Is Trump Helping Liberals?


The genre of “I used to be a Democrat until liberals were mean to me” pieces is one of clearest statements of Murc’s law: the idea that only the Democrats have agency in politics. Sure, Donald Trump’s campaign laid bare the reality that half of America is either openly white nationalist or at least sympathetic to the position, but a journalist who expresses that idea won’t be praised as a savvy thinker who is above partisanship. So what is a journalist who seeks to preserve their centrist bona fides to do? The answer is clear: blame the rise of xenophobia, racism, ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and state-sponsored violence on the Democrats themselves.

(The discourse reminds me of the piece I wrote on the Black Lives Matter movement and the idea of direct action. There, too, the dual tropes of “I wasn’t racist until I got yelled at by BLM activists” and “liberals would have more luck if they were more civil and more sensitive to racists’ feelings” are dispiritingly common.)

Here’s one example, from a “News Analysis” (read — opinion piece) published by The New York Times entitled “Are Liberals Helping Trump?”

Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina, voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican. But some things are making him feel uncomfortable — parts of Mr. Trump’s travel ban, for example, and the recurring theme of his apparent affinity for Russia.

Mr. Medford should be a natural ally for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice. But it is not working out that way. Every time Mr. Medford dips into the political debate — either with strangers on Facebook or friends in New York and Los Angeles — he comes away feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority.

“We’re backed into a corner,” said Mr. Medford, 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. “There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’ ”

He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

Liberals may feel energized by a surge in political activism, and a unified stance against a president they see as irresponsible and even dangerous. But that momentum is provoking an equal and opposite reaction on the right. In recent interviews, conservative voters said they felt assaulted by what they said was a kind of moral Bolshevism — the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one. Disagreeing meant being publicly shamed.

The point of this post is not to dissect these sorts of thinkpieces, but I’ll allow myself a brief rant. In what world is a white small-business owner from South Carolina, who voted for Trump in spite of his purported discomfort with some of his policies, a “natural ally” of the left? Where’s the evidence that the left’s “moral Bolshevism” — which, by the way, is a term a Trump supporter would never come up with on their own — is provoking an “equal and opposite reaction on the right”? (If we take the polls seriously, Democratic enthusiasm about politics and voting is significantly higher than the GOP’s.) And where is the balancing of the perspectives of those who have been made “uncomfortable” by social shaming against those whose lives have been ruined by bigotry and hate?

I want to emphasize the last point. If we take seriously the thesis that peaceful protest and strident rhetoric on the part of the left has inspired a backlash and hardening of views on the right, then surely the reverse is even more true: the (sometimes) violent protest and (always) utterly toxic rhetoric on the part of the right should do even more to energize leftism. On the other hand, Democrats are temperamentally less inclined to extremism than Republicans; self-described ideological “moderates” constitute a much larger percentage of the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, and Democrats almost always win a majority of moderate votes. If so, then the depressing conclusion (for a liberal) would be that when the left yells at Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Republicans edge towards Nazism, but when Donald Trump calls white supremacists “fine people”, Chuck Schumer throws his hands up.

One distinction that frequently gets lost in the discussion of the “intolerant left” and its responsibility (or lack thereof) for Trumpism is whether we’re seeing genuine ideological shifts or not. There are at least four possibilities for what happens when Trump voters react to the opposite side’s “intolerance”. First, they do nothing. Second, they become more ideologically extreme: e.g., they move from opposing illegal immigration to legal immigration, or from supporting higher taxes on the rich to supporting tax cuts for the rich instead. Third, they become more politically active: instead of being silent voters, they become vocal organizers and leaders. And, fourth, they become more tactically or procedurally extreme: more willing to countenance the violation of political norms (like locking up a political opponent for perceived crimes or seeking the help of a foreign power to win an election, just to put forth a couple of random examples).

I’m not sure how the Women’s March or Black Lives Matter or Abolish ICE or “Antifa” has affected Trump supporters, and which of the explanations listed above is dominant. (I’ll leave that to more careful thinkers than me to figure out.) But I do think it’s interesting how each of these explanations factors into the left’s radicalization.

Democrats have certainly gotten more ideologically extreme. Most of the prominent candidates for the presidential nomination in 2020 have endorsed single payer healthcare. Dylan Matthews at Vox calls this a “stunning shift”, and he’s right:

Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand are arguably the most famous and most-admired Democratic senators in the country among the party’s base; the betting markets give a 63 percent chance that one of them will be the 2020 nominee for president.

The rest of the party is getting on board with single-payer — or “Medicare for all,” where the federal government would provide health insurance for every American financed through taxes — as well. 117 House Democrats (over 60 percent of the caucus) have co-sponsored HR 676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act offered every Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

This is what an emerging party consensus looks like. Over time, some issues become so widely accepted within a party as to be a de facto requirement for anyone aspiring to lead it. No Democrat would run for president, or even for House or Senate minority leader, without supporting the DREAM Act. No Republican would try for a leadership position without supporting repeal of the estate tax.

