Being anti-Trump won’t win in 2020. What will?

Anti-Trumpers harbour grief and anger about their defeat – this they couple with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Trump’s sins. But Democrats have provided no clear idea of how to move forward.

Rebecca Tinsley
18 September 2017
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Protestors at a rally on the steps of a courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Ask any American who is not a Trump supporter how they rate his chances of re-election, and you will likely get a detailed recitation of the president’s stumbles, outrages, and 140-character assaults on the English language.

“This cannot go on,” exclaimed several of the anti-Trump voters interviewed for this unscientific opinion survey. “He’ll quit soon, or he’ll be impeached,” they assert confidently. “But if he runs in 2020, he’ll be defeated,” they predict. Yet, if you ask them why anyone should vote Democrat, there is an uncomfortable silence.

Ask them why anyone should vote Democrat, there is an uncomfortable silence.

When pressed, the anti-Trumpers admit the Democrats lack an authentic and engaging messenger. Moreover, the party is disunited on the message they should offer in the midterm elections in 2018 and the 2020 presidential poll, and how they should get that message across in these new and unfamiliar political times.

For instance, the party is debating whether all their candidates must be pro-choice. How hostile should they be to big business? Are they the party of teachers and government employees? Or of small business and the self-employed? Or of a patchwork of identity groups demanding social justice? Or of the forgotten blue-collar people who turned to Trump (Nixon’s silent majority and the so-called Reagan Democrats)? Will they promise free college tuition to attract young and middle class voters, thereby alienating the blue-collar taxpayers who will effectively subsidise the middle class? And crucially, will they continue taking donations from special interest groups and Wall Street? Or will the more progressive followers of Bernie Sanders determine policy?

A Better Deal, a recent statement from the Congressional Democrats, was mocked for its timidity by the anti-Trump activists I contacted. The document parrots Trump on infrastructure, but, according to Marvin, a Democrat living in a Republican part of northern California, it fails to mention or make a virtue of the fact that green projects could create millions of jobs. Tracy, a former police officer, was unhappy that A Better Deal did not call for a single payer health system (a national health service), a potentially winning issue for the Democrats.

Anti-Trump voters also express concern that the Democratic Party is insufficiently engaged in the battleground states. Beatrice, originally from Tennessee, recently got a large sign through the mail, unsolicited, from the Democratic Party (although there was no return address). “It says, ‘Dump Trump.’ I guess it’s a lawn sign, or for a protest march,” she comments. “But it repeats the same mistake Hillary’s campaign made, spending money on ads that showed Trump being stupid. Everybody already knows that. The unanswered question is what can be done to elucidate a Democratic plan. Is there a plan?”

"The unanswered question is what can be done to elucidate a Democratic plan. Is there a plan?"

Ex-police officer Tracy recently attended a meeting in North Carolina which was packed with people keen to be active in the fight against Trump. However, she says there was no follow-up from the Democratic Party. “They let the energy in the room seep away,” she says. “Now, I barely notice the DNC,” (Democratic National Committee).

In other battleground states, activists at town hall meetings give Republican officials a hard time, but the Democrats are sometimes nowhere to be seen. Instead, people like Fiona in Florida are inundated by begging emails from the DNC, written in patronising terms. They ask for donations for old-style campaigns based on bland TV ads that no one watches anymore (see the shambles in the Georgia special election in June when the party spent $23 million on a losing campaign).

There was agreement among the anti-Trumpers to whom I spoke that the Democrats’ money would be better spent on door-to-door mailers conveying simple economic arguments, and pointing out how Trump’s broken promises are shafting working people. “We need bite-sized messages,” says Tracy in North Carolina, “We have to use better language, so instead of saying ‘regulations’ we say ‘protection’.”

Groups like Indivisible, Our Revolution, Sister District and Run for Something are filling the activity vacuum at a local level, but Fiona in Florida fears they may contribute to a perception that the Democratic Party is divided, just as the Tea Party revealed a chasm within the Republican ranks.  

After dozens of conversations during the summer of 2017, it seems that simply being anti-Trump may not be enough to win. Donald Trump’s drawbacks were already “in the price,” to use the stock market lingo, before November 8th 2016: people voted for him anyway. In fact, 80% of Republicans voted for him, fully aware of his ethical failings, bombast and ignorance, and between 75 and 80% still support him.

Nothing newly revealed about Trump will shock them, especially since he has 1) inoculated himself against negative coverage by picking fights with the media, 2) lined up a cast of villains whom he can blame for his inability to get anything done in Washington, and 3) demonstrated his skill at diverting the nation’s attention elsewhere when needed. His supporters don’t care that he isn’t qualified, and they don’t care about his connections with Russia. Nor do they expect him to achieve much. It is enough that he inarticulately articulates their grievances.  

If the vast majority of Republican voters, and the much-discussed blue collar voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, vote for him again, it will not, perhaps, be with pride, but because they don’t know what the Democrats stand for, or because the Democratic candidate is a bloodless, establishment bore (Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, H Clinton). As Bill from Vermont put it, “Blaming Trump for being Trump is a weak play,” while anti-establishment feeling still runs so high. “I largely credit the DNC for putting President Trump in office,” he adds, citing the “coronation” of “their” candidate, Hillary Clinton. “And by the way, we should be prepared for a rigged election next time.”

