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We Must Defeat Trump

This does not mean that "centrist" strategies ought to be embraced, but it does mean that Democrats need to argue with a sense of proportion and in a way that underscores their unity against Trump

The real political enemy is the Republican party, and nothing is more important than a resounding Republican defeat in 2020. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The real political enemy is the Republican party, and nothing is more important than a resounding Republican defeat in 2020. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It has long been obvious that Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy, participatory democracy, individual freedom, social and economic justice, and basic human decency.

A wide range of people, ranging from Never Trump Republicans to Democrats right, center, and left, to self-described “Progressives” and democratic socialists, have long known this. Some of us, myself included, have been writing about this for years now (it sometimes seems like decades).

I am sick of writing about this. For it is known. And if anyone had any doubt, I invite them to watch the video of Trump’s Hitlerian rally last Wednesday night in Greenville, North Carolina — if you have the stomach for it:

Trump has been stoking resentment and fear of supposedly “dangerous” Others for years: Central American immigrants (“rapists and murderers”), Muslims (“terrorists”), journalists (“enemies of the people”), Democrats (“witchhunt”) and even socialists. The run-up to the 2018 elections saw a blatant attempt to promote a new red scare that was so pervasive that even “red state” Democrats like Indiana’s Joe Donnelly succumbed to it.

Wednesday night Trump drew upon this toxic repertoire of hate and took it one step further to the gutter, expanding on his earlier Tweets against “the squad” (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar) by whipping up the hysteria of his large crowd against these four young Representatives, women of color all, to the point of stoking angry cheers of “send her home, send her home.” Trump’s subsequent lying disclaimers to the contrary, this will surely be Trump’s mantra for the next sixteen months, replacing his 2016 anti-Clinton “lock her up.” With these words, Trump is doing more than demonizing his political opponents, and more than even suggesting that they be somehow denaturalized and expelled from the country (of course, Trump says these things in a way that offers him deniability; but the implications are clear, and the incitement is palpable). In a climate of ongoing death threats to these four, Trump is making hostility toward them the central rhetorical appeal of his hateful campaign. He is thus putting a target on their backs. And, by extension, on the backs of many Democrats, who Trump casts as “enemies of the people.”

I need to repeat this: Trump is putting targets on the backs of his political opponents, reprehensibly singling out those who are most vulnerable.

This is awful. It is not simply a politics of rhetorical hatred, as if words are somehow without effect. It is a politics of actual hatred, pure and simple. It mobilizes hatred. And it supports policies that can only be described as cynical, contemptuous, cruel, and hateful: the concentration camps and family separations and threats of raids and deportations that have spread suffering, insecurity and terror throughout the country, a terror that affects millions, many more than the 11 million neighbors, workers, fellow human beings who live and work among us without “proper documentation;” the gutting of the department of Labor and its protection of labor rights, the Justice Department and its protection of civil rights, voting rights, and reproductive freedoms, and the Environmental Protection Agency and its protection of the environment; the multiple obstructions of justice, and the attacks on law enforcement professionals, and judges, committed to upholding the rule of law; the ostentatious promotion of plutocracy and widening inequality in the name of “Making America Great Again.”

America’s brand of constitutional democracy has always been deeply flawed, even as some of its most egregious limits have been contested and sometimes over time surmounted. The U.S is a constitutional democracy in which the Constitution is often traduced or interpreted as a support for inequality and violence. It is a liberal democracy in which liberal values have often been violated or compromised by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and a politics of fear. It is a capitalist democracy in which the state is shaped and constrained by capitalism and its inherent inequalities.

And still, through centuries of struggle, the U.S. has become some kind of democracy, however limited, unsatisfying, and fragile.

Trump endangers all of this. On a daily basis he does great and perhaps even irreparable damage. The survival of even the most circumscribed democracy is unimaginable if Trump is reelected in 2020 and serves a second four-year term.

Trump must be defeated. We must defeat him, where “we” is all citizens who appreciate the danger he opposes and the danger his party poses.

The U.S., for many historical reasons, has a two-party system at the level of national politics.