And the way things are going, soon no Democratic leader will be able to oppose single-payer.

When even people like Paul Krugman are warming up to Medicare for All, it seems clear that the ideological tenor of the Democratic Party has changed. Republican intransigence explains a lot of it. When a once-in-a-generation political majority passes an incremental reform like Obamacare, and the Republicans proceed to debilitate it in the judiciary, partially repeal it in the legislature, and gut it via executive action, it becomes obvious that electoral moderation gained us nothing. If the Republicans are going to fight as hard against an individual mandate and health insurance marketplace as they would have against Medicare for All, why wouldn’t we attempt the latter?

It’s not just health care either. (And, to be clear, many of the shifts predate Trump; the 80s and 90s were a dark era for progressivism, and we’ve come a long way since then.) On immigration, Republican views haven’t changed in the last 5-10 years, but the Democrats’ have. One remarkable statistic: “In 2010, 48 percent of Democrats said immigrants strengthen our country; by 2017, it was 84 percent.” The Democratic Party is also regaining its New Deal roots with proposals to increase the minimum wage, ensure debt-free college education, expand Social Security, and enact a federal jobs guarantee (naysayers like Jon Chait be damned).

Democrats are also becoming more politically active. (Hell, even my mom is part of an Indivisible chapter now.) One of the beautiful things about the evolution of the Democratic Party is that it now has a chance to embody real “intersectionality” and dual economic and racial progressivism. Young leftists are advocating for wealth redistribution through organizations like Occupy Wall Street and the DSA. Minorities are confronting politicians, Democratic and Republican alike, over their support for racially discriminatory policies like stop and frisk, marijuana criminalization, and harsh sentencing guidelines. Kids (kids!) are leading the charge to change our sick gun culture. Immigrants are standing up against ICE and its inhumane policies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal is in large part because she appears to unify these ideological stirrings into a single vessel (whether or not she is capable of achieving the sort of change her supporters would like to see is a separate question). Liberalism is active and eager and resurgent, and it can be because, for the first time in American political history, it does not have to court the support of Southern segregationists or their ilk. We have a genuinely diverse Democratic party now, and its politicians should take note.

Arguably, many of the ideological shifts have been hastened by the hemorrhaging of conservative white voters caused by this new rhetoric and political activism. Shifts in ideology and in activism are, in this way, inextricable from one another: the more we’re vocal about abolishing ICE, the more the remnants of conservatism in the Democratic party will be tempted to leave. I’m reminded of an excerpt about a Trump supporter in the “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” article:

Mrs. O’Connell is a registered Democrat. She voted for Bill Clinton twice. But she has drifted away from the party over what she said was a move from its middle-class economic roots toward identity politics. She remembers Mr. Clinton giving a speech about the dangers of illegal immigration. Mr. Trump was lambasted for offering some of the same ideas, she said.

“The Democratic Party has changed so much that I don’t even recognize it anymore,” she said. “These people are destroying our democracy. They are scarier to me than these Islamic terrorists. I feel absolutely disgusted with them and their antics. It strengthens people’s resolve in wanting to support President Trump. It really does.”

The obvious danger is that, if too many of these people leave, we will continue to lose elections. On the other hand, the point of winning elections is to enact liberal policies, and as long as people like Mrs. O’Connell are Democrats, and the party’s politicians feel the need to cater to them, there is a faint chance of that happening.

Finally, there is the issue of tactical or procedural extremism. On this front, too, I am heartened. Historically, most Democratic politicians (perhaps with the exception of Harry Reid) have been idiots on this front. (And Republican bad behavior definitely predates Trump; just look up the Brooks Brothers riot or Nixon’s sabotage of LBJ’s peace talks with Vietnam.) Obama constantly believed that John Boehner was negotiating in good faith on issues like the debt ceiling or the budget or “entitlement reform”. He was unwilling to publicize the intelligence findings of Russian meddling in the 2016 election without bipartisan support, and Mitch McConnell took brutal advantage of him. Democrats were also oddly reluctant to change the rules on the judicial filibuster until the tail end of the Obama presidency, even when it was clear that the Republicans didn’t subscribe to the same sorts of norms (and, indeed, McConnell eliminated it the moment Trump took office). In a world where Republicans cling to power by exercising increasingly anti-democratic means (voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money), Democrats have to be willing to play hardball back. This means impeaching judges or packing the courts; embracing a new interpretation of the First Amendment; gerrymandering blue states themselves; and enacting legislation in blue states — like New York, which is awful on this front — to maximize the electorate (voting holidays, vote by mail, universal voter registration, etc.). In the realm of procedural extremism, I am less convinced that there are genuine shifts happening (as opposed to the Twitter commentariat getting riled up), but I think it is dawning on the base that a party that keeps winning the popular vote and losing elections must do something different in the future.


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