Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Trump Is Part of A Scary Global Trend, But He Is Still a Bad Joke

by Neil H. Buchanan

There is a worrisome and puzzling trend, not merely among the punditocracy and politicians but even among journalists who purport to be neutral arbiters of the facts, to treat Donald Trump's reelection chances as not only strong but perhaps even insurmountable for Democrats.  Last week, I wrote a column decrying that trend, arguing that Trump's deep unpopularity -- and his unwillingness to do anything but feed the blood lust of his base -- all but guarantees that he will lose in 2020, probably by a large margin.

To be clear, even if my prediction is correct, I still believe that we will then face an existential constitutional struggle, because it is inconceivable that Trump will accept losing -- by any margin.  We might already be in the end stages of our constitutional democracy with no way to save it, even as we naively think that there is still a way back.  (Whatever else I might think about Joe Biden, I do admire his willingness to build a campaign around the idea that America is better than Trump and can be renewed.)  That possibility should be everyone's central concern.

In addition, I readily concede that my prediction could turn out to be wrong for a number of reasons.  Republican efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and young people will intensify.  The Democratic nominee might not be able to motivate her (or his) voters to turn out, although that seems highly unlikely.  The media could once again play along with a ridiculous smear job, painting the Democrat as corrupt or worse.  Trump supporters could physically block access to voting booths in Democratic areas.  And so on.

This might not, in other words, end well.  But today's question is how to think about Trump's fundamental weakness in a world in which people like him are becoming stronger and stronger.  He might be a buffoon, but he is merely one of many buffoons who seem to be having a good run.  Does that global perspective change how we should think about this?

Even from a purely domestic perspective, I noted on Friday that it was absolutely essential for Democrats to stay angry and focus their (completely justified) fury on turning out to vote for Trump's opponent next November.  But my larger point was that, if they do so, Trump will certainly lose, simply because he does not have the numbers in his favor.

After all, even with everything else that was piled up against Hillary Clinton in 2016, she was still on track to win the overall vote by something like 55-45 or 56-44 until James Comey decided that he needed some additional time in the spotlight.  That would have translated to an Electoral College landslide.  Instead, she won by 49-46 and lost the Electoral College in a particularly weird set of one-offs.

This, by the way, offers some important perspective on the question of whether the election was "close enough to steal."  In sports, when one side loses on an excruciatingly bad call by the officials, the adult response is to say that "we could have put it away and made the refs irrelevant."  That is not always a sensible response (just ask any New Orleans Saints fan after one of the worst blown calls in sports history earlier this year), but the basic idea is that the losing side can always say that they could have done better.

In 2016, however, that was a particularly weak argument, because Clinton did appear to be winning in a blowout.  Even with all of that nonsense about "relatability" and the media's obsession with her email server, even with the crazy mischaracterizations of supposed corruption in the Clinton Foundation and the media's Pavlovian response to the Russian-directed disinformation campaign on Trump's behalf, even with Republicans un-abandoning Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape and their refusal to condemn his "I might not concede" talk -- even after all of that, Clinton was in an incredibly strong position.  The shock of 2016 was not merely that Trump had found a way to sneak through, but that it had appeared that her lead was too big for even Comey's arrogance to erase.  Blaming her after the fact for, say, not campaigning in Wisconsin is weak tea indeed.

But again, my forward-looking point was that Trump's weaknesses in 2016 are even more obvious going into 2020, so treating him like a scarily strong opponent is a mistake.  Professor Dorf quickly commented on my column, arguing that although he agreed with most of what I had written, he disagreed with my bottom line, which is that Trump is fundamentally weak, not (as the press and his opponents sometimes treat him) intimidatingly strong.

Dorf explained that Trump "is also part of a global right-wing populist trend that includes countries with quite different electoral systems ... .  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."

I initially responded on the Comment board with something along the lines of "We actually don't disagree," but somehow that comment was lost to the ether.  I ultimately decided that this argument deserves more than a quick reply.

The reason that I do not disagree with Professor Dorf's comment (beyond the empirical fact that we seldom disagree, full stop) is, of course, that he is right about the global trends.  Trump is a freak event in the U.S., but he is merely the drum major leading a worldwide parade of so-stupid-they're-scary tyrants and would-be tyrants.  Beating Trump is horribly, horribly important.

