In normal times, you could bank the bet that a man who was a Russian stooge, gave comfort to neo-Nazis and spent his first year in office trying to take health care from 22 million Americans was going to get destroyed when voters finally had a chance to send him a message.
Add to that an approval rating that hit 34 percent this week, and a poll from swing states showing 1 in 5 of people who voted for Donald Trump are now embarrassed by his presidency, and you’d think Democrats were in great shape for next year’s midterm elections.
But consider Steve Bannon’s parting political words, which were largely overlooked in the chaos of his exit. You heard the jokes – Trump finally found a racist monument he could get rid of, one of the better ones. But they obscure a dark doctrine from Bannon the Barbarian.
“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em,” he said of Democrats. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
He may be right. More than anything else, the white voters who drifted from President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump last year – a seemingly incongruent transition – sealed the Republican victory.
It turns out that racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican. When you say Black Lives Matter, these white voters hear Kill a Cop. When you say diversity in the workplace, they hear special privileges for minorities at the expense of whites.
So, if you still wonder why Trump would give comfort to racists and Hitlerites, look at the reaction of his base this week. While the civilized world was appalled at his remarks after the hate parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, a majority of Republicans approved of Trump’s response. Approved.
It’s too easy to write all these people off as racists, for that’s exactly what Bannon is counting on. Yes, there’s a genuine hate-cohort in the Republican Party – neo-Nazis, or “clowns and losers,” in Bannon’s terms – of about 10 percent, which is horrifyingly high.
But there are many more voters in Trump’s camp who still consider themselves Democrats. Some live in the much-discussed zone of despair, places where opportunities for people without a college degree are few, and the opioid epidemic rages. These folks are persuadable, if the message is economic hope – something that Obama understood, and Hillary Clinton never did.
This doesn’t mean that Democrats should not speak out when a cop kills someone for driving while black. Nor does it mean that Democrats should not join with progressive institutions – the military and forward-looking corporations among them – when Trump turns back the clock on transgender rights, or equal opportunity.
But you can’t bang just one drum. Trump has said demonstrably racist things many a time, from his birther obsession to his taco bowl tweet. He still won, “on a straightforward platform of economic nationalism,” as Bannon noted.
“As long as Democrats fail to understand this, they will continue to lose,” he said.
So, even though Trump now threatens to shut down the government that he runs over his insane and unpopular border wall, even though he’s told 1,000 verifiable lies since he’s been in office, his horrid character will not be enough to help the forces of good.
Democrats need to flip 24 House seats to get a majority. History is certainly on their side. When Harry Truman was at his nadir in 1946, Democrats lost 45 seats in the House. George W. Bush, with an approval rating about the same as Trump’s current standing, saw his party shed 30 seats and the majority in 2006.
I wouldn’t trust that history. We’re in a different universe – not end times, but truly awful times. Too many Americans have turned inward and dark. But they don’t have to reside in that cave, if the Democrats can give them a reason to come out.
The history I would trust is with Franklin Roosevelt, who rallied broken Americans during the Great Depression to an agenda in which government could lift people up.
So far, Democrats have come up with a tepid slogan – a “better deal” – and a bushel of banalities. They need to go big, bold and simple, pounding home a single economic message: Trump is trying to make life worse for most Americans. Call him out for going after people’s health care, for gutting protections for clean air and water, for killing studies on the health of miners in Appalachia.
Democrats could grab the economic nationalism argument from Bannon, refine it along Bernie Sanders lines, and run with it. Health care for all is pro-American. Raising wages across the country is pro-worker. A moonshot infrastructure program would lift every community. And then, Trump will do his part, ranting in the gutter where he feels most at home.