Democracy Alliance President
I don’t like writing about Donald Trump. I don’t like talking about Donald Trump. I don’t like his ubiquitous presence in the media. But we have to talk and write about Donald Trump, since what was not long ago unthinkable has happened: this dangerous and polarizing man is now effectively the leader of one of the two political parties that have alternated power in America for 150 years.
I’ve lived in New York City for most of the last four decades, so I’ve had a ringside seat on Trump before a reality television show brought him to broader national celebrity. He was always seen as a boastful blowhard and a buffoon, except when from time to time – in a harbinger of his current campaign – he stoked racial hatred, as with his campaign to bring back the death penalty for the Central Park Five defendants (whose convictions were later vacated). No one has been as amazed at his steady rise in today’s morally bankrupt Republican Party as those who’ve watched his act up close in his home city.
As he closed in on the nomination in the last few weeks, a number of friends and colleagues, with increasing frequency and alarm, have asked me: Donald Trump can’t be elected President, can he?
Most of the time I try to reassure them that a candidate with Trump’s unprecedented level of unpopularity – astronomically high with women, Latinos and other key voting groups – is likely headed for a rout. That someone who genuine conservatives, from the National Review to the only living former Republican Presidents and the last Republican Presidential nominee, will not support, believing him dangerously unqualified to be President, will have a huge uphill battle to climb. That the electorate which produced his victory is a minority of a minority party which represents about the same level of support that another racist demagogue, George Wallace, attained as a third-party Presidential candidate almost fifty years ago.
The fact that Trump will have attained a ballot line in fifty states, and seems likely to retain, no matter what he does, most of the solid Republican states in this polarized country, means that we have to take the prospect of his election very seriously. It is a very restive electorate, and no one can foresee the external events that might fuel an increase in support for a would-be strongman like Trump, who has run a campaign based on fear, hate and the false promise of return to an American greatness that was never great for women, people of color and the other communities he insults and reviles.
We have to keep three key things in mind as we gird up for the next six months, for an election with higher stakes than ever before.
First, we have to resist every insidious tendency for the vulgarity, bigotry and ignorance of Donald Trump to become the new normal. Yes, the Republican Party has moved steadily and scarily to the right with every election, and laid the groundwork for someone like Trump. But his candidacy is beyond the pale. John McCain and Mitt Romney are conservatives moved even further to the right by the rabid base of their party, and progressives worked hard against their election for good reason. But they did not represent the rupture of decency and democracy that Donald Trump embodies. While many Republicans resist his candidacy, there is already dangerous slippage in the Republican Party, as many of Trump’s former opponents and other officeholders come around – without any concessions in tone or substance by Trump – to his lethal brand of politics. There are troubling signs that the news media – without whose ratings-fueled nonstop coverage Trump would not be where he is today — will increasingly engage him as a plausible President, looking for signs of evolution, petrified at being accused of bias in coverage. If the false evenhandedness of our corporate media carries the day, Trump’s hatefulness will be legitimated, and we must resist it fiercely.
Second, while we have to fight back, and cast the election debate in moral as well as political terms in order to achieve a repudiation of Donald Trump and all he represents, progressives have to run on a strong, if incomplete record of accomplishment as well as a vision of a positive future of an economy that works for all, in which all people have equal rights and dignity. To stand forthrightly against Trump without condescending or treating all of his voters as bigots and ignoramuses is essential. Progressives have had an unfortunate tendency to think that our opponents are too far out of the mainstream to win, and Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush are strong proof of the falseness of the arrogant allusion that ridicule is enough to prevail.
Finally, we have to run all out, no matter what the polls say. If polls show Trump with a chance to be elected, progressives and many others will understand we need to give unstintingly of our time, our voices and our funds, for the sake of our future safety, prosperity and humanity. If Presidential polls are not so tight, we still need to run hard, and muster all the resources we can for this election cycle, because we may very well have the chance to make deeper and wider gains across the country. Some polling indicates that states not ordinarily in play at the Presidential level, like Arizona and Georgia, may be winnable, and hundreds of state legislative seats – not to mention more in the gerrymandered U.S. Congress could be turned in a strong Democratic year.
Everything depends on turnout, and on not taking any community for granted – particularly those which have been the backbone of progressive victories, and with the most at stake in this election, like African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders, women and LGBT people.
If the Obama coalition can be motivated and mobilized, and if we can add to it the votes of independents and Republicans who cannot abide Donald Trump, the 2016 election will not only repudiate the politics of hate, but will usher in a wave of progressive officeholders who will start to take back the states that have been in the grip of Tea Party government, insist on fair redistricting for the next decade, and start enacting policies to expand voting and participation, protect human rights, advance equality, and close the wealth and income gaps so pernicious to democracy. But doing so will require boldness and vision — an articulation of a new path forward, an America made great by embracing our nation’s diversity and our commitment to shared prosperity. If progressives can unite around such a campaign, we’ll do more than win – we’ll have a mandate worth winning.