Friday, May 17, 2019

Trump Is an Accident, Not an Intimidating Force

by Neil H. Buchanan

A bit more than two months ago, the title of one of my columns asked: "Is the 2020 Election Going to Be An Easy Win for Anyone the Democrats Nominate?"  There, I made the case that Trump simply will not be able to break above his pathetic job approval numbers, if for no other reason than that he is not even trying to appeal to anyone but the forty percent of the country that has already quaffed his Kool-Aid.

It would, of course, be foolish for Democrats to take a win in 2020 for granted.  Setting aside my oft-stated belief that Trump will not peacefully leave the White House no matter how convincingly he loses next November 3, it is essential that Democrats not take anything for granted.  Republicans will continue to suppress the votes of young and nonwhite people, and Trump is even more shameless than the Republicans about sliming his opponents (which is quite an achievement).

Moreover, Democrats should have learned from 2016 that turnout is everything.  Hillary Clinton was by far the preferred choice of American voters, but millions of people used the (accurate) polls predicting her easy win as a reason not to bother helping her win.  Today, it is certainly wise for Democrats to keep each other on edge, lest they think that the ignoramus in the White House could never bumble onto another strange path to an electoral win.

But we are now looking at the downside of that vigilance.  Actually, two downsides.

The first downside is that a person who says, "I will not fail to take my opponent seriously" has more than one way to do so, and not all of them are helpful.  What Democrats and all anti-Trump people should be saying is something like this: "Trump is a bad joke, a terrible president who has driven away everyone but his white supremacist base, and it is important for everyone to understand that the path to victory for Trump's opponent is simple and even easy, but it requires proper execution of a basic strategy: Keep the people motivated and get them to the polls.  That's it."

Unfortunately, it has become all too common among Democrats, pundits, and even journalists to treat Trump as some kind of awesome force who might -- if we are really, REALLY lucky and do everything right -- be beatable on everyone's best day.  This is not only wrong but damaging.  It makes people who are not paying attention think that Trump is a winner when he is the biggest loser in the world; and because people like winners, some people will be tempted to say, "Well, why not vote for him?"  Moreover, this mythologizing of Trump's nonexistent strengths has the potential of scaring anti-Trump people into hopelessness.

As I noted in my column in March, it is certainly true that Trump has the advantages of incumbency in 2020, which he obviously lacked in 2016.  But those advantages are typically thought to include the ability to set the media's agenda, which is the one thing that Trump is actually good at, and which is a big part of what defined the media's failures throughout the primaries as well as the general election last time.  It is thus difficult to see what in 2020 will make Trump's bully pulpit (all bully, no pulpit) more effective than it was three years ago.

The most consequential thing that a president can do to redirect the public's attention, of course, is to start a war.  It seems quite likely that Trump would have no hesitation in doing so, but that is simply a different category of political calculation.  Democrats would be well advised to prepare themselves for the inevitable rally-round-the-flag effect of what will at least be some serious saber rattling by Trump next year, but that has nothing to do with the issue here, which is whether Trump will be a stronger candidate in 2020 simply because he currently occupies the Oval Office.

In other words, the opposite of "No problem, we can all relax because our opponent is a joke" should not be "Huge problem, we all have to freak out and panic because our opponent is all but unbeatable."  It is: "Stay calm, do what's needed, and we'll win, because we have nearly everything -- message, candidate (no matter who it is), motivation -- on our side."  Not saying so tempts people lazily to say, "Oh, this election is Trump's to lose," which it most assuredly is not.

And there is a second downside to anti-Trumpers' commitment to treating a Trump victory as sadly plausible, which is that it becomes tempting to rewrite history in a way that makes Trump's eye-of-the-needle shocker in 2016 seem anything but a historic one-off.  Instead, even smart people become amnesiacs who treat Trump as a smooth operator who brilliantly won a convincing victory once and can do so again.

Take New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who is not always inspired (and is a big believer in the ridiculous "take the Heartland voters seriously or lose" school of thought) but who often writes insightful columns.  Earlier this month, he wrote a very smart column about Joe Biden being a potentially disastrous nominee for Democrats because of his status as a consummate insider in a world that increasingly hates "the Party of Davos."  Even so, here are the final two paragraphs of Cohen's piece:
"Emmanuel Macron, the upstart French president, was forced down from the Jupiter-like heights when his proposed hike in gasoline tax triggered the Yellow Vest protests. He was thinking of saving the planet; citizens affected were thinking of making it to the end of the month. Oh! Macron began a three-month voter-listening exercise called the 'Great National Debate' that has culminated in proposed tax cuts and recognition of the need to be more 'humane.'