This means that everyone who cares about democracy must rally around, and work hard to support, a Democrat who is capable of defeating Trump and of heading a ticket that is capable of retaining control of the House and perhaps even re-taking control of the Senate. Nothing is politically more important than defeating Trump and his Republican enablers in 2020.

Nothing.

Whatever your positions on policy issues, unless you are a hard-core Trumpist or a died-in-the-wool Republican — which have become practically the same thing — you must understand that your political values, aspirations, projects, and agendas are threatened by Trumpism, and that defeating Trump in 2020 is a necessary precondition of the pursuit and possible realization of those values and agendas. A second term of Trump is a disaster for every American who is not a Trumpist, and for the rest of the world as well.

You agree?

Not so fast. Because here is where things become complicated.

For even if there is agreement — among Never Trump Republicans, Democrats, progressives, democratic socialists, etc.—that it is imperative to support a Democrat capable of defeating Trump, there is not agreement on what is required to sustain such a capability or who is most likely to be so capable. That is the rub. That is the heart of the contention among the Presidential candidates currently vying for the Democratic nomination. And it is also the heart of the very real tension — now hidden, now open — between Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team and the more progressive House Democrats, which include “the squad” but also the Progressive Caucus, its Justice Democratic members, and even more broadly those near-one hundred House members who support the opening of an impeachment inquiry.

There is disagreement, about process, about policy, and about the very identity of the Democratic party, and at each of these levels, this translates into a disagreement about how best to defeat Trump.

There is no way around this. But there are those, claiming to speak for “moderation” or “realism,” who would suggest otherwise. This is indeed one way to understand much of the rhetoric of Biden’s campaign, and of Pelosi’s strategy of House leadership, and this “logic” was articulated this past week, with much coverage, by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, in a piece aptly titled “‘Trump’s Going to Get Re-elected, Isn’t He?’ Voters have reason to worry.”

Here is Friedman:

Dear Democrats: This is not complicated! Just nominate a decent, sane person, one committed to reunifying the country and creating more good jobs, a person who can gain the support of the independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women who abandoned Donald Trump in the midterms and thus swung the House of Representatives to the Democrats and could do the same for the presidency. And that candidate can win!

But please, spare me the revolution! It can wait. Win the presidency, hold the House and narrow the spread in the Senate, and a lot of good things still can be accomplished. “No,” you say, “the left wants a revolution now!” O.K., I’ll give the left a revolution now: four more years of Donald Trump.

Here is Maureen Dowd, also of the Times, in her much-discussed “Scaling Wokeback Mountain”:

In the age of Trump, there is no more stupid proposition than that Nancy Pelosi is the problem. If A.O.C. and her Pygmalions and acolytes decide that burning down the House is more important than deposing Trump, they will be left with a racist backward president and the emotional satisfaction of their own purity.

Here is Rahm Emmanuel in the Washington Post, insisting that “No, the Democratic Party hasn’t lurched to the left”: “What remains to be seen is whether today’s far left is more interested in defeating Trump than it is in drumming moderates out of the Democratic Party.”

And for good measure, here is Chris Truax, Republican opinion writer at USA Today: “I’m telling Democrats how to beat Trump in 2020. It’s Job One so get over it. Enough with the progressive wish lists, just focus on winning. The next president is everyone’s business, and we can’t afford to screw it up. Again.”

The point is simple: it’s time to suspend programmatic and ideological arguments, and for the Democratic party’s left to calm down, subordinate all of its concerns to the defeat of Trump, and to rally behind an experienced, popular, moderate, and centrist candidate, the kind of candidate who can appeal to Republicans, and who can please the party’s centrist leadership, and who can be not-Trump without standing for lots of other things that might be controversial.

But the point is also patronizing and, more importantly, it is mistaken. For it rests on two questionable premises. The first is that it is by appealing to centrist voters (and the commentators who are obsessed with them), and perhaps even peeling away some of Trump’s base, that the Democrats have the best chance of defeating Trump. The second is that an anodyne, middle of the road candidate, is capable of generating sufficient enthusiasm to motivate Democratic activists to do the campaign work necessary to turn out the vote in 2020, which involves not simply voting but relentlessly working to get out the vote because you are passionate about the candidate and the outcome.

