Democrats can’t agree on what’s the best way to tackle Trump and the Republican congress come election time in 2018, and Ronald Klain gives the prototypical strategy that a lot of Democrats agree with for some reason (“The winning argument Democrats have against Trump,” The Washington Post, 3/10/2017):
What President Trump has done and said in his short time in office is bad enough. But Democrats may find that it is what Trump has failed to do — and is likely to continue to fail to deliver — during his tenure that provides the most powerful case against him.
The importance of this line of attack is underscored by the one pro-Trump finding that stands out among the president’s dismal poll numbers: a solid plurality believe Trump is “being effective and getting things done.” For Democrats, debunking this misperception is vital.
Well-meaning and well-intentioned as suggestions like this are, truly believing that this is a strategy for reattaining congress and, in 2020, the White House, or that it’s a tactic that can bring significant numbers back to discernible reality rather than the conspiracy-crazed world as described by Republicans, is foolhardy.
First, it’s too early in the Trump presidency to determine that he will have done nothing (positive or negative) on the issues Klain runs through—health care, jobs, trade, income, infrastructure—by the time Democrats start heavily campaigning for congressional seats. Not only that, but there is a large, reliable right-wing propaganda machine that never stops telling its audience that Trump is getting things done. It doesn’t matter that February’s positive job growth can’t in any way be linked to anything Trump has done—Fox News and the rest say “Positive job growth in February under Trump!” and that’s what the audience takes away. It’s the same with the Carrier deal: it doesn’t matter that more jobs were lost than saved, or that it’s big government intervening in the free market (something Republicans are supposed to hate), or that it cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars, or that most of those jobs will eventually move anyway. To the average Republican, that’s Trump keeping his promise. The right-wing press can spin just about anything they want and large swaths of the country will believe it.
Second, it should be blindingly obvious that lots of voters—not just Trump diehards—are impervious to reality, and as long as they have a stream of right-wing news to tell them that everything else has a liberal bias, we can’t expect any of that to change anytime soon. I mean, voters looked at Trump and Clinton—hell, they looked at Trump and a field of Republican candidates—and went for Trump (unless, of course, you count the popular vote, which apparently doesn’t matter!). This goes beyond bigotry or lower-middle class white angst. As I’ve asked you to do before, imagine what kind of world you live in where you see Trump as the better choice, even if begrudgingly. Seriously. Imagine what that must be like.
Third, so long as Trump’s inaction or failures are abstract enough that regular voters can’t see any negative effects in their immediate, day-to-day life, and so long as any negative effects that they can detect can be successfully spun by right-wing media to put blame elsewhere (Obama, Democrats, Muslims, whoever), detailing his failures will mean nothing, regardless of how true they are. We live in an era of nationalized politics, where plenty of voters are convinced terrible things are happening all over the country—never where they live, but they’re assured it’s happening everywhere—and that all of those attacks are attacks on them—their religion, their freedom of speech, their paycheck, and so on. And there is never any shortage of meaningless events like atheists protesting a nativity scene at a courthouse to keep people riled up.
This all might sound like I’m only describing Trump’s base, the size of which no one seems able to determine, and that there are plenty of reluctant Trump voters who are looking for a reason not to support him again. That’s what Klain claims anyway:
Most of the country is divided between those who love Trump for the cultural war he is waging, no matter what else he does, and those who loathe him for his divisiveness, even if he somehow produces results on other issues. As a consequence, the future of Trump’s coalition — and the success of his presidency — turns on voters caught between the two groups, voters who were troubled by Trump’s outrageous behavior and statements, but “held their noses” to support him out of a belief that he would produce change on health care, jobs, trade and incomes.
But the important point here is there’s little reason to believe that “held their nose” voters will be willing to either not vote in 2020 (or vote third party) or, more unlikely, switch and vote for the Democratic candidate. Klain, who was a senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, mimics lots of other people in the party who still don’t seem to grasp several of the key lessons of the election.
One of those is that trying to reach “moderate Republicans” is a waste of time. They are too fickle to be relied upon to help deliver election victories that can be used to draft and implement the legislation Democrats want to deliver, and pursuing those voters does so at the risk of alienating the more left-wing elements of the party, who are also not terribly reliable (it was a decent turnout for the Green party), but who are far, far less likely to go Republican than voters who already identify as Republican. I mean, what’s the message there? “You voted for a lunatic who didn’t do what he said he would. Vote Democrat”?
Another is that campaign critics claim Clinton spent too much time identifying herself as not Trump—that the message of “I’m not him” wasn’t inspiring enough. (I don’t know about any of that because I don’t get ‘inspired’ by candidates in that way. I will for the foreseeable future vote for Democrats because 1) Republicans have lost their minds, and 2) they’re the only party that stands a chance to mitigate Republican damage.) Sure, it’s not an inspiring message, but her platform was there for anyone who wanted to see it, and I don’t think Clinton was shy about broadcasting her platform, either. My own feeling is that the Clinton campaign was overconfident and got caught completely flat-footed, totally unsure of how to deal with Trump.
I don’t know how you deal with Trump, either. But I know his supporters, lots of them, cannot be dissuaded by reality, which Klain thinks is the cure. These people don’t look at Trump’s Twitter tirades as the ravings of a paranoid megalomaniac—they see him dispatch all-caps bulletins chock full of conspiracy and lies and think “there’s an alpha male in the White House.”
Want a cheap solution? Undermine Trump’s credibility as an alpha male. Do whatever’s possible to make him look like a squealing child who gets frightened whenever a real adult enters the room. Challenges to his masculinity make him go berserk. It’s stupid, and it’s low, but petty criticism is what he responds to most. And with regard to his supporters, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.