Tom, living in a Republican patch of California, laments the dominance of “wimps” in the DNC, harking back to the 1960s when “we had guys who came straight from union halls, organizers, veterans of hardass negotiations.” Now, he says, “we think it’s a big deal if we do some canvassing every four years and donate a few bucks.”

Now, “we think it’s a big deal if we do some canvassing every four years and donate a few bucks.”

If you grew up in North America in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s, as I did, it is hard not to have noticed the deteriorating standard of living among working people. In my childhood, a man without college education (and it was largely men) could earn enough to support his family with pride and dignity. He lived better than his parents did, and he believed his children would enjoy a better life than he did. This, the foundation stone of the American dream, was decimated by the Reagan years, rising oil prices and globalization. Now, both parents must work, and children have no expectation they will equal their parents’ economic position (especially home ownership), let alone better it. The anti-Trumpers interviewed for this article must have noticed this, too, but they did not mention it, and it was not reflected in Hillary Clinton’s messaging in 2016.

If you take Amtrak from New York to Philadelphia, you witness the hollowing out of American manufacturing. Thirty years ago, factories lined the railroad tracks. Now, the factories are empty, and the land they stand on is worth so little no one has bothered to tear down the disintegrating sheds. How could the Democratic Party establishment (and the latte-drinking anti-Trumpers) not have noticed this? At least Bernie Sanders offered an analysis, but he had few practical proposals (see his embarrassing New York Post interview).

Although 42% of American adults are white working-class (90 million people between 25 and 54, without a college degree, as opposed to the 51 million white adults with a degree), the Democratic establishment and many of the anti-Trumpers seem class-clueless, ignoring a sizeable tranche of potential voters. Perhaps they’d prefer to think class no longer exists (just as people told me racism in America was over, when Obama was elected). They dismiss as racist/ignorant/shameful the right-wing narrative that the incomes of many of Trump’s supporters, whom the right conveniently labels white working-class or “hard-working families,” have shrunk in favor of welfare recipients, identity groups, graduates and the big city elite. By not challenging the notion implicit – that hard-working people under economic pressure are white, and that minorities don’t work, but scrounge – the Democrats are surrendering political territory.

If the Democratic establishment respond at all, they wield their objective data and ten-point-plans, not, evidently, grasping that the battle is won with simple ideas and anecdotes which appeal to subjective emotions. Research shows that many Trump voters are guided by cultural and racial resentment, as much as concern about the economy. 65% of the white working class believe the American way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s. 48% of them feel like strangers in their ‘own land’.

Trump’s base may be eroding somewhat, but polling the president’s popularity is meaningless unless he is compared to a challenger. Why would disillusioned voters return to the Democrats, as opposed to staying home on election day, disgusted by everything on the menu? If they tune in to the Democratic convention, they will see a crowd roar its approval whenever the slogans of identity politics are mentioned. Cheering transgender bathrooms is splendid, but when, I asked the anti-Trumpers, did they march to protest a factory closure or the contamination of water in a working-class neighbourhood?

If only there were as much sensitivity about the quality of inner city schools as there is about the correct words to describe self-selecting gender options. Semantic pickiness fuels the right-wing horror stories about progressives who are too delicate to confront the reality of their nation’s history, including persisting racism, and sexism. We have been here before, so Liz, a retired college president, reminds me. In the 1960s, progressives were duped into allowing bra-burning to become the story rather than the still unfulfilled goal of equal pay for equal work. Similarly, a tiny minority demands slavery reparations more loudly than the call for better schools and health care in African American communities.

“Being able to recite all the man’s blunders isn’t going to make a dent in his support.”

Liz can pinpoint the exact week in the late 1960s when progressives turned to self-indulgent identity issues, rather than a forensic analysis of the way in which power is controlled in America. “They found it too intellectually demanding to understand economic structures. It was easier to talk about themselves, and how they were victims,” Liz remarks.

In researching this article, I encountered people still in the early stages of mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Their grief and anger is coupled with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Trump’s sins. But there is no clear idea how to move forward. The cultural gap persists between the progressive, fact-based, rational world of news junkies, and the less-well-informed majority. Mary, a Buddhist meditation teacher from the Midwest, believes the day-by-day torture of following Trump’s every bizarre step is self-defeating because it disempowers the anti-Trumps. “People need to look to the big picture,” she advises. “Being able to recite all the man’s blunders isn’t going to make a dent in his support.”

The anti-Trumps are also largely failing to consider a distressing underlying question: what if this is the new normal, and not an anomaly? What if it is enough that a reality TV star articulates the grievances of people who don’t expect anything to change because the system is fixed? What can the Democrats do? “Get Tom Hanks to run for president,” says a long-time Hollywood Democrat. “Clooney’s way too elitist, but Hanks can reach the forgotten people.” Does anyone have a better idea?

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