Both of those things might be true, though I have serious doubts. But this simply cannot be known in advance. What can be known is that a great many progressive Democrats, far beyond “the squad,” and indeed including at least two of the leading candidates for the Presidential nominee — Warren and Sanders — do not share those premises, and indeed question them. They believe that the way to beat Trump is not to tack to the right but to articulate a strong, clear, and viable progressive agenda. They support Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage, and labor law reform, not because these are “pet projects” or items on a “wish lists,” but because they believe that such policies address the felt needs of many Americans; that the Democratic party was weakened by a failure to address these felt needs in sufficiently robust ways; and that the way to defeat Trump is to advance a real alternative vision, one capable of recapturing the traditional Democratic base and also greatly expanding that base by tapping into the millions upon millions of voters who do not typically vote at all. And they also believe that it is only by advancing such a vision that they can generate a political movement capable of mobilizing voters and thus ensure a victory.

Who is right about what and who can best defeat Trump? Moderate or progressive? Biden or Warren or Sanders (or one of the many others)?

I personally align with the progressive side of the argument. But I am not certain that this is the side that can win in either the primary or the general election. My position is thus something of a “calculated risk.” Because all positions are calculated risks, it is important to have a real debate. And while I am not certain about how that debate will unfold, I am certain of this: the effort to shut down the debate in advance seems profoundly wrong on both ethical and pragmatic grounds.

It is thus imperative that the real differences of opinion and vision within the Democratic party play out in the weeks and months to come. It is also imperative that they play out in ways that are honest and respectful, so that at a certain point the contenders can come together behind a candidate, and a platform, that is strong, and so that everyone involved can work hard, with conviction, to defeat Trump in 2020. Because nothing is politically more important.

There is no reason to exaggerate the differences within the Democratic party. At the same time, there are real differences, and there is no way to resolve all of them in the next two years, or even in the next six years. It will take time for party activists to work out an agenda for the future. And while there are moments when choices and decision must be made — candidate endorsements, primary elections, national conventions, general elections—all Democrats involved in trying to shape the party’s future must know, and should acknowledge, that there are no shortcuts, no magic bullets, no substitutes for an arduous and challenging process of debate and dialogue over time. What is essential is that all Democratic contestants keep their eyes on the near-term prize with an eye to the longer-term future: make their strongest arguments and mobilize voters behind those arguments; support the winner of the competitive process; and understand that supporting the winner is necessary not as an ultimate goal but as a proximate goal, so that the debate can continue, in January 2021, in an environment that is safer and more amenable to vigorous debate capable of leading to real policy change.

Alas, Tom Friedman is right about one thing for sure: we all have reason to worry that Trump might be re-elected. And so we all have reason to proceed with a healthy sense of self-limitation; to do things that maximize the chance that the Democratic party will win in 2020, and that minimize the chance that the Democratic party will lose.

Here are a few modest proposals toward that end:

Never Trump Republicans should say what they think, but also recognize that it is their Republican party that has brought us to this point. If they are serious about constitutional democracy, then they are obliged to comment on intra-Democratic debates with a sense of humility, as friendly outsiders seeking to “right” a situation that they helped to create, and to contribute constructively without fomenting division or demonizing the left. It is not their place to school Democratic activists on how to be political. Perhaps former Bush II confidant and neocon Max Boot recognized something like this when he declared this past week that “I may not agree with AOC’s squad, but they are better Americans than Donald Trump.” (Fellow neocon Robert Kagan followed up the next day with a similar piece, “We are all ‘the Squad’ now.”) Such declarations are to be welcomed. At the same time, Never Trump Republicans ought to preface everything they write with this clarification: “Because Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, I will strongly support whoever turns out to be the Democratic nominee in 2020. Nothing is more important than defeating Trump.”

