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Don’t Run Against Trump

As the general election looms, what is the best way for Democrats to win?

When Democrats go to sleep at night, they dream of sticking it to Donald Trump in November. But that’s not how you win elections  — or at least, not how you should win elections. While the media outrage machine often feeds the idea of impeachment as the ultimate endgame, there is a great deal more to governing than replacing a sitting president before his time, just as there was a great deal more to governing than goading angry mobs in red hats to chant of “Lock her up!”

If you spend time on Democratic Facebook, you have been seeing a lot about impeaching Donald Trump since — oh, about January 20, 2017, when he took the oath of office. That was the day on which the president-elect had, according to an insider, his first small disappointment. As Omarosa Manigault Newman recalls it in Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House (Simon & Schuster 2018), he had imagined that he might be the first person to be sworn into that office, not on the Bible, but on a ghost-written trade book. “It’s not mandatory that new presidents swear in on a Bible, but most have done so,” she writes:

He asked me, “Omarosa, what do you think about me getting sworn in on The Art of the Deal?” I said, “Instead of the Bible?” “Yeah. The Art of the Deal is a bestseller! It’s the greatest business book of all time. It’s how I’m going to make great deals for the country. Just think how many copies I’d sell — maybe a commemorative inauguration copy?!” “I know you’re not going to be a traditional president, but that’s just too crazy. Whatever you do, don’t repeat that idea to anybody else,” I said. We laughed. He wanted me to believe he was kidding.

Actually, the Bible is a bestseller too, but never mind: I read these books so you don’t have to. This is the kind of story that circulates, at the hand of people like Omarosa, who is making a lot of money from it, and your Uncle Bob, who is making no money from it, but searches the Internet constantly for new evidence in the Russia probe.

This is the outrage machine at work, and both Democrats and Republicans do it: the strategy is to set your hair on fire constantly so that you will be too busy to think. Here’s an idea: the Internet also allows you to do real research that can help all of us do, and think, politics effectively. It’s an exercise you might want to do once or twice a week, in lieu of watching the same news and opinions circulate on MSNBC for six hours straight.

Start with this new report released by The Pew Research Center last week (April 23, 2018), which suggests that, although Democrats are having a good primary season in terms of turnout and Republicans a not so good one, the public’s view of Donald Trump has changed almost not at all. In “Trump Has Met the Public’s Modest Expectations for His Presidency” (a tactful headline if I have ever seen one), Pew compares their perception data from right before the election to new research done in the first two weeks of August 2018, and have found that what Americans think about Donald Trump has basically not changed.

At all. “Just prior to the 2016 election, the public had fairly low expectations for Donald Trump’s presidency,” the report’s authors write. “And for the most part, the public’s current evaluations of Trump’s administration across these dimensions vary little from these pre-election predictions.” If you want the numbers, 4,581 adults, 61 percent say that since taking office, Trump has definitely (44 percent) or probably (18 percent) not improved the way government works; 71 percent say he has definitely (52 percent) or probably (19 percent) not set a high moral standard for the presidency.

These overall views are little different from the survey group’s pre-election 2016 perceptions of what Trump would do if elected: before the election, 59 percent anticipated that Trump would not improve the way government works and 66 percent thought he would not set a high moral standard for the presidency. Similarly, 61 percent now say he has definitely or probably not run an open and transparent administration (before the election, 60 percent said he would definitely or probably not do this); 62 percent say he has not improved the U.S. standing in the world (62 percent before the election); and 55 percent say he has definitely or probably improperly used the office to enrich his friends or family (56 percent before the election).

In other words, with everything that has happened — the indictments, the Cabinet members sent home in disgrace, the Tweets, Stormy Daniels (my personal hero), the leaks, the flips and the flops — almost no one has changed their mind about Donald Trump. Most have become, if anything, more firmly committed to the views they held in 2016.

Now this doesn’t mean things can’t, or won’t, change in November, but it does mean that although Republicans must run on Donald Trump, Democrats would be wise not to, because they need to woo the people who refused to vote in 2016, the people who cast protest votes, and the very few Republican voters who don’t believe in the quick, and incoherent, fixes that Trump Republicans champion. Local and state elections are not all referenda on Donald Trump, regardless of what your favorite cable channel tells you: they are debates about local and state issues that are attached to national policy, but not encompassed by them.

As of last night, Nate Silver’s prediction is that Democrats have a 74.3 percent chance of winning the House, and one thing we know is that presidents often lose the House in the next midterm. On the other hand, although they offer us no data, right-wing pundits like Steve Bannon, Newt Gingrich, and Norm Coleman all claim that Republicans will not only hang on, but win bigger margins. They have offered no evidence that this can happen, and what this tells me is that this election is going to be all about voter turnout and voter suppression.

So, what do Democratic need to do?

    • Ignore Donald Trump as much as possible: his strategy, and the strategy of his allies is to create chaos. It is impossible to respond effectively to him. Instead, promise to work for what their constituents need: education, debt relief, jobs, and health care. As Bruce Reed and Rahm Emmanuel wrote in the Atlantic, Democrats need to tell their voters what they will do, not harp on the horrors of the current administration. Leave that to Robert Mueller and cable TV. Furthermore, as Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager Jeff Roe pointed out in the New York Times (March 17, 2018), “If you are a Republican on the ballot, you are in the same boat as Mr Trump, whether you like it or not.” Think about that. Democratic candidates have no president. This means they are uniquely positioned to listen to their districts and respond to them.
    • Be open to new leadership. While I am not one to throw Nancy Pelosi under the bus because she has become a lightning rod on the right, there is a significant bloc in the party that does not perceive establishment Democrats as fundamentally different in their interests from the 1 percent. This is not a question of moderates versus progressives, but rather candidates who are more attached to voters versus candidates that are more attached to donors.
    • Don’t run on Roe v. Wade, run on women’s and pre-natal healthcare, and safe childbirth. The constant drumbeat about hanging on to the Supreme Court has caused Democrats to focus almost exclusively on the presidency and neglected the crucial importance of Congressional races in forging a hybrid party identity. Reproductive freedom, including abortion, could not be more important to women’s equality, but three decades of defending Roe has been an almost complete failure. Furthermore, because of Republican attacks on abortion, only 34 percent of rural counties have hospitals with obstetric services.  And surprisingly, Americans in both parties approve of abortion: 67 percent of all American voters do not want Roe overturned, while “43 percent of GOP voters want Roe upheld (the percentage of Republican Congress members who’d be willing to espouse that position in public is in the single digits).”
    • Get voters of color to the polls. This means not only caring what your friends and neighbors of color think, but activating local organizers — not bussing in college students to knock on doors. It also means having boots on the ground on election day. Registering people, making sure they have the documentation they need, volunteering to be a poll watcher (actually it’s a paid position), and spending a long, tedious day driving people to their polling place all matters.
    • This goes double for elderly voters who, according to the AARP, are more likely to vote or want to vote than any other demographic. But the elderly often no longer drive, are more likely to have disabilities, and have trouble standing in long lines waiting to cast a ballot. Absentee voting is one solution to this, but be aware that ballots not cast at the polling place are up to five times as likely to be lost, uncounted or miscounted. If you drive, or are otherwise able bodied, taking an elderly neighbor or two to the polls with you is not only kind (it’s the kind of thing a pro-family Republican would do), it could be as effective as voting twice. Except it’s legal.

Can Democrats do this? Yes they can. One of those elderly people you take to the polls might just be a Republican, or a libertarian, who is appalled at the sinkhole our civic life has become. But it will require being thoughtful, not reactive, and it will demand the hard work of thinking about governance and civic participation — not thinking about Trump.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter

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