I was talking the other day to a wise executive friend and he recalled for me something his favorite boss liked to say: When people rise to the top of an organization and get power, they usually do one of two things: “They either swell or they grow.”
Donald Trump has swollen.
Every character flaw he had before taking office – from his serial lying to his intellectual laziness to his loyalty just to himself and his needs – has grown only larger and more toxic as he has been president. He seems not to have grown a whit in the job. He has surprised only on the downside – never once challenging his own base with new thinking or appearing to be remotely interested in being president of all the people, not just his base.
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What strikes me most about Trump, though, is how easily he still could become more popular – fast – if he just behaved like a normal leader for a month: if he reached out to Democrats on health care, taxes or infrastructure; stopped insulting every newsperson who writes critically about him; stopped lying; stopped tweeting inanities; and actually apologized for some of his most egregious actions and asked for forgiveness. Americans are a forgiving people.
With the Dow at 22,000 and unemployment at 4.3 percent, oh my God, this guy could actually become more popular outside his base without much effort. That’s scary. But, as I said, it would require Trump doing something he has shown no ability or willingness to do – to grow in office, not just swell.
Still, Democrats would be wise not to count on Trump swelling forever or on Robert Mueller taking him down. Whatever happens, Democrats need to win the argument with at least some Trump/GOP voters. There are many ways for Democrats to counter any new and improved Trump. I’d start by acknowledging a simple fact: Some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them!
That is, Trump’s core base of support – those people who he says would stick by him even if he shot someone “in the middle of Fifth Avenue” – are people who have heard and appreciated all his nativist dog whistles: from his slur that Barack Obama was not born in America to his focus on voter suppression to his restricting transgender people in the military to his reversing affirmative action and imposing immigration restrictions. That white nationalist constituency is beyond the reach – for good reason – of any Democratic candidate.
But Trump did not win, and could not win again, with that group alone. His genius was expanding beyond that nativist core with just enough votes in the right places to get him over the top – by pushing other buttons. These were things that many conservative and centrist voters believe in their guts, even if they don’t articulate them.
Trump connects with these gut issues and takes them in a destructive direction. It’s vital for Democrats to connect with them and take them in a constructive direction.
What issues? Here’s my list:
– We can’t take in every immigrant who wants to come here; we need, metaphorically speaking, a high wall that assures Americans we can control our border with a big gate that lets as many people in legally as we can effectively absorb as citizens.
– The Muslim world does have a problem with pluralism – gender pluralism, religious pluralism and intellectual pluralism – and suggesting that terrorism has nothing to do with that fact is naïve; countering violent extremism means constructively engaging with Muslim leaders on this issue.
– Americans want a president focused on growing the economic pie, not just redistributing it. We do have a trade problem with China, which has reformed and closed instead of reformed and opened. We have an even bigger problem with automation wiping out middle-skilled work, and we need to generate more blue-collar jobs to anchor communities.
– Political correctness on college campuses has run ridiculously riot. Americans want leaders to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country when globalization is erasing national identities. America is not perfect, but it is, more often than not, a force for good in the world.
Voters don’t listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. And when you connect with voters in their guts, they feel respected, and when they feel respected, they will listen to anything – including big issues that are true even if Democrats believe them. Such as the fact that a majority of Americans like Obamacare and want to see it built to last, and a majority of Americans do not like the way Trump is despoiling the environment and bringing back coal.
Indeed, the biggest wind power states in America – Texas, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Dakota – are all red states. The Democrats literally have the wind at their backs on health care and clean energy.
But to be heard, they need candidates who can pass a gut check with the more moderate Trump/GOP voters. Just 10 percent of Trump voters would suffice. Trump’s core base is solid, but he’s clearly losing the soft support around his core. Democrats can grow into the soft support – as long as they’re smart and Trump continues to just swell.