Perhaps the most common left-wing critique of Donald Trump is that he represents an extraordinary threat to American democracy. He’s not a normal Republican, or even a normal Republican with a bad Twitter habit; he’s something else entirely. He’s a threat to American norms and values, a mendacious wannabe authoritarian who’s unlocking the darkest forms of white-identity politics and straining the unity of an already polarized nation. He’s the man who could destroy the post-war international order and ultimately bring ruin to the network of alliances and trading relationships that has kept the United States safe and prosperous for generations.
These are desperate times for the nation, Democrats say. This is a moment when patriotic Americans should put aside their differences, rally behind a message of national unity, and defeat Trump to — at the very least — restore basic respect for the rule of law and the American constitutional order. The 40 percent have chosen their man. Now liberals must extend their arms to the 60 percent and sweep Trumpism from the land.
Or not. Judging from the last month, now is the time for Democrats to sprint to the left, countering Trump’s base politics with base politics of their own. In just the last few days we’ve seen Kamala Harris propose the abolition of private health insurance, Elizabeth Warren propose a plainly unconstitutional wealth tax, and Democratic bills in New York, Virginia, and Vermont seeking to expand access to third-trimester abortions — procedures that even a majority of Democrats dislike. At the same time, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a 70 percent tax rate on top earners, and Nancy Pelosi has called a border wall an “immorality” — even as Democrats in the past have voted for and funded hundreds of miles of border barriers.
Note that the people highlighted above are all mainstream Democratic figures. Ocasio-Cortez is only a freshman congressman, yes, but she’s already one of the most influential Democrats online, and her tax ideas were enthusiastically received by serious progressives. Harris and Warren are leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House.
The Democratic party has responded to the shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton by moving decisively to Hillary’s left. And even as it makes this move, it ramps up its condemnation not just of Trump’s core base — the people who rationalize and excuse his abuses and excesses — but even those who voted for him reluctantly, out of concern that the Democrats would threaten their religious liberty, disrupt their health care, and expand access to abortion (even late-term abortion) at every turn.
From the beginning, Democrats viewed Trump not as a threat but as an opportunity. They saw his nomination as the guarantor of Hillary’s victory. They laughed at Republicans who struggled to stop him in the primary, chortled through the general-election debates, and cracked open champagne even as things were taking a turn on Election Night. They may not have seen him as a true threat until Florida was called, or Ohio went red.
It’s clear now that Democrats are back to their old ways. The shock of Trump’s election has worn off, the joy of 2018’s blue wave is still fresh in their minds, and they’re gazing longingly at FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker. Even amid astounding prosperity and relative peace, Trump’s approval rating is hovering at 39.5 percent. The Republicans are losing the suburbs, and the 2020 Senate map looks more favorable than 2018’s. Does a sweep beckon? Can the Democrats have it all? Can they move left and still win?
Maybe they can. Trump’s 2016 victory may well be explained by a single name: Hillary. After all, she’s proven time and again that she’s one of the least effective campaigners in modern times. She squandered a huge lead to Barack Obama in 2008, needed the DNC’s help to stave off a challenge from a socialist gadfly in 2016, and actually lost a presidential race to Donald Trump. It’s entirely possible that the Democrats can run anyone else (so long as that person isn’t actively corrupt or grotesquely incompetent) and win back the White House this time around.
But the Democrats are playing a dangerous game. Calling Trump a threat yet treating him like an opportunity deepens cynicism and exacerbates polarization. One can understand rejecting racists, declaring that the tent isn’t big enough for white nationalists. But the #resistance is sprinting away from people who are horrified at the thought of killing fully formed, viable babies. It’s rejecting people who uphold the traditional tenets of the Christian faith, often viciously and wrongly mocking them as bigots. It’s even running away from the tens of millions of people who quite simply want to keep a health-care plan they like.
Suburbanites broke with Trump in part because their concerns about his character and impulsiveness outweighed their appreciation for the booming economy. That’s a valid and rational choice. But what if the deal changes? What if those critical suburban voters no longer have the luxury of a protest vote or a check on the president’s worst instincts, but are instead faced with a much starker choice, between the status quo and the loss of their health insurance, diminished individual liberty, and an enshrined right to commit infanticide?
Then a seemingly sure-thing election could slip from Democrats’ grasp. In reaching for everything, they may get nothing, and they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.