Let us imagine that you are a person who does not care very much about politics. If you are sort of vaguely paying attention to what happens in the U.S. Congress, what would your impression be of what is happening in our country politically? Over the last months, you would have seen Democrats trying and failing to remove the president from office. The president’s High Crime was conditioning aid to Ukraine (a country Americans do not care about) on the country’s promise to investigate Joe Biden (a corrupt politician Americans do not particularly care for). To prove their case, Democrats elevated John Bolton (a repugnant untrustworthy warmonger) and had to stick up for Hunter Biden (a ne’er-do-well with shady business dealings, whose past is full of cocaine, strip clubs, and nepotistic failing upward).
This is what you have been hearing about Congressional Democrats. This has been their primary obsession. It was doomed from the start, because Senate Republicans were always going to support Trump, and so Trump was always going to get a victory he could spin as vindication. It confused people, because the underlying issues are opaque and boring. At the end of it, Trump’s approval rating was higher than ever. Well done, everybody.
And that was before last night’s State of the Union address, in which Donald Trump made it very clear why, unless Democrats radically change what they are doing, he will get reelected in November. The speech was a masterful piece of propaganda. It was perfect Trumpian theater, and unless you are still in denial that Trump is extremely good at what he does, you should be very, very scared. And you need to have a hard think about what it will take in order to counter this effectively.
Trump’s theme was: I am making America great again. It’s “the great American comeback”: “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again!” Just read it. Realize what an effective message it is, and let’s go through what he did, because it’s important in order to understand what we now need to do. Here is part of the opening:
The years of economic decay are over. The days of our country being used, taken advantage of, and even scorned by other nations are long behind us. Gone too are the broken promises, jobless recoveries, tired platitudes, and constant excuses for the depletion of American wealth, power, and prestige. In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline, and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back! I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been. Our military is completely rebuilt, with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world — and it is not even close. Our borders are secure. Our families are flourishing. Our values are renewed. Our pride is restored. And for all these reasons, I say to the people of our great country, and to the Members of Congress before me: The State of our Union is stronger than ever before!
Trump said he had been “slashing a record number of job-killing regulations, enacting historic and record-setting tax cuts, and fighting for fair and reciprocal trade agreements.” He cited statistics to back up his assertions: 7 million new jobs, record low unemployment, a booming stock market, millions fewer Americans on food stamps, decreasing black poverty, increasing net worths for the bottom half of wage earners, millions of people joining the workforce, Opportunity Zones “pouring money into poor neighborhoods or areas that have not seen investment in many decades.” He said that America has built 12,000 new factories, overdose deaths are declining, that he has replaced NAFTA, that he is keeping China from taking advantage of the United States, that he has enacted criminal justice reform that has helped African Americans. He said he is upgrading the military. Trump added people’s personal stories to the statistics, like that of a homeless veteran who got a construction job in an Opportunity Zone. He introduced one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. He said that he is saving children from “failing government schools,” and introduced a young black child who got an Opportunity Scholarship. He said he plans “to offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America,” promised to “protect your Medicare and your Social Security,” boasted of new price transparency rules for medical bills, said he has “approved a record number of affordable generic drugs.” He introduced the victim of a crime committed by an unauthorized immigrant, as well as a woman who had been kept prisoner by ISIS. He promised to plant new trees across the country, endorsed paid family leave, pledged to rebuild our infrastructure, bragged of stopping human traffickers through his tough border enforcement. On foreign policy, he said he had defeated ISIS, killed the terrorist Qassim Suleimani, made the Iranian economy do “very poorly” through sanctions and said he was about to make historic peace between Israel and Palestine. To top things off, he gave Rush Limbaugh the presidential Medal Of Freedom and reunited a military family live during the address.
(A lot of this is B.S. But not all of it. And that’s important.)
Trump did not talk about impeachment, and he did not mention the Democrats once, but he did say that they are going to take away your healthcare:
There are those who want to take away your healthcare, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely. 132 lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our healthcare system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans. To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare! Over 130 legislators in this chamber have endorsed legislation that would bankrupt our Nation by providing free taxpayer-funded healthcare to millions of illegal aliens, forcing taxpayers to subsidize free care for anyone in the world who unlawfully crosses our borders.