I am not sure, however, that beating Trump "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."  To be sure, it would be great to develop such a strategy, for plenty of very good reasons.  I myself have written about the Democrats' need to find "reachable" Trump voters (or, more importantly, people who stayed home or voted for fringe candidates last time), which crucially involves telling such voters that their lives will be better if progressives win.

And given the reality that even Clinton's apparently insurmountable lead late in 2016 was indeed somehow surmountable, it is wise for Democrats to do everything possible to amass as many votes as possible.  This necessarily involves difficult questions about how many voters one might lose by pandering to ultimately-not-reachable white blue-collar men, but that is standard political calculus.

Even so, Trump's support seems absolutely stuck in the 39-41 percent range of approval.  We in the U.S. are fortunate in that regard, especially compared to, say, Brazil.  We are more like France, where the mainstream politicians (unlike Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues) decided not to play footsie with the neo-fascist Trump-like right, and it turned out that the support for the tough-talking racists there is also blessedly well below half of the population.

The worry, however, is that the mainstreaming of these hateful views will build the numbers for Trump and his ilk, such that they could actually win in a legitimate election.  But that is where my comment in last week's column -- that it is unwise to treat weak and buffoonish candidates as stout foes -- becomes especially important.  Marine Le Pen was trounced, and everyone knew that she would be trounced because people simply recognized that good people still outnumber bad in France.  She is scary in her views and in the fact that anyone supports her, but she is not an irresistible force, and the French press and public did not treat her as such.

The difficult line to walk here involves telling people that Trump is too serious a threat to laugh off but that he is easy to beat if everyone does the most simple thing, which is to show up and vote against him.  Calling him a strong candidate validates him in a way that ultimately does damage to his opponents.  Again, nothing Professor Dorf wrote indicates that he disagrees with this analysis.  I am merely pointing out that we are saying different things that are both true and, more importantly, that the global context does not change the best approach for beating Trump.


Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for engaging with my comment. To be clear, I didn't mean to be taking a position on what has become a major division about strategy: whether Democrats should adopt a base/turnout strategy or a run-to-the-center strategy. I realize that I could have been read to be advocating the latter, but I really only sought to contextualize Trump and ask the question why we are experiencing a global right-wing populist moment. Even if we think that in the US the appeal of right-wing populism is insufficient to win the presidency in future elections, there is a question of why it can come close. That question will have a different flavor in different places. E.g., Macron might still be able to beat Le Pen, but one can imagine someone almost as bad as Le Pen w/o the baggage emerging in the wake of the yellow vest movement.

Joe said...

"Clinton did appear to be winning in a blowout."

A false reality as it turned out.

As a resident of a populous state (CA, TX, NY and FL suggests a diversity here), I have a special concern about how "blowout" doesn't mean "popular vote." What this meant over time is that a few states mattered, especially since there often was a strict partisan breakdown. The system in place also shows the importance of the Senate. To me, this factors into Warren perhaps being best in her current situation. I note, for instance, that Republicans repeatedly won state-wide in Massachusetts.

Trump is "weak" but Republicans (including at least a plurality of white women) stuck with him. This in part since Trump is "strong" in a fashion given the specific times (see Prof. Dorf's comment). He as compared to another Republican had an ability to take advantage of the situation (racism, celebrity etc.). His weaknesses can be taken advantage of but that 40% number is misleading unless the Republican leaning voters won't stick by the ticket. See also, a single Republican so far supporting impeachment.

In 2000, things beyond that factored in (e.g., instant run-off voting might have dealt with Gore/Nader being ahead of Bush in both NH and Florida; felony disenfranchisement, who regulates elections, ballot design etc.) as well. How "freakish" is Trump at this point? I rather him be so, but honestly, the system makes him winning understandable. If nauseating.

When we aim to beat him, I think we should take this all into consideration. Where were the good people in 2016? Well, various things factored in, including Hillary Clinton being a prime target for decades. There was no magic alternative, mind you, but we need to be honest about what happened. I think Trump can be beat in 2020 and playing scared isn't the answer. Trump's flaws will help us here. But, the whole picture should be seen too.

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