By Mike Koetting June 24, 2018
It is impossible to write this week about anything other than the family immigration issue. I am not going to address the issue specifically, others are doing a fine job on that, but try to step back a little. What have we learned from this?
- Even Republicans have a breaking point. We finally found something that was so extreme that even prominent Republicans couldn’t stomach it. Good to know. It wasn’t clear there was such a point.
- But it sure takes a lot. The Republicans’ high tolerance for Trump-swallowing argues they have accepted the notion that Trump absolutely controls his base and without that they are toast. Never mind that they don’t have much in common with the Trump base or, frankly, give a fig about its interests. The policies they endorse are almost without exception inimical to the long run interests of the Trump base, at least if interests are defined in traditional economic terms. While few people support policies purely on the basis of economic interests, the disjunct between Republican policies (for instance, the tax cuts or repealing the ACA) and the consequences for the Trump base is striking. Sensible people can differ on policies and their impacts, but the arguments put forth by Republicans for why the Trump-base should support the Republican agenda are so flimsy that it is hard to see them as anything but cynical manipulation of reality, catering to the racist/xenophobic instincts of that group, or both.
- Trump has no concern for facts. This is not new news. But the lies and distortions over the last few weeks suggest that there is no gyroscope whatsoever. Everyone—everyone, not just politicians—spins the facts to their advantage. And sometimes the “facts” get a little tenuous. But consistent, repeated, flat-out lying amounts to a serious character disorder. It also suggests that either there are no “checks and balances” within the administration to prevent so many outright lies from cheapening the administration’s currency. Or perhaps the rest of the administration also believes saying whatever is expedient helps more than hurts. Either way, what we have is that for this administration the arbiter of “truth” is whatever is expedient at the moment. Setting aside the moral considerations, the long-run implications of trying to govern “truth-free” are the same as ignoring the radar while flying because you don’t want any bad news about possible problems ahead. Of course, you may believe the long run is too far away to be concerning, itself a potentially disastrous leadership trait.
- Trump himself has no internal limits. It is now clear, if ever in doubt, that compassion is simply not part of his make-up. To be sure, all leaders must sometime make choices about who gets hurt and how much. But nothing Trump has said or done suggests any consideration beyond how it helps him is relevant in his decision-making process. Such a complete lack of compassion is fundamentally inconsistent with the moral construct of the United States. No one can really believe “all men are equal” unless they come at it with some measure of compassion. Equality is a moral construct not an objective analysis. Trump does not even bother. To him, it is acceptable to refer to immigrants as “animals” who “infest our country”. It is not clear whether what he says is a reflection of what he really thinks or of the lengths to which he is willing to go to maintain his influence on his base. Or which is worse.
- Trump’s base really is deplorable. Again we pretty much knew that, but their support for separating families is more proof. I get their economic issues and I get they think immigrants are hurting them. I will even admit that there are places where that may be the case. And I will readily admit that we need much more thoughtful and consistent policies on immigration. But the degree of hostility is irrational and can not be supported by any reality except hate and fear of “the other.” Anyone who thinks these people can be won over by economic policies alone is whistling Dixie.
Everything about the last several weeks—and I haven’t even addressed foreign affairs—supports the notion that the nation is facing an existential crisis of democracy. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say the future of democracy in America depends on getting Trump out of office. As a theoretical matter, it should be possible to limit the damage by getting Republicans to actually show some spine or by winning one or both houses of Congress to frustrate him legislatively. Per above, I am not optimistic about the Republicans showing spine. If Trump can tamp down some of his worst instincts for the next couple of months, the Republicans are likely to see opposing Trump as giving the election to Democrats. Hoping Trump gives free rein to his worse instincts is too cynical even for me, not to mention the dangerous impacts that could have.
Winning at least one house of Congress in November is much more likely. But, on the off chance you haven’t noticed, Trump doesn’t care a whit about legislation. He likes the signing ceremonies, but neither the process nor the substance interests him. He cares about using his position to cultivate the adulation of his base and enhance his sense of power. Winning the House, or the House and Senate, won’t change that. It might even put the Democrats in the position of having to defend in 2020 the fact that even after winning in Congress, they couldn’t get anything done. You can be sure that anything that goes wrong—a bad economic report, a hurricane in Florida or a traffic jam in LA—will be blamed on the Democrats by Trump. Over and over. Still we have to do what we can do. It is the challenge of the moment. And perhaps it will suggest to traditional Republicans that getting too close to Trump threatens their seat as much as opposing him.
The real issue is 2020. Democrats must replace Trump—assuming he’s running—and win back some statehouses so that they are not again massacred in the census re-alignment. (Actually, some of the latter should be a concern in 2018 where states elect governors who will preside over the redistricting.)
To succeed in 2020 Democrats will need some combination of energizing their base, expanding it, focusing on economic issues and underlining the dangers of Trump.
How this message will get hammered into a campaign is less something that will be decided by any party hierarchy. It will be decided primarily by the choices individual candidates make in the scrum of the primary season. (Unfortunately, this process is inevitably distorted by the penchant of both the media and voters to reduce the complex issues of 2020 America to some caricatures.)
Accordingly, my thoughts on the matter aren’t very important. But for what it’s worth, I think the events of the last week suggest that the presentation of a different idea of America, one that unites around a compassionate and shared future, might be stronger than putting all our hopes on an economic populous campaign. The former may lead to some slippage in Democratic base turn-out—particularly if the primary creates very strong passions for economic populism. But it may enable more sometime-Republicans to set aside doubts and vote against Trump, which has to be the overriding concern.
Of course, I don’t know what will happen. All I can say for sure is that I get freaked-out thinking about the German election in 1930. The German Social Democrat and Labor/Communist parties between them had 60% of the vote. But they couldn’t settle their differences with each other and Hitler became chancellor.