The Democrats' Trump Problem

by Michael Sean Winters

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It is obvious, even now to the GOP establishment, that their party has a Trump problem. It is difficult to see how the man can be stopped at the ballot box in the upcoming primaries, and even more difficult to imagine a scenario that robbed him, and his voters, of the nomination if he falls just shy of a majority of the delegates. But, the Republicans are not the only ones with a Trump problem.

If Hillary Clinton, or less likely Sen. Bernie Sanders, finds herself facing Trump in the general election, the latter’s animus towards Latinos will surely drive turnout among that key constituency. George W. Bush obtained a forty percent share of the Latino vote when he ran, but Mitt Romney only garnered the support of 27 percent of Latino voters. Trump would likely do even worse. That would tip several key swing states – Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico – more easily into the Democratic column. Virginia, which has a fast-growing Latino population in the D.C. suburbs, would also be an easier lift for Clinton.

The danger is that Trump has hit a nerve among white working class voters whom Clinton cannot afford to lose in other key swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. For all the talk about reassembling the Obama coalition, Clinton is unlikely to excite African-American voters as Obama did, and turnout among young people will likely not rise based on her resume-themed presentation, compared with Obama’s aspirational campaigns. It is necessary for her to do better among white working class voters than Obama did or the Rustbelt states will be dangerously in play.

As Paul Krugman pointed out the other day, white working class voters have been falling for the less vulgar Republican con for years. It was equal parts promise of economic betterment and dog whistles about cultural and racial issues. The Republican Party, not just Trump, remains committed to a narrative about economic growth and the evils of government that were never going to help working class folk. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a serious man when compared to Mr. Trump, to be sure, but that is a low bar: Ryan’s belief in the power of deregulation and lower taxes for the rich to solve both the nation’s economic and fiscal problems is a fantasy. Krugman wrote, “the establishment’s problem with Mr. Trump isn’t the con he brings; it’s the cons he disrupts.”

The Democrats have not been much more attentive to white working class voters. Consider this: Last summer, President Obama bathed the White House in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, and then went on to sign a trade deal which, like all trade deals, accepts a set of economic premises that put the flow of capital above the interests of workers. There are plenty of voters in the Rustbelt states that did not feel “included,” to use a term popular among liberals, in the President’s range of concerns. Last night, in the Democratic debate, Sanders suggested that whites do not know what it means to be poor. Really? He should visit some of the towns in rural, northeastern Connecticut where I grew up. Sanders and Clinton both have spent a fair amount of debate time discussing their plans to make college more affordable, but nary a word or even a whisper for those who are not going to college.

Dan Balz, in yesterday’s Washington Post, also looked at the sources of the Trump phenomenon and I was struck by a quote he included from Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. She said of Trump’s supporters: “I think of them as folks in the middle, not devout Republicans, but people who are feeling economically pretty stressed. I see the Trump phenomenon coming out of rising income inequality and the leftovers of the Great Recession. They are feeling unheard and kind of disrespected by typical powers that be.” Trump’s answer is not only to hear them, and claim to champion, but to do so by tapping into the ugliest memes in populism.  

The Democrats need to find a better answer. The phrase “kind of disrespected” speaks to a reality that a skilled politician could address, no? Yet, when asked the absurd question at an early debate, “Do all lives matter or do black lives matter?” none of the Democrats gave a very distinguished response. When Clinton proclaims her litany of rights she will champion, she includes women and LGBT and usually includes workers, but she needs to acknowledge, somehow, that in the 2012 election cycle, and since, it was abortion and same-sex marriage that drove the Democratic messaging, not the plight of workers. What I would give for a Democratic nominee who would be willing to distance herself from the Obama years by noting that for the last eight years it was Planned Parenthood that exercised veto power in the White House, not the AFL-CIO, and promising to change that.

Surely, it is possible for a Democratic candidate to affirm the party’s commitment to LGBT rights without trafficking in the demonization of those whose values are more traditional. Surely, it is possible to distinguish those white working class voters who have fled to the GOP for economic issues, not race baiting, and appeal to them. Surely, it is possible to focus on policies that not only make college more affordable but which provide what Bob Putnam calls “on ramps” to social and economic participation for those who did not and will not go to college. Surely, someone on Team Clinton could take the edge off the perception that the Democrats are returning to their “big government” ways by highlighting the importance of civil society in building those “on ramps” and the need to encourage experimentation at the state and local level, highlighting the work of some mayors on a range of issues from community policing to better wage policies.

There is a role for the Catholic Church in all this. Some of those people at the Trump rallies are our people. And, those rallies are increasingly dark. At a rally in New Orleans over the weekend, a protester was man-handled by the crowd as Trump sneered “Get ‘em outta here” repeatedly and I half expected the crowd to erupt in a chant of “Viva il Duce!” The leaders of the Catholic Church need to think less about suing the Obama administration and about finding ways to work with any administration, Democratic or Republican, federal, state or local, to address the problems facing working class people of all races. When a significant portion of the populace is so “kind of disrespected” that they see Donald Trump as a solution to their anxieties, we all need to do more than fret about him. We need to address the social and economic conditions that have made his rise possible. And, it wouldn’t hurt to read some history about the 1920s and 1930s either: A democracy that does not address the real needs of its citizenry is prone to vile and dangerous demagoguery. America is not Weimar, to be sure, but we are fools to think that someone like Trump can’t win.   



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