"Such listening is critical. Trump got out there; he listened better than Hillary Clinton. My impression is that, among Democratic contenders, Elizabeth Warren is listening most closely. Her proposed tax on the super wealthy reflects that — while billionaires, like China, get a pass from Biden. Trump is not an aberration. Only the innovative will beat him."
This is so nonsensical that it makes one wonder where Cohen was in 2016.  Trump did not "get out there," and he did not listen to anyone (certainly not better than Clinton did).  Unless Macron's "voter-listening exercise" involves giving rallies and noticing that people like to chant certain things ("Drain the swamp!"), Trump did not win in 2016 by being a better listener or by noticing that people are "trying to make it to the end of the month."  He noticed that there are a lot of people who will vote against their own economic interests if he trowels out the hatred that they crave.

"Only the innovative will beat" Trump?  What the heck does that mean?  The Mueller Report confirmed what we have known for years, which is that Trump was given a huge assist from the Russians, who desperately wanted him to win and Clinton to lose.  Trump's strange path to victory was also crucially paved with two horrible interventions by James Comey and, even more important, with the press's gleeful dumping on Clinton for supposedly being unlikable and not "relatable."

So here is an innovative strategy for victory: Do not allow your candidate to be unfairly maligned -- and certainly do not pile on for your own fun -- and get your voters to the polls.  How clever!

It is not merely Cohen who rewrites history in a way that pumps up Trump's supposedly intimidating strengths.  Even Times columnist Jamelle Bouie -- a genuine person "of the left," as opposed to Cohen's self-consciously centrist bloviating -- recently rewrote the 2016 narrative in a way that now helps Trump:
"Hillary Clinton ... reached out to moderate Republicans and took on Trump as an unfit demagogue who amplified and sympathized with white supremacists. She lost. But Biden thinks he can do something similar and run against four actual years of the president’s behavior, versus the hypotheticals envisioned by Clinton. Democratic primary voters ... should not take Biden’s presumed electability for granted. Yes, there is evidence he is well positioned to challenge Trump, but it’s also possible that Biden represents a doomed attempt to fight the last war, with similar results."
Here is Bouie's argument: Clinton did X.  Clinton lost.  Therefore Democrats should do not-X.  As it happens, I agree that it would be very bad for Democrats to go with Biden and his "I can reach out to Republicans" nonsense, but we need to be clear that this is not why Clinton lost.  She won the popular vote by a comfortable margin, and the swing of fewer than 100,000 votes in three states (which were targeted by Russians for misinformation) would have put her in the White House.  Plus, Comey.

That of course is not to say that Clinton did not make mistakes, nor does it deny that Trump somehow had enough core support to make the election close enough for the Russians and Comey to steal it for him.  But the larger point is that too many people -- certainly including Cohen and Bouie -- are now saying, "Remember how Trump won because he didn't make the mistakes that Clinton did?"  This makes Trump into something other than what he is: a freak accident.

Preventing a repeat of that freak accident is essential.  Making Trump seem to be some fearsome force is not the way to do it.


Michael C. Dorf said...

I agree with everything here except the bottom line. Viewed through the lens of domestic politics, Trump is a freak accident. But he is also part of a global right-wing populist trend that includes countries with quite different electoral systems: Orban in Hungary; Duda in Poland; Brexit in the UK; Duterte in the Philippines; Conte/Five Star in Italy; and Bolsonaro in Brazil. That's not to say Trump can't be beaten. It is to say that beating him (and people like him in other countries) requires a progressive strategy that speaks to the reasons why people who sometimes vote for less objectionable candidates have lately chosen to vote for tough-talking racists. (That's not meant as an endorsement of any particular candidate or wing of the Democratic Party.)

Joe said...

I think the first comment has it correct and John Oliver had a piece on the world-wide trend here. When a team loses on a quirky play, so be it, but if it is close enough when facing a bad opponent, it very well might not be an "accident" that they lost.

Shag from Brookline said...

Mike's comment has had me wondering whether Trump's voter base in 2016 (and continuing?) favors/shares the views of " ... Orban in Hungary; Duda in Poland; Brexit in the UK; Duterte in the Philippines; Conte/Five Star in Italy; and Bolsonaro in Brazil"? Right-wing populism in America may vary significantly from right-wing populism in these other nations.

Shag from Brookline said...

Roger Cohen's May 18, 2019 NYTimes column "Steve Bannon Is a Fan of Italy’s Donald Trump - He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.Steve Bannon Is a Fan of Italy’s Donald Trump" touches on my concern noted in my 3:34 PM comment. It's a very long column that addresses what Bannon is doing in Europe. Here's an interesting paragraph in that regard:


Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the [EC] elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.


Cohen disagrees with much of what Barron told him covered in the column.

Joe said...

Castaway was on tonight.

Question: who is more qualified? Wilson the Volleyball or Trump?