progress we’re making is undeniable.” Or, as Hillary Clinton liked to say, “America never stopped being great.”
It was exactly the wrong message for an enormous part of the population. Stanley Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster who understood the Trump phenomenon better than many others, told me recently that the Democrats’ mistake was “selling progress at a time of growing, record inequality, stark pain, and financial struggle.” Even when the Democrats could see the obvious shortcomings of such an approach, they felt they couldn’t change. “How do I talk about their pain without sounding like I’m criticizing President Obama and his economy?” Hillary Clinton asked Greenberg during the campaign, according to a 2017 essay he wrote for The American Prospect. “I just can’t do that.”
That dilemma persists to this day. How do Democrats change course without sounding like they’re criticizing Obama or the Clintons — or, by extension, the neoliberal fantasy that has sustained the party since the Nineties? The answer is that they can’t, and so they don’t. They would rather sit back and expect Robert Mueller to rescue them. They would rather count on demographic change to give them a majority somewhere down the road. So they “do nothing and wait for the other side to implode,” observed Bill Curry, a former adviser to President Clinton who has emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s strongest internal critics. “That’s been their strategy for most of my adult life. Well, how’s that been working out?”
Curry continued his critique. The party, he said, desperately needs to get over its infatuation with its glorious past: “The mistakes of the Democratic Party are the mistakes of Obama and Clinton. Taking responsibility for those mistakes means holding them accountable. And so many people have such deep, positive feelings for Obama and the Clintons that they can’t bear to have that conversation.” His conclusion was as blunt as what I heard from so many others: “Trump wins by the Democrats not changing.”
This sounds dreadful to me, but I suspect that for a lot of prosperous liberals, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For them, there’s an alternative to political victory: a utopia of scolding. Who needs to win elections when you can personally reestablish the rightful social order every day on Twitter and Facebook? When you can scold, and scold, and scold, and scold. That’s their future, and it’s a satisfying one: a finger wagging in some deplorable’s face, forever.
Read the entire piece by Thomas Frank at the Harper’s website.