Defeating Trump

At first glance, the Democrats are in a terrible state. The Iowa Caucus was a failure of both technology and organisation: the Republicans can and will use this example to suggest the Democrats couldn’t run a bath, let alone the country. Trump escaped punishment thanks to a compliant Senate, which decided that it was better to acquit him of things of which he was clearly guilty than to face into his Twitter tirades. Recently, his approval rating hit a high of 49%.

However, it’s February. There are 9 months between now and Election Day, a vast ocean of time in which Trump’s hopes can be holed below the waterline. In my opinion, this is going to require an acknowledgement of his main weakness: as much as some would like it to be otherwise, he cannot be felled on policy because he will say anything, even left wing things, in order to curry favour. Attentive observers may have noted that he vowed to preserve Social Security in 2016: of course, he was lying. But, because most people don’t lie without a single pang of conscience, some took what he said at face value. We can assume that if a position is popular, he will peddle new falsehoods with a similar shamelessness. Thus it will be difficult to eject him on the basis of his plans for America.

There are significant headwinds any Democrat must face. We can dispute the causes of why the stock market is hitting new records: however, it is indisputably higher than when Trump took office. The giant corporate tax cuts that the Republicans enacted were used to buy back shares, driving valuations higher. This is the fiscal equivalent of drinking a can of Red Bull: a period of frenetic energy, to be followed by a subsequent crash and hangover. The short term effect, however, is to raise the value of 401K retirement plans. One of my aunts, who despises Trump with a passion, has noticed that her retirement income has increased: she is reluctant to credit Trump with any of it. However, others will not be so hesitant.

So: how do the Democrats defeat Trump? This question has global significance: Trump was at the crest of the populist wave that crashed over Western democracy in 2016. We have been drowning ever since. Far right populists have succeeded in yanking Britain out of the European Union (Trump called himself “Mr. Brexit”), and thrust it into an uncertain future. The far right AfD party recently collaborated with centre right parties in the German state of Thuringia and deposed the competent socialist premier. Orban still rules in Hungary, Putin is planning on staying in office until he draws his last breath. Modi is pushing India in a more intolerant direction and has crushed dissent in Kashmir. If Trump can be defeated and far right populism can be stopped in one of the largest and most powerful democracies, the phenomenon could very well begin to deflate.

My suggestion is simple: let Trump talk, and make him talk. When Trump speaks, he seems to repel more than he attracts: yes, he has rabid fans who hang on his every word. However, this is not a majority of the country: it wasn’t a majority in 2016. He cannot withstand the tiniest pinprick of criticism: it was not enough to say that his phone call to Ukraine’s president was “inoffensive” or any errors were “unintentional”, rather, Trump said it was “perfect” and continues to say so. When he talks, his narcissism, lack of self awareness, and crudity rise to the fore. The suburban voters who helped flip the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018 will no doubt be reminded of why they voted the way they did.

The Democrats could extend this further: this should be an election whose main topic is character. Whatever one may say about any of the Democratic presidential contenders, each one of them represents an improvement in morality and temperament to Trump. Bernie Sanders is not a hypocrite and has a visible sense of humour. Elizabeth Warren has genuine empathy. Pete Buttigieg served his country. Joe Biden, for all his faults, truly loves his family: it is well known that he would commute daily between Washington and Wilmington, Delaware so that he could be present in their lives. If the election turns on the pivot of personal qualities and who is the most Presidential, then Trump will be headed for defeat. This means not responding in kind to Trump’s childish taunts: others have tried and only managed to make themselves look the worse for it. Rather, this approach entails seeming more like the President than the President.

Democrats generally are not comfortable contesting elections on the basis of character: Bill Clinton’s antics may have dulled this appetite. It is much more comforting to talk about free tuition and universal health care; these policies do have their place. However, with the recent example provided by Representative Adam Schiff in his fine precis of the case gainst Trump, they should embrace a character-based contest: not only do truth and right matter, but so does personal fortitude. If there is no restraint within, then indisciplined and harmful bombast is the result. We have been lucky so far that the disasters that have ensued have not turned into total catastrophe. How long are we going to continue to be so fortunate? Do we really want to push our luck?

The Democrats can also make the case that the low character of the inhabitant of the Oval Office can diminish the office. I am originally from New York. Trump Tower is now a feature on 5th Avenue: I recall visiting and feeling like having seen it once, I didn’t need to return. There was a restaurant, a few shops, a lot of brass: it was gaudy. It was tacky. It seemed out of place on 5th Avenue. That’s because it is: previously, the space was occupied by the Bonwit Teller building, an Art Deco masterpiece. Trump destroyed it, despite people pleading with him not to do so. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked for some of the wonderful friezes on the building, Trump refused and destroyed them anyway. It would have only cost him $9,000 to save them, however, even this was too much for his liking. A piece of New York history was demolished by, ironically enough, inexpensive immigrant labour (he apparently paid his workers only $4 an hour and insisted they work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week) and replaced by a brass and glass monument to his monstrous ego. It remains an eyesore. Do Americans, who by and large feel a sentimental tug on the heart strings when called to their heritage of loving liberty, want to turn the Oval Office into something so base? The case needs to be made: this is a time for personal integrity. Trump has all the resilence of a spoiled infant sitting in a soiled diaper; this era of global challenges requires a fully realised adult who will behave with dignity.

There is still time to frame the election. It appears that Speaker Pelosi understands what needs to be done: her subtle provocations of Trump, such as tearing up his speech, appear to have pushed his limited tolerance to the brink. Mitt Romney’s brave stand against Trump caused him to explode in a fit of apoplexy. Whoever wins this contested primary needs to provide the positive contrast. Then perhaps we can all rest more easy, knowing that the horrors unleashed by 2016 may soon abate.

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