Democrats face a real dilemma: The current crop of their party’s presidential candidates are awash in plans and proposals, which in theory is a good thing, but this election will not be decided on that basis.
Donald Trump has transformed the electorate into two camps, sycophants and dissidents, both passionate, both aimed like missiles at November, both with an intent desire to destroy the competition.
This election won’t turn on the definition of “Medicare for All” or its funding mechanisms. It won’t turn on who offers free college and to whom. This election will turn on whether an individual voter sees Trump as a heroic savior or a destructive agent.
This election is about fundamental questions of American ideals: Should foreign countries be invited or welcomed to meddle in our elections? Should a president be allowed to openly obstruct justice without consequence? Should we separate immigrant children from their parents and lock them in cages? Should we have a president who has bragged about assaulting women, paid off women who claim to have been sexually involved with him and been accused by multiple women of being sexually inappropriate with them? Should America have a racist in the White House?
It is issues like these, I believe, that will most animate voters in the election. America is being forced to look itself in the mirror and figure out who it is.
And it seems to me that many of the Democratic candidates are missing that base-level moral conflict, aiming over it or wiggling around it.
The moderate candidates pitch a path to victory to win back white people in the Midwest by being just milquetoast enough not to offend them and to cause them no guilt or consternation about having supported a racist, sexist transphobe who lies about everything and honors nothing.
The progressives promise us a future with wholesale transformation in every sector: the economy, the military, the health care industry and education. They see a generational opportunity, indeed an existential emergency, to not only alter America’s course, but in some cases to tear down sectors and rebuild them altogether.
But their approaches, I fear, stray too far afield from where most Americans are. Voters simply want to get rid of Trump or to keep him. Liberal voters are not interested in candidates who kowtow to the white nationalists in the Rust Belt who not only voted for Trump but still cheer for him. Whenever I hear candidates talking about their natural appeal to these voters, my spidey senses are activated.
These are those who cheer for a man who saw “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia. These are people who see no problem with the separation of migrant families. These are people who abide by the president employing white nationalists in his administration.
I am quite frankly suspicious of the candidate who actively appeals to these people. Their continued support for Trump isn’t just some small mistake they made, like picking up a zucchini instead of a cucumber at the market.
No, their Trump support is a value statement, one that turns on the denial of other people’s rights to freedom, equality and safe existence.
How can a person appeal to me and to that person simultaneously and do so with integrity and honor?
At the same time, transformational change sounds good and smart in theory, but it simply isn’t most Trump-resisting Americans’ most urgent concern. Removing Trump is. Furthermore, the federal government is notoriously inefficient and problem-prone. It would most likely take it decades to carry out a single large-scale change and tweak it until it worked properly. It is impossible for me to believe that any candidate could manage major change in multiple areas at the same time.
This is not to say that the proposals of the progressive candidates don’t have merit. They do. Their goals are the right ones for the Democratic Party and the planet. But this election will not likely be the proving ground for these proposals.
In this cycle, it is hard to sell reorganizing the whole country to people who are simply afraid that Trump is going to destroy the whole country.
That is a reason that Tuesday night’s debate got a bit too far down into the weeds for me. Indeed, although the ability of candidates to make sustained arguments has improved and the number of people allowed on the stage has shrunk, there remains a sort of nerdy gladiator feel to them that numbs with numbers.
Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. It is a dystopian future in which maximum pressure is applied to minority immigrants and trading partners, all to insulate the white working class. Trump is the white nationalist candidate selling the racial romance of reverting America to a time when white workers were virtually guaranteed success and prosperity, often at the expense and exclusion of others.
The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.
If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.