The rise of Donald Trump means that the American political system, already sick, could be degraded still further. But – if Trump does become the Republican nominee for president, which looks probable – this danger also presents an opportunity to restore the health of American politics to levels not seen in years.
But seizing that opportunity will take more than defeating Trump because the political pathologies that he represents – such as a Republican base ready to support a proto-fascist candidate, and a political party that has worked for years to create such a base – would not disappear.
The good news is that the Trump candidacy also supplies the means to attack the systemic political disease that has arisen on the right.
A characteristic error Democrats make is to focus excessively on the presidential race. But what is needed is a coherent political strategy to address this systemic problem at all these levels.
We need a strategy that works simultaneously to keep the White House out of the hands of Trump and the GOP, to wrest as much control as possible from the obstructionist Republicans, and to inflict maximal lasting damage to today’s aberrant Republican Party.
Control of Congress is essential, because the Republicans will otherwise make it nearly impossible for any newly elected Democratic president to move the nation forward; the opportunity to damage the Republican “brand” is no less important, as the GOP has become more consistently destructive of the nation than any major political party in our history.
Not just piece-by-piece, but with an integrated strategy. These goals are best pursued in a coordinated way.
History shows that it would be a mistake to assume that winning the presidency even by a landslide would take care of achieving the other two essential goals:
- In 1972, the Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon, won all but one of the states against Democratic nominee George McGovern. Nonetheless, the Democrats fared well in the House and Senate races, and maintained control of both houses of Congress for years.
- In 1964, the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, lost to Lyndon Johnson by more than 20 percentage points. But only four years later, the Republicans won the White House. They kept it for 20 of the next 24 years.
A coherent strategy would use Trump, with his exceptionally high unfavorables, to indelibly stain the Republican brand in the eyes of the American people.
What makes such a strategy feasible is this essential truth, substantiated by dozens of fine interpreters of the American political scene: The ugliness of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency is not something apart from the GOP, not something that just happened inside the Republican Party. Rather, the rise of Trump is a flagrant manifestation of the heart of that party.
Although many have described the connection between what is ugly about Donald Trump and what the Republican Party, that connection is not fully grasped by the American electorate.
People are distracted, for example, by the competing narrative that recounts the continuing struggle between the Republican “Establishment” and Trump – which is a valid but superficial story. One reason the establishment Republicans fear Trump is that he blows their cover, their pretense to being a normal and acceptable political party by traditional American standards. Their problem with Trump is not that he is a wolf but that – unlike the Republican Party as a whole – he does not bother to wear sheep’s clothing.
And there’s the opportunity. Trump makes it easy to show the ugly and destructive nature of the Republican Party in our times, as he presents in more blatant form the GOP’s by now long-standing
- Indifference to truth
- Appeal to bigotry
- Cruelty toward the vulnerable
- Con game against their own voters
The optimal Democratic strategy, therefore, is one that does the best possible job of getting Americans to see the connections across these levels:
- The ugliness of what Trump represents, how he tramples upon the best American ideals and values (and, correspondingly, to show how what the Democratic nominee is offering honors those values and ideals);
- How that ugliness connects with what the Republicans in Congress have been doing with their obstructionism – most recently and shamefully with regard to the Supreme Court nominee – which is, like Trump, all about winning regardless of the means, about seeking power unrestrained by principle or concern for the good of the nation (and correspondingly, to show how Democratic politics are offering the opposite, trying to do constructive things to move the nation forward);
- How Trump reflects the spirit that has animated the Republican Party increasingly for the past generation.
All these connections are quite real, and readily shown. They are at the core of the political crisis in America in our times. And they are relevant to the various challenges and issues we face as a country, from rising inequalities of wealth and power, to climate change, to the bitter divisiveness and degraded discourse in our nation.
Democrats face a creative challenge: how to lead as many Americans as possible to see these connections – to see the ugliness that inflames the Republican world – and to respond appropriately by repudiating the Republicans in November.
But recognizing that this is the task at hand is at least an important first step.
If you think this approach is one that the Democrats should adopt, please spread this piece around. And please consider sending this story to the DNC at http://my.democrats.org/page/s/contact-the-democrats.