Democratic party elites, and especially the House leadership under the rather iron-fisted leadership of Pelosi, ought to dial back their criticisms of progressive Democrats, and be more responsive to the growing number of House Democrats who support the opening of an official impeachment inquiry. Pelosi and her colleagues cannot reasonably be expected to stop being themselves and simply to adopt the views of their more progressive colleagues. At the same time, while Pelosi is managing a genuinely diverse caucus, which includes many “moderates,” she is also exercising power over that caucus. While less than half of this caucus now supports impeachment proceedings, it can be assured that quite a few others would support such proceedings if Pelosi and her “whips” were not so steadfastly against them. It is on the caucus’s more progressive members to press harder, and persuade better, if they wish to shift the balance of power in the House. I interpret Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s much-quoted remark about Pelosi’s criticisms to be an acknowledgment of just this: “When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood. But the persistent singling out . . . it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful . . .” The point: Pelosi might be performing a difficult balancing act, but she wields substantial power over her caucus, and she can perform this act in a less antagonistic and more magnanimous way.

Progressive Democrats, including but not limited to “the squad,” ought to respond in kind, acknowledging that in the short term — which includes the run-up to the 2020 elections — they do not hold the leadership positions in the party, and do not constitute a majority of party activists, party supporters, or party officeholders in either the House or the Senate. This should not inhibit them from seeking to change that situation, nor should it prevent them from advancing bold policy proposals (and it is worth underscoring that the boldest of these proposals, the Green New Deal, was advanced in Congress by AOC along with Democratic Senator Ed Markey, and has the support of many established Democrats. It is also worth noting that many of the progressive’s “bold” proposals are actually more in line with public opinion than some of the more “moderate” alternatives). But, again, the empowerment of the party’s left is a long-term process, and not something that can possibly be accomplished in the short term, especially in the House. And because the most clear and present danger is Trump, and because it is important for the party eventually to rally around a candidate who can defeat Trump, a certain sense of proportion is called for.

One way to do this is to dial back some of the antagonistic rhetoric coming from some “Squad” supporters. The Washington Post recently ran a fascinating profile by David Montgomery of Saikrat Chakrabarti, the interesting and admirable young man who currently serves as AOC’s chief of staff. Chakrabarti was a principal behind the formation of Justice Democrats and, as the Post makes clear, he sees himself as simultaneously running AOC’s office and “guiding a movement” to shift the political agenda to the left by recruiting a new generation of leftist Democrats to run for office. Chakrabarti is clearly very savvy. As Montgomery reports:

“The basic argument of the progressive wing versus the centrist wing of the Democratic Party right now is the centrists think the way to win is tack to the middle, try to convince Republicans,” he said on the first call. “Progressives think the way to win is mobilizing and convince people to vote for something. So how do you actually test that hypothesis before the actual election?” The idea under discussion would be to go into swing districts held by centrist Democrats and survey views on progressive proposals, such as Medicare-for-all, pieces of the Green New Deal, caps on credit card interest rates. It would be a rigorous analysis, with the ideas matched against counterarguments and also tested for their potential to motivate people to vote. The results would be shown to reluctant representatives, to get them onboard. “Part of it is about pressuring these congresspeople and presidential candidates to go big, but also giving them the cover to do so,” Chakrabarti said to me between calls with the pollsters. “How do we help people develop a bit more of a backbone?”

It seemed to me that Chakrabarti’s worldview is founded on his utter certainty not just that the progressive vision is good for America — but that it is what most Americans actually want. Yet what if he is wrong? After the calls, I asked him what happens if the polling shows the centrists are correct — that these ideas are too much, too fast, for most folks. “I don’t want it to be false propaganda,” he said. “So if it turns out that our hypothesis is wrong, that just means we need a different strategy. … If the answer is no, then I think the strategy would be: Okay, how do we reach the people in their district in a different way to present the ideas and try to persuade people that these are good ideas.” He paused for a long moment and then added drolly: “And, you know, if after everything, it turns out we’re just totally wrong, then hopefully I’ve been convinced of the error of my ways.”

This effort to educate and pressure reluctant Democratic incumbents sounds exemplary to me. Less exemplary, however, is Chakrabarti’s outspoken current criticisms of the Democratic party’s centrist leadership, including recent Tweets maligning Pelosi and implying that House Democrats who supported border funding were racist or equivalent to segregationist Dixiecrats. The Tweets prompted Patricia Murphy to ask “ Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez need a ‘Chief of Change’ of a Change of Staff?” Murphy is not an enemy of the left. As she observes: “Ocasio-Cortez is a gifted politician on a limitless trajectory. But she is also in danger of being pushed away from her own potential as her staff continues to burn more bridges than they are building for her to achieve her goals.”