At the end of the speech, Nancy Pelosi—having applauded a number of times during the speech—ripped up the print copy. Trump was thrilled, and has been tweeting constantly about how it was a #PelosiTantrum because she knew he was right about everything. The whole evening was one of triumph for him.
And meanwhile, in Iowa… the state Democratic Party was catastrophically bungling the very first of its presidential nominating contests. The night of the election, no results were released, and the party announced that an app it had tried to use to report results had malfunctioned. The party refused to give a timeline for releasing results, with party representatives hanging up on a call with the candidates’ campaigns after they pressed for answers on what was going wrong. Trump was gleeful at the chaos, and used the opportunity to make the case that it embodies Democratic failure, and shows why Democrats can’t be trusted to run anything:
The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare Website, that should have cost 2% of that. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is “Trump”.
And he wasn’t wrong.
* * *
Let us talk seriously for a moment about what is happening. Democrats are dividing themselves in a drawn-out primary contest, and in Congress they’re focusing on attacking Trump in a way that only they find compelling. Meanwhile, Trump is cackling, crafting a narrative about Democratic failure and his own success that works in part because it is not entirely wrong. The “fact check” responses to Trump have been pathetic. Actually healthcare.gov only cost $2 billion, not $5 billion. Actually it was Barack Obama who massively increased oil and gas production. Or they conceded his points entirely: The New York Times rated “mostly true” Trump’s passage claiming that Medicare For All advocates planned to bankrupt the country by giving healthcare to unauthorized immigrants.
If you are not a particularly political person, and most people are not, I have no idea why at the moment you would see any case for voting for Democrats. Yes, there are reasons; plenty of them, foremost of which is that Trump is actually doing terrible damage to people’s lives and many of his purported successes are hollow shams. But the question is whether people will see those reasons. Is the case being made effectively? Is there a persuasive Democratic counter-narrative to Trump’s upbeat story of an America being rebuilt by a president who dares to break the mold?
And there isn’t. Gretchen Whitmer’s response to Trump’s State of the Union was about how Democrats around the country are getting things done, and correctly emphasized the lives of people left behind. But it didn’t take Trump to task on anything. In fact, it sounded like it was saying: Well, Trump’s right, but things aren’t perfect, and we’re also good! Trump laid out a narrative. The Democrats have no such thing.
This is a giant problem, because if Trump is reelected, very bad things are going to happen. Abortion rights may disappear entirely from this country. A nuclear arms race will be escalated that threatens all of human civilization. Climate change—unmentioned by Trump, since he doesn’t believe in it—will continue to spiral out of control, with Trump gleefully ramping up fossil fuel production. Trump’s environmental rollbacks will continue to poison people and destroy the natural world. Workplace safety regulations will go unenforced, killing people. The public school system will be dismantled and handed to for-profit companies, and predatory loan companies will be allowed to keep student loan borrowers in decades-long indenture. Cops and soldiers will be given complete impunity to abuse and kill people. Immigrants will live in a constant state of fear, and the U.S. will adopt an explicitly racist and eugenicist immigration policy that prohibits the nonwhite, disabled, and elderly from coming to the country. Employers will be given almost complete control over the lives of their employees. These are not dystopian exaggerations. These are the quite clear consequences of right-wing ideological logic.
We have to beat Trump. It is so, so important. Those reading this magazine probably understand that. But we also need to appreciate just how badly the opposition is currently failing, and the scale of what needs to be done in order to end this man’s time in government. Nancy Pelosi should be seen as completely discredited. If an impeachment trial ends in the president being more popular than ever, you bungled it. And what’s with the mixed messaging? Extending her hand to him in friendship at the beginning, standing up and applauding right-wing talking points, tearing up his speech, and then once again pleading for friendship? We do not want to be friends with Trump. But this just goes to show that liberals aren’t actually as anti-Trump as they seem. They hate him for his vulgarity more than his crimes against humanity. (By the way, donate to Shahid Buttar, Pelosi’s leftist primary opponent, who is great.)
