“Let’s Take Back Our Democracy — and Improve It While We’re At It”: Democrats’ Winning Strategy in 2020
Watershed moments can produce an “Aha” of recognition. Now that Donald Trump has made his latent racism disgustingly overt, with his attacks on four freshman Congresswomen of color, accusing them of “hating America” and “seeking its destruction” and taunting them to “go back” to the countries they came from, and with Trump supporters chanting “Send her back, send her back” days later at his rally — if this isn’t watershed, what is? — Democrats consequently are recognizing this:
The 2020 presidential campaign is now far bigger than healthcare or immigration or income inequality or climate change. This is certainly not to say these issues are not vitally important, because they are. But it is to say there’s an overarching battle to be fought, which is:
In the 2020 campaign, Democrats need to save American democracy itself.
We need to take back our democracy from this comprehensively anti-democratic and dangerous “president” (the air-quotes are used to denote a fraud). To save our democracy, Trump and anti-democratic Trumpism must be defeated, resoundingly.
At issue now — as it has been historically but we have never fully settled it — is the core question: Who is American and who can exercise the full rights of citizenship in this American democracy? By going full racist now — and count on it: Trump’s 2020 campaign for re-election will feature explicit racist appeals — Trump is making the case that only white Americans signify and count. His target: the four minority Congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Ilhan Omar (MN), who dub themselves “the Squad.”
Equally at issue: Our democratic institutions, which have been severely damaged by this man who claims he wants to “make America great again.” If he is re-elected, the damage will accelerate us to banana republic status. This institutional destruction should be borne in mind as Trump dominates and inflames the news cycle with his racist ranting. As The New Yorker’s astute Susan Glasser notes, “Trump’s attack on the Americanness of his critics has distracted from his assault on the American system of government itself.” We must remember: Both Americanness and American democracy are at stake in 2020.
Consider the institutional damage Trump has inflicted. Rule of law: He appointed a toadying Attorney General who’s more personal lawyer than the people’s counsel. Separation of powers: He aggrandizes the executive over the legislative. Sanctity of the vote: He refuses to secure our election system from Russian meddling, because doing so would delegitimize his presidency. As for running the government, “acting” heads now “run” things, meaning: Government is effectively closed (though regulation-cutting continues apace). And consider our reputational damage: America once was the international champion of human rights and Leader of the Free World, but Trump embraces dictators who quash rights and curtail freedoms. America once touted itself as Immigrant Nation, but Trump builds walls and cages. And consider Trump’s assault on our rights, notably free speech as practiced by the press, the Fourth Estate, whom he attacks as “the enemy of the American people.”
And, crucially: Consider Trump’s new assault on America’s ideals — notably our ideal of equality, specifically racial equality.
“All men are created equal”: So begins our foundational document, the Declaration of Independence. But we all know our tortured history: “All men” initially meant only white men of property. And we all know the struggle of other constituent groups — women and minorities — to fight their way to full citizenship. But we also know we have not achieved true equality, not yet. Too many white Americans consider minorities to be lesser, not “real” Americans, echoing the 3/5 formula of our slavery past.
Let us declare, finally, for 2020, that all Americans are equal and are real Americans. Doing so, as we take back our democracy, we will improve it — delivering finally on our ideals.
(Trump now says the four minority Congresswomen should refrain from criticizing America. News flash, Mr. Trump: All four are American citizens — three born here, one naturalized — and, as such, they are entitled to criticize their government, most especially yours.)
Significantly, it was with racism, our ancient wound, that Trump calculated going explicit would fly with his supporters — “Many people agree with me.” He knows his people: An IPSOS poll taken after his tweet-storm last Sunday but before the “Send her back” chanting shows his approval rating among Republicans actually rising five (5) points over the week before. This sorry reality is fruition of the GOP opting decades ago to play the race-card, which conservative author Tim Alberta charts in a new book, “American Carnage.” While some Republicans are expressing disgust with Trump’s breakout into explicit racism, many others aren’t (also here). History will be harsh with the latter: Recall the photos of white Americans taunting Negro children as they integrated public schools in the 1950s and ’60s. Not a pretty picture.
Significantly also, it was racism (Trump’s) that united the Democrats — finally. After weeks of internecine warfare between the Squad and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguing over who is purer on combatting racism, when Trump released his racist tweet-storm, Pelosi immediately came to the Squad’s defense, adding that, clearly, what Trumps wants is “to make America white again.” On the House floor, introducing a resolution condemning Trump’s tweets, Pelosi was censured, temporarily, by Republicans objecting to her citing the tweets as “racist.” The resolution passed with unanimous Democratic support and four brave Republicans. (Note: This resolution powerfully echoes our foundational history and was written by freshman Congressman Tom Malinowski, former human rights advocate and immigrant from Poland.)
Going forward, if we are to save our democracy, it is imperative that Democrats remain united and not be played by the master manipulator. Trump will paint all Democrats as “extremist” and “socialist” and “America-hating,” as he’s labeled the Squad. I sincerely hope the Squad comprehends the gravity of this political moment. While free speech is, yes, an inalienable right, it must be exercised responsibility, which, frankly, the Squad has not always done. Memo to Squad: Pushing a racial litmus test on fellow Democrats, as you did with Pelosi, is absurd. Most Democrats, I’d venture, self-select into the party precisely because Democrats are truly the party of the big tent.
To conclude: Mission 2020 — saving our democracy and improving it by establishing, finally, that all Americas are equal — is enormous and daunting. But, then, hinge historical moments are like that: huge and daunting, but presenting the opportunity to pivot, to seize the day and shift to higher gear, to front the threat Trump poses. As I have been arguing of late, what seems like breakdown can be wrested into a reckoning.
The question becomes then: Which of the Democratic presidential candidates will step up as the visionary and the strategist that this hinge moment demands?
And is it possible that, sensing this new and more perilous context, someone new and more visionary and strategic will step up….?
For months now, to Democrats’ dismay, the announced candidates have wandered the campaign trail without piercing through with a grand vision, wrangling instead over policy — on healthcare, immigration, income inequality, climate change, etc. These issues will of course remain the main agenda items at campaign events, because they are the issues nearest the voters and the voters will press for them, ardently.
But, again, 2020 is not simply the Healthcare Election or the Immigration Election. It is bigger: It is the Election to Save and Improve Our Democracy. At some point, we need to hear from the candidates about this larger quest. This is not an either-or question, but both-and: We can address both the policy issues and The Biggest Issue of All. (And to those who counsel lying low: Fellow Democrats, we cannot not address Trump’s explicit racism: The world is watching and so are our children.) The next Democratic debates, on July 30 and 31, would be a good time to launch this broader quest.
The great take-away line from the movie “Jaws” — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” — applies now. Given the size and lethality of the shark in our midst, we need a bigger boat, a bigger presidential campaign. The question of supreme importance is: Who will build that bigger boat and captain it?