Response #3

September 11, 2017 9:32 p.m.

TPM Reader JB reminds us and me that elections are about the future, not the past and not to focus too much on a relatively thin slice of voters …

You make a number of good points about Trumpism and the Democrats. They call for thought. So, here is mine.

There is a limit to the political utility of strategizing to win the last election. Relatively small numbers of white voters — rural, working class or both — in a small number of states made it possible for Trump to win an electoral college majority in 2016. These are the voters I see your post as addressing. Many of them had previously voted for Obama, at least in 2008. Some flipped to Trump out of dissatisfaction with economic conditions; for example, the post-recession economy in parts of rural Wisconsin is genuinely bad and unpromising. Some flipped out of anxiety about immigrants; in Iowa, one of the whitest states in the Union, the growing, mostly younger, nonwhite immigrant population in urban areas like Des Moines unnerves some older white voters in rural areas more now. There were probably quite a few who simply liked Barack Obama and disliked Hillary Clinton.

These were the pivotal voters of 2016. They may be again in 2018 and 2020, but I doubt it. 2016 was a very unusual election in many ways; it would be at least as unusual if all its voting patterns were repeated exactly in subsequent elections. For this reason, I think it wise to dwell less upon pivotal Trump voters and more upon typical Trump voters — not just for Democrats, but for Republicans and independents as well.

Typical 2016 Trump voters, nationally, were typical Republican voters. They were the same people who had voted Bush/McCain/Romney in earlier elections in this century. For most of them, Trump became their guy as soon as he won the Republican nomination last year. Not before that: it wasn’t until the very last primaries that Trump got over 50% of the Republican vote, indicating that at least some Republicans were made uncomfortable by his overtly racist campaign. Inertia trumped this discomfort in the fall; the Clintons had been Republican bogeymen (bogeypeople?) for over two decades, and there was little enthusiasm for backing one of them over a GOP nominee — any GOP nominee.

What this means for the Republican Party is another subject. From the perspective of Democrats, there is some instruction to be found. Clearly, Trump tapped into a deep vein of racism/nativism/national chauvinism among Republicans. He also rolled over a large field of Republican candidates who were aware of this vein and (mostly) tried to take advantage of it without embracing it in so many words. Why was that?

Two reasons, I think. One is that Trump was by far the most entertaining candidate last year. We like to think of politics as a profoundly serious affair, but millions of Americans don’t. Almost half the population of eligible voters, of course, doesn’t vote at all; for many of those who do, politics is about as serious as rooting for a college basketball team in the NCAA tournament. Republican voters — on average more affluent and less likely to have been seriously harmed by the Great Recession than voters as a whole — are particularly liable to go looking for entertainment in their Presidential candidates, and Trump had little serious competition on that score last year in the primaries (or the general election. Yes, it’s a shallow observation, but it’s still true: Hillary Clinton was a boring candidate).

The other reason Trump was nominated so easily last year was the influence of government on politics. People who follow politics closely, and particularly people who do so for a living, are prone to think this a force that runs only in the other direction. They’re wrong. Every major Republican running last year, besides Trump, ran on a policy platform that differed in minor ways only from what George W. Bush had run on in 2004. But Bush’s Presidency had been very unpopular for years before the economy collapsed in its final months. That’s why Trump was able to trash signature Bush policies — toward immigration, of course, but also toward the Iraq war, terrorism, entitlement reform — before Republican primary audiences, and not only get away with it but emerge stronger vis a vis other GOP candidates.

The lessons from these two factors for Democrats seem clear. First, don’t work so hard at being inoffensive. Barack Obama could capture the attention of people in his party without offending any organized interest, but most politicians aren’t Barack Obama. Inoffensive equals boring, and voters are liable not to pay attention to boring if given a choice.

The second and perhaps more important lesson is to reexamine the record of the Obama years. Obama was not Bush; objectively a much better President, he also never lost as much popularity as Bush did by the midpoint of his second term. But the self-congratulatory view of many Obama administration alumni toward his Presidency carries with it a strong element of self-deception. It may have been an historic achievement to have prevented the global economy’s collapse in 2009-10, but the Great Recession was still devastating to millions of Americans: wiping out wealth, jobs, and homes. Obama didn’t cause the housing crisis, but wasn’t able to help many people out of it. He succeeded in addressing the problem of access to health care, but not its cost. He may not have made terrorism worse, but he couldn’t solve that problem either. All of these, especially the first two, had political consequences that I don’t think Democrats have yet reckoned with honestly.

And the approach Obama took toward race probably won’t work for anyone else.

As the first black President, Obama could speak to Americans about “the moral arc of the universe’ and “the right side of history,” as if progress — personified in himself, as President — was inevitable, a simple reflection “of who we are as Americans.” This made perfect sense in the context of his personal history, as a rising black politician in the mostly white Illinois political world; in national politics, Obama succeeded in creating for many voters (particularly the younger ones) a reputation to uphold, at once appealing and undemanding. He defined an ideal, assured voters they were on their way to achieving it, and avoided direct challenges to racist individuals and groups — challenges that might have called that ideal into question — as much as he could.

In his campaign, and his brief time in office, Donald Trump and his most passionate supporters have made Obama’s ideal look chimerical, and avoiding challenges look like cowardice. You say, quite correctly, that Democrats can’t write off police violence and suppression of voting rights as mere “identity politics” for minorities. Yet I don’t think they can afford to look as though they are writing off the whole of American society as irredeemably racist, either. It is not always evident if you watch cable news or spend any time on Twitter, but the majority of Americans for whom it is an article of faith that nothing about their own country is irredeemable is probably as large as it ever was.

The political challenge for Democrats in the near future will be exploiting the divisions of their opposition while minimizing their own. That split I mentioned earlier between enthusiastic Trumpers and people who supported Trump despite their discomfort with him may not have been enough last fall to overcome inertia and an unpopular Democratic Presidential candidate, but it is real. Trump is making it worse as I write this. He’s presenting a huge political opportunity for Democrats, if they can work out a distinctive way to present an alternative that accurately reflects the American experience of the last ten years.

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