What is the narrative that Joe Biden brings to the fight against Trump? It is: Trump’s a liar, a man of bad character, I am a man of good character who won’t feed you malarkey. Since Joe Biden is not a man of good character, his narrative is a pile of crap. Compare it to the State of the Union speech. Put one of Biden’s word salads next to Trump’s clear vision of American progress and the restoration of greatness. See how you think Biden would fare.
I have previously dissected at length Elizabeth Warren’s “anti-corruption” theme and Pete Buttigieg’s “I’m a small city mayor with a very long resume who gives good speeches” pitch. I think when you put them up against what Trump delivered last night, you see just how weak these candidates are.
To win, we have to be able to do a few things.
- We need to be able to expose Trump as a fraudulent plutocrat who doesn’t actually give a rat’s ass about people. We have to be able to show them very clearly what is wrong with Trump, because if all you see is Trump’s speech followed by Nancy Pelosi tearing it in half, you are not going to understand why you should hate Trump.
- We need to show an inspiring alternative, something with the power to motivate a giant army of volunteers to organize. We need to have our own narrative, one so compelling and beautiful that it can make people truly feel things. We need to give them something real.
- We need to not be able to be tarred with the Democratic failures of the past. We need something that does not feel like it is associated with the “establishment” the people resent and that Trump claims to be upending.
I have already made the case for why the left, and the Bernie Sanders campaign in particular, has the unique power to do #1 and #2. But it is also noteworthy for its power to do #3. People are absolutely going to fear letting Democrats meddle with their healthcare if they are being asked to trust the people who brought you healthcare.gov and the Iowa caucus. Sanders is very clearly trying to get rid of that kind of politics. He can’t be tarred with it, because he’s an Independent who is just as enraged by the Democratic Party establishment as anyone else. We can make the case that we want a government that works for people.
Everyone needs to understand just how difficult Trump is to beat. Do you see how powerful his message is? Do you see that, even though many of the things he boasts about are bullshit, enough of them aren’t to where fact-checks seem like quibbling? (I have previously noted the tendency of fact-checks to reinforce Trump’s narratives even as they argue he is technically wrong, such as by saying that only 6.7 million jobs were created, not 7, or the marketplace website only cost $2 billion rather than 5. This still seems like a lot of jobs, and a lot of money.) I have warned before that if we are not careful, someday Donald Trump will be as respected as Ronald Reagan. (Reagan, too, was seen as a clown at first.)
When Democrats run uninspiring candidates, they lose. Al Gore. John Kerry. Walter Mondale. This moment calls for something different. We know what the answer is. Watch these Bernie commercials, compare them to anything else that any other Democrat has offered.
Every moment we do not unify, Donald Trump is smiling. His power is growing. His fundraising is spectacular. His approval rating is rising. And his narrative is coming together.
After Joe Biden’s fourth place finish in Iowa, can anyone possibly think he is up to the job? With Pete Buttigieg totally unable to appeal to any black voters or young people (to the point where Vox’s “case for Buttigieg” had to simply avoid even mentioning black voters or how he could appeal to them), who thinks he won’t be steamrolled by Trump? And Warren is so plainly much weaker against Trump than Bernie, a candidate who has the power to neutralize much of Trump’s popular appeal. Bernie can impress people like Joe Rogan, which is a huge asset in a general election, because guys like that are everywhere and they will vote for Trump if we don’t offer up someone compelling and unique. We do not have much time. We need to end this primary. Biden has collapsed. He has no enthusiasm. That’s obvious. That should be it: It’s over. We know the candidate we need to run, and there are no viable alternatives. This is going to be a hard fight and we need to start it now. Democratic opposition is so feeble and feckless, and we have got to turn our messaging around as soon as possible. Every moment this nominating contest drags out, and we act as if we have a realistic option other than Bernie, we make Trump’s reelection more assured.