WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is not the disease that afflicts our politics. He’s a symptom, like nausea or an embarrassing rash.
Both major parties are in crisis, and I believe the reason is that the ground has shifted beneath them in ways they do not understand. Until the contours of the new political landscape become clear and the parties reshape themselves accordingly, I fear that chaos and turmoil will reign as the new normal.
Let me be clear: I am not postulating any sort of false equivalency. It was the Republican Party that nominated Trump for president, and consequently must be blamed for this horror show of an administration. The party that loves to grandly invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln sent to the White House a crass egomaniac who cynically heightens racial animosities – a man who, by temperament and ability, is patently unfit for high office. You did that, Republicans.
Now the GOP is engaged in a great civil war – or at least that’s the narrative Republican optimists would have us believe. So far, I’ve seen nothing more than a few skirmishes. After all that Trump has said and done, just three GOP senators have had the guts to take him on: Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), who are retiring, and John McCain (Ariz.), who is seriously ill. When the other 49 come out from their hidey-holes, I’ll believe there’s a war.
Trump is large and in charge of the Republican Party because he’s more in touch with the base than the GOP establishment is – which means the party’s leaders have lost contact with the country.
But meanwhile, where are the Democrats? Basically nowhere.
The Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), are better at politics and basic arithmetic than their Republican counterparts. This fact has given Democrats more power in Congress than they deserve.
But the party managed to lose a presidential election to a man who had never been elected to public office, who slandered Mexican immigrants as rapists, who used African-Americans and Latinos as foils to help him stoke feelings of grievance among whites and who bragged about sexually harassing and assaulting random women. You lost to that guy, Democrats.
The party of Franklin Roosevelt allowed the GOP to pretend to champion the interests of the working class. Failure to connect with white voters in the Rust Belt is only part of the story of last year’s defeat, and maybe not the most important part. Democrats failed to sufficiently energize their core constituencies – urbanites, African-Americans, Latinos, women, young people.
If the Trump blitzkrieg hadn’t happened, the big political story of the year would have been the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an aging socialist with no national profile, to rock-star status. Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money and demonstrated that the Democratic Party also has factions and fissures. They’re just not as important as the cracks in the Republican Party right now since the Democrats have so little power.
I believe the reason both parties are struggling is that a broad political realignment of some kind is under way.
We all have a mental image of the political spectrum. On the right, there is the Republican Party with a set of conservative policies – cut taxes, shrink government, limit entitlements, deregulate, etc. On the left, there is the Democratic Party with a set of liberal policies – expand health care, raise wages, regulate Wall Street, promote fairness, and so on.
The rise of Trump and Sanders and the fact that some of their campaign positions were identical – we should have health care for all, free-trade pacts have harmed U.S. workers, the “system” is rigged to favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the middle class – suggest to me that the familiar left-right spectrum is no longer an accurate schematic of public opinion.
Today’s key fault lines may be between metropolitan areas and the exurbs and small towns strung along the interstates; between those who have gone to college and those who have not; between families who have benefited from the globalized economy and those who have not; and between an anxious, shrinking white majority and the minority groups that within a couple of decades will constitute more than half the population.
My advice to Democrats is to say the word “opportunity” so often that it becomes the party’s trademark, then frame progressive policies in that context. My advice to Republicans, who are stuck with Trump, is to pray.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.