Donald Trump

Tangled up in blue: The Democrats desperately need a direction

Illustration by Guillaume Federighi

How long will Donald Trump really last? Among liberals – particularly those living in big cities bingeing on Rachel Maddow hot takes and pledging their social media allegiance to the “resistance” – a consensus has emerged that his time is almost up. He clearly colluded with the Russians, obstructed justice by firing his FBI director and took marching orders from world-historical dark lord Vladimir Putin. Special Counsel Robert Mueller will dig up the goods and kick him out, and we’ll remember this as one bad orange-tinted dream.

Not too long ago, I had a Democrat bet me that Trump wouldn’t last until the end of the summer. Mike Pence was gearing up to take over, he said. Only a matter of time. This is a comforting idea for Democrats, who not only belong to a minority party in America but one that is historically powerless. They are “resisters” by default because winners don’t have to resist anything. Believing that Trump is nothing more than a Putin-sponsored fluke and that the sainted FBI will come riding to the rescue is the stuff of Democratic fairy tales.

Yet Trump remains, and may well be standing in 2020 when the remnants of the Democratic Party will have to marshal a challenge. It’s just about impossible to predict what shape the Democratic primary will take and who will emerge as the victor. Put the prognostications aside and consider the reality that Trump, as an incumbent whose party controls Congress, could be standing and ready to fight in a few years. Consider that, despite dismal approval ratings, many Republicans like what he’s doing and his most fervent supporters remain enraptured, convinced he is undertaking the noble, dirty work of shredding the political establishment, never mind the incompetence and corruption many others rightfully see. In June Gallup polls, more than 80 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s job performance.

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So here’s my trigger warning: Donald Trump has a chance to win a second term. Will he be a weaker than usual incumbent? Yes. Will a Democratic nominee be able to exploit his myriad failings and perpetual controversies? Yes. But the polarization of our electorate all but rules out a landslide. Crossover voters are a lot less numerous than they used to be. All the Democratic strategists dreaming of millions of moneyed, suburban voters flocking en masse to the Democratic nominee out of revulsion for Trump should take a very hard look at Jon Ossoff’s loss in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and return to grim reality. Many Republican voters, no matter how hideous the top of the ticket, will stay loyal to their party.

At some point, Democrats will have to understand that simply existing as the counterpoint to something else is not so much a strategy as it is a prolonged yowl. You cannot simply be the party of not Trump, the party of not Russia, the party of not ugly Republicanism. You cannot run a version of Hillary Clinton’s campaign ad infinitum. A time will arrive when the average person of any race or class will be asked, what do Democrats stand for? What do they advocate for? And the person will struggle to answer because this is the central hollowness of mainstream liberalism today – its lack of coherence and strength, its mealy-mouthed descent into meaninglessness.

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Progressives overrate the importance of the Democratic National Committee – no, it did not single-handedly stop Bernie Sanders in the primary – but it can exist as a place to formulate a compelling platform and vision for the party. As of now, the party platform exists as a vague constellation of policies and beliefs that dwell in the shadow of Trump. There’s talk of raising the minimum wage or spending some undetermined amount of money on infrastructure. A lot of it’s a muddle.

Take the fight over the awful Obamacare repeal bill offered up in the U.S. Senate. We know why the bill’s cuts to Medicaid are not only draconian but sadistic, guaranteed to punish millions of the most vulnerable Americans, young and old alike. We know why the bill doesn’t make sense, why it’s managed to unite leftist critics and the insurance companies. We’ve seen Democrats make these points.

What we haven’t seen is an alternative from the leaders of the Democratic Party. Sanders has long fought for a single-payer health care system and managed to wage one of the more exciting insurgent candidacies in American history. But none of the party elders – be it House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and now DNC Chairman Tom Perez – have loudly echoed Sanders’ call for a single-payer system. This would be a radical restructuring of health care in this country, and the sheer cost could be prohibitive, so their reluctance is somewhat understandable. What do they propose instead? How do they want to make health care less dysfunctional in America? When will they understand that a mere defense of Obamacare – a flawed piece of legislation despite the gains in coverage for the uninsured – simply isn’t enough to win elections?

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For all of Trump’s inconsistencies, the core of his campaign remained largely unchanged and easily digestible to voters. His supporters knew exactly what he stood for and what he didn’t. He did what the Democratic Party couldn’t do in the summer and fall of 2016 and is failing to do today. An inchoate resistance, a mass shout against all things Trump, can only carry progressive politics so far.

To defeat Trump and build a movement that matters, one that can forestall and ultimately undo the most retrograde aspects of the American economy and government, the Democratic Party will have to go far beyond what it has offered so far. It must begin by acknowledging that Trump is not going anywhere and the forces that brought him to power – the anxieties and rage animating his cult of personality – will not easily dissipate. Trumpism can outlast Trump. Only an out of touch political party can’t recognize that.

Ross Barkan writes a monthly column on the Trump administration for City & State. His work has appeared in the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.