Now is not the time to be burning bridges within the Democratic party. Now is the time for a criticism that is honest but judicious.

For the same reason, I have serious questions about whether now is the time for progressive insurgents, led by Justice Democrats, to attempt to build on their real (if limited) and exemplary successes of 2018, and to cultivate or support progressive challengers to House Democratic incumbents.

This possibility is a major source of division within the House Democratic caucus, as Rachel Cohen and Ryan Grim point out in a terrific new piece in The Intercept. The New York Times, for example, reports that: “House Democrats Prepare for Civil War as Challengers Plot Primary Battles: Several entrenched New York representatives will face progressive hopefuls seeking to replicate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s success.” I want to be clear: a few of the House Democrats being “primaried” are exceptionally reactionary individuals, such as Henry Cuellar in Texas and Dan Lapinski in Illinois, and a strong case could be for their being challenged. But right now, given the gravity of the situation and the need to come together to defeat the Republicans, such challenges ought to be rare exceptions. Challenges to figures like Jerry Nadler, or Hakim Jeffries, a Pelosi lieutenant who was closely associated with Joe Crowley (who AOC unseated in 2016), seem nothing short of fratricidal. Because it is not 2016 or 2018, it is 2019, and defeating Trump means everything.

I am not endorsing a cessation of debate within the party. And indeed, I strongly support vigorous debate and real contestation at the level of the Presidential primary, where there is a good chance that a progressive can win the nomination. And it is here, rather than in the 435 House elections spread out across this very diverse country, that there is real promise to move the agenda, and thus the party, to the left. Neither am I offering a blanket argument against “primarying” obstructionist Democrats. But at this moment, in the lead up to 2020, it is Republicans and not Democrats who represent the real danger. And it is very important for Democrats to concentrate all electoral energy on the defeat of Trump and the Republicans in 2020 .

It is necessary to elect a Democrat as President, and to fill both houses of Congress with as many Democrats as possible, so as to restore a sense of political “normality,” and then to continue the contest for the future of the Democratic party more vigorously. As a matter of principle, it is a good thing for incumbents, and especially old guard or conservative incumbents, to be challenged by a new generation of party activists. Intra-party democracy is good. But now is not the time to work to unseat Democratic incumbents, and for two reasons: (1) because such efforts will necessarily sow division within the party at the precise moment when such division is counterproductive, and (2) every dollar invested, and every hour spent, in support of a Democrat seeking to primary another House Democrat is a dollar or an hour that could better be spent seeking to defeat Republicans and especially to defeat Trump.

I was recently contacted by a very impressive individual who had read some of my published criticisms of Pelosi and her leadership team, and was contemplating a challenge to a member of the team. This was the gist of my response: ‘you are a very impressive person, and I admire all that you do, and think it would be great to have you in Congress, and I would be happy to support a primary challenge such as the one you are planning — in 2022. I understand your motivations, and I share your view on the issues. I would like to see real change in the party leadership and profile. But now is not the time to exacerbate existing tensions and divisions within the party, because the prospect of a second term of Trump is too dangerous, and the possibility of his reelection is too serious, to do anything that might detract from his defeat. If I were you, I would make very public my intention to organize a challenge in 2022, and explain very publicly that at this moment you believe it is necessary to devote every possible resource to the defeat of every possible Republican. I think such a declaration would be a true act of statesmanship, and might actually help you gain support in the future.’

My point is not a moral one. It is pragmatic. The consequences of defeat are simply too great.

So let the policy debate and the primary debate flourish. But proceed with a sense of self-limitation, and an acceptance of certain procedural limits. Democratic leaders need to stop trying to marginalize their party’s left. And Democratic leftists need to continue to press their agenda while recognizing that they are now a small minority, and that while challenging leadership is one thing, supporting efforts to unseat leaders now, in 2019, is a mistake. For the real political enemy is the Republican party, and nothing is more important than a resounding Republican defeat in 2020.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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