It is hard not to compare Donald Trump’s chilling performance last Friday to Charles Schumer’s tepid one—the Big Lie countered by the half-truth, the worse-than-expected introduced by the better-than-nothing. Trump told the assembled, in effect, that the other political leaders on the stage with him were either ignoring, or profiteering from, middle America’s misery. Foreign governments were either ripping them off or riding for free. This day would be remembered for returning the government to the people. Trump alone was the people’s champion: their allegiance to America, thus to “solidarity,” should be “absolute”; he led, not a party, but “a movement.” America first, America’s new leader fighting (here comes the fascist’s pathos) with “every breath in my body.” Forget information provided by government officials; this was not to be trusted. The press was not to be trusted. The movement had its truth, the champion alone could be trusted.
Schumer, anticipating the message, was reassuring enough, tying together kinds of Americans like Mr. Rogers tying his sneakers: “Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country.” Notice that to live “in wealth or in poverty” meant living in just another demographic, something like sexual orientation, the leveling coming from “fierce” patriotic devotion. But the times are “tumultuous,” Schumer began, and so wealth creation “benefits too few.” For last-breath-in-my-body pathos, Schumer defaulted to a soldier who fell in the Civil War.
Perhaps I am being unkind. Schumer has been an effective Democratic politician and fund-raiser; people I know say he’s good company. But his conspicuousness at the Inauguration underlines something Democrats have not quite digested. Take it from someone who has lived through Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu for two generations: ruthless leaders, carried to power by nationalist populism, cannot be satirized, fact-checked, op-eded, or demonstrated out of office. An opposition political party needs to defeat Trump—defeat his Republican toadies, his phony but dangerous “movement.” This means an opposition to which he can be invidiously compared—an alternative against which every Trump move looks pale, coarse, copycat.
The Democratic party, in other words, must have a clear message that speaks to the anxieties of the traditional Democratic voters it lost. And the message needs a tough, plausible messenger: a leader, or small number of united leaders, who embody—in their persons, their logic, their stories, and their demonstrated courage—integrity that advances what they are saying. If the message is right, and the messenger is authentic, you get a winning charisma. Schumer is not that messenger.
This may seem obvious, but it is worth saying why he is not. Rustbelt voters rejected Hillary Clinton because they resented, one, Wall Street, two, the entertainment industry, three, an Iraq war supported “on a bipartisan basis” (and where my kids go and your kids don’t), four, journalists and political consultants who seem condescendingly manipulative, and, five, the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Now think of Schumer: does anybody seriously believe people who rejected Clinton think Schumer is more credible? What scorned box does he not check?
Forget the bikers and their shock radio; they will never be won back. But a great many of Trump’s rustbelt voters had supported Obama, and were even more excited by Bernie Sanders. Anger over inequality and plutocracy were the keys to Bernie’s appeal; Trump’s Inaugural Address, like his stump speeches a month before the election, often sounded like they were ripped directly from Bernie’s notes.
I know, I know, Trump could be shown to be more plutocratic than any Democrat. But shown by whom? Chuck Todd? Among Trump’s genius moves was to make himself the inside-out candidate, the plutocrat tribune of the masses who knows how to build magnificent things, and, besides, makes the world quake with uncertainty. These voters are shrewd enough to know that the rusted mill is not coming back. But it could be converted to a community college for their kids, and they themselves could be paid to build the overpass to it. They are also smart enough to know that Clinton could never have pulled money out of a “gridlocked” Washington. Trump, they think, just might.
And he almost certainly will. Urgently, Democrats need to make Trump seem to be following, not leading, responding to their own leadership’s established agenda; persuade persuadable voters that it was Republicans who had all along obstructed investments in infrastructure; that the world needs alliances, not bullying, that democracy needs norms, not civil retaliation. Irrespective of whether the Democratic Party provides a plausible opposition leadership, Trump’s building will provide the economy a sugar-high, as will the tax-cut, investments in military spending and posturing. His popularity will, in consequence, grow. In the absence of a clear Democratic leadership, his popularity will soar. His leadership will become an identity.
Yet say the phrase, “Democratic leadership,” and you see the problem. Leadership seems so inchoate so long as the party lacks a candidate for president. Trump is everywhere in the media; he is the inescapable story. So Schumer is everywhere by default, as is Nancy Pelosi. The game is rigged in Trump’s favor.
There is a way out of this, but it will require some unorthodox thinking, fit for an unconventional challenge. Bernie Sanders’s political organization, “Our Revolution,” is trying to keep his flame alive, and advance all the virtues and over-simplifications of their candidate. But let’s face it: he too old to run for president again, and though he might have won, was perhaps not the most attractive candidate in the first place. I voted for him, even loved him, but he projects an air of dogmatism that works at rallies, not in conversation.
So here is a thought experiment: Sanders’s supporters, and most of the Democratic Party, could quickly be won over by a ticket made up of Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Both speak authentically about the need for infrastructure investment, could put the blame for inaction where it belongs, and make the case for universal health insurance, affordable college, financial regulation, and electoral reform. What if they declared?
It almost doesn’t matter who would lead the ticket: take your pick, Oklahoma or Ohio. Both are equally plainspoken, have personal stories to tell, make a plausible case against inequality, and stand for the social safety net any working person could understand. They address with honest passion the dangers of plutocracy, and can explain the help of the commonwealth—this, years before Trump came along. And they project a personal integrity that will make the President seem an ugly counterfeit by comparison.
Let me put things plainly. If either of these senators have a mind to run for president in 2020, she or he should announce today, solicit the support of the other, and make clear that they intend to cooperate on fashioning a Democratic platform well before the primary season begins. They should make a preemptive bid. We don’t have the luxury of time to wait for coy hints and exploratory committees. The dangers to the republic are immediate. How long before Trump starts cutting ribbons at bridges and railing against, say, Iranian or Chinese enemies? How long before press conferences degenerate into farces like the debates were? How long before a terror attack turns criticism into sedition?
The senators would not have to wait for Schumer’s bundlers. Together, Warren and Brown could immediately establish a web presence that will take in contributions and prepare the ground for a grassroots attack on the congressional elections of 2018. They could put together a kind of shadow-cabinet which would allow media to put authoritative alternatives to Trump’s actual cabinet. The very existence of their active presidential campaign would create novelty –and organizing hope. They could appear at rallies across the country that would focus on registering voters and pointing to the dangers of voter suppression.
I can easily imagine political professionals reading this column and blushing for me. But political professionals are part of the problem, too. Americans simply don’t have experience with the kind of threat Trump represents, and the last thing they need now are people who think they have seen it all before. Like it or not, presidential politics have become a permanent campaign. Democrats, of all times now, cannot go three years with the very leaders who have made Trump seem a relief.
This post has been revised after publication.