Trump may fail miserably, but if the Democratic Party does not offer a viable alternative to Trumpism in the upcoming Congressional and Presidential cycles, he may still prevail. And with another electoral “mandate” Trump may easily become emboldened to escalate his authoritarian aspirations for the American Presidency. So a revitalization of the Democratic Party is as crucial to the future of the Republic as is the reinvigoration of a vigilant, oppositional Free Press. What do the Democrats need to do?
What Bernie Sanders revealed to anyone with ears to listen was that the white working class is the natural constituency of the political left, not the right. Like Trump, Sanders spoke directly to the frustrations and grievances of the working class. Unlike Trump, he offered a different villain. Where Trump blamed minorities, immigrants, and foreign governments, Sanders blamed the greed and power at the top of the American wealth hierarchy, the infamous “1 percent.” Trump’s message was exclusive and divisive, Sanders’ was inclusive and unifying, at least for those in the 99 percent.
Trump could be a gift that keeps on giving
The path toward Democratic resurgence in fact could be surprisingly simple, provided the Party has the courage to read the writing on the wall. Despite how terrible things look right now, Donald Trump could be the greatest gift the Democratic Party has ever received, for two reasons: it split the Republican Party’s “head” from its “body,” and it placed in the White House a completely unqualified, unprepared, and uneducated “Republican” who is capable of doing irreparable damage to the Republican image and brand.
Since FDR, the Democratic Party has been the party of the working and middle classes and the Republican Party has been the party of the rich. The only shift in that basic alignment occurred when Republicans decided to also become the party of racism and bigotry. This worked out well for them until that new wing of the party – non-college educated working-class whites who had been groomed to distrust all government and scapegoat minorities and immigrants as the cause of their (very real) decades of economic and cultural decline – found a new and more plain-speaking leader in Donald Trump, and essentially abandoned the traditional Republican Party in 2016.
How is this an opportunity for Democrats? Trump’s surprising victory means the Republicans are no longer an opposition Party. If Trump alienates his new-found base by failing to deliver on his promises to them, especially his promises to improve their economic well-being, what are those newly alienated voters going to do? It’s unlikely they will return to the Establishment Republicans who they now know (thanks to the rhetoric of Trump and Steve Bannon) have been exploiting them for 30 years. Many will simply merge back into the ranks of the non-voting public, but others, newly politically energized, will be looking for a new home. If the Democratic Party can show itself to be that home, a shift to the Democrats of only 5 or 10 percent of Trump’s disenfranchised base could quickly rebuild the Democratic “blue wall” throughout the Northeast and realign many states already vulnerable due to pro-Democratic demographic shifts: Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona.
Republicans fear California, and rightly so
What the Republican Party fears most is a Democratic Party that might finally be able to implement its pro-jobs, pro-safety-net, pro-healthcare-for-all, progressive-taxation, Keynesian policies at a national level. What they fear is not that these policies would fail, but that they would succeed, as they have in progressive bellwether states like California, Massachusetts, and Oregon. In California, for example, which used to be a “failed state” immobilized by Republican obstructionism, Republicans have essentially been banished from all branches of State government. California has raised taxes on the rich, imposed stringent regulations on businesses operating in the state, passed tough environmental protection laws, and set up an ambitious healthcare safety net, yet it boasts one of the highest average household incomes in the country and has never been in better fiscal health. And it voted 62% to 33% for Hillary Clinton. That result can be compared to the Republican “experiments” in states like Kansas and Louisiana, where the Tea Party blueprint of tax cuts and limited government have produced palpable pain for American citizens: crises in education, healthcare, and a failure of even the most basic public services.
So it was not surprising to see the Republicans focusing their attention on demonizing Democrats, rather than proposing actual policies as an alternative to the Obama policies they had dedicated themselves to obstructing, even when those policies were born in Republican states and think tanks. But now Trump is the President-elect and the titular head of a governing Republican Party that controls both Houses of Congress and will soon be packing the Supreme Court as well. Against all odds, the Republican Party can no longer hide behind obstructionism. They are now singularly responsible for delivering results. And by all accounts they, like the new “post-ideological” Trump Administration, are completely unprepared to do so.
How Democrats can win back the white working class
An obvious strategy for the Democrats thus presents itself: open lines of communication to the working class, patiently refine and publicize a working-class-friendly agenda, and wait for Trump and the Republicans to either explode or eat each other alive. Then Democrats can begin to pick up the pieces, preferably in the 2018 Congressional cycle, definitely in the 2020 Presidential cycle.
There is one catch. Democrats must find a Presidential candidate who can speak to the white working class as well as all the other traditional Democratic constituencies.
This is not going to be easy, given the lies, divisiveness, and demonization visited upon the white working class by Trump and his surrogates. Trump voters are pretty well inoculated against any truths the Democratic Party might communicate to them. Gaining their trust or support for any Democratic candidate or policy is going to be a challenge, but Democrats have one thing going for them. Although Trump voters today seem willing to believe anything Trump tells them, no matter how ridiculous and counter-factual, they will not be able to deny the truth of their own life experiences if and when the Trump Administration begins to leave them in the dust.
Should Trump fail to make the lives of working-class whites “great again,” then Democrats, along with the Free Press, must make sure his base holds him accountable for that failure. In addition, Democrats must make a persuasive case for why they can do better. And they must convince Trump voters that the white working class cannot succeed at the expense of minorities and immigrants, but only alongside them. Finally, it must lead the Trump survivors into the Bernie Sanders tent, where economic inequality is identified as the culprit that needs to be fixed, the extra burden on the rich is recognized as a small and fair price to pay after decades of huge and disproportionate gains, and the American dream of a healthy and growing middle class can once again become attainable.
Authoritarianism can only grow in a climate of desperation. If Trump’s “solutions” fail as expected, and Democrats do not have a credible alternative to offer, it becomes very possible to envision Trump “gas lighting” the public into believing that only an authoritarian strongman can fix what remains broken. Should events line up this way, Benjamin Franklin’s American Republic is going to be very, very hard to keep.