For a growing number of Americans on both sides of our ever-deepening political divide, the 2020 presidential election has become a critical contest about the future of our country. While so many significant policy concerns are at stake in November 2020, this will be an election about Donald Trump and what he has done to our politics.
There can be no doubt that, by any measure, Donald Trump has been the most outrageous president in our history. In fact, it is a role he appears to relish. It isn’t just the policies he has pursued. It is the way in which he has exacerbated the polarisation of our society and coarsened our political discourse.
Ever the performer, he has used his rallies to incite against his opponents, resorting to name-calling and even vulgarity to denigrate them. In addition, he has used his tweets and engagements with Press to the same end.
It’s important to understand, however, that there is a method to this madness. What Trump has intuited is the anger of a significant portion of the American electorate that has been squeezed by a changing economy, threatened by cultural forces beyond their control, and ignored by the political elites in both parties.
When Trump says he’ll “Make American great again,” his base understands this as recapturing the country’s lost glory, while at the same time evoking a romanticised past of quiet middle class neighbourhoods free of crime, where work was plentiful, and opportunities were available to all who “played by the rules.”
There are, to be sure, problems galore with both this messenger and the message. If anything, Donald Trump is the embodiment of the very “coastal elites” he derides. His business practices, values, and lifestyle are not those of his base. His bankruptcies have left tens of thousands out of work and his resorts have regularly hired undocumented cheap labour. His and his daughter’s product lines have moved their operations overseas. And the policies he has pursued have benefited the wealthy and only increased income inequality. But none of this has mattered to his base – because he speaks directly to them and has convinced them that he alone understands them and will fight for them.
The dilemma now confronting Democrats is how to respond to this Trump challenge. On this, the many 2020 candidates and the party, itself, are not of one mind.
Some appear to see no need to address this concern. They simply want to defeat the man, send him packing, and restore a Democrat to the White House. Others believe that the way forward is to heal the divide by preaching a message of unity and civility.
But while winning will obviously be an important goal for Democrats, governing in a post-Trump America is a critical concern that cannot simply be pushed aside.
What polling makes clear is that our political divide isn’t just partisan. It’s really demographic. For too many election cycles political consultants using advanced data mining have identified target constituencies and directed their messaging and outreach efforts to reach them. For Democrats this has meant focusing on what has become known as the “Obama coalition” – including young voters, “minorities,” educated professional women, etc. Republicans, on the other hand, have directed their outreach to their base – the wealthy, of course, and white, “born again,” non-college educated, and rural voters. Democrats condemned inequality, promoted diversity and tolerance, and proposed a range of social programmes designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. The Republican mantra has been “smaller government, lower taxes,” coupled with a number of social issues (from abortion to anti-gay rights).
If Democrats are to not only win, but erase the divide and change politics, they must break from their narrow focus on their base and speak to the crowd that Trump has co-opted. They need to be able to continue to appeal to their base, while also speaking directly, as Trump has done, to the anger and frustration of the left behind working class – of all races. And lame calls for unity and civility fall flat when people are hurting, frustrated, and mad. Only by recognising that hurt, acknowledging that frustration, and sharing that anger can voters become unified around an agenda that speaks to all Americans across the divide. Maybe then we can begin to heal.