One of the few people to really see Donald Trump coming was the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales, who warned way back in 2011 that American politics was going the way of his native Italy, that we could easily produce our own version of Silvio Berlusconi, and that Trump was an obvious candidate to bottle the celebrity-populist-outsider cocktail.
So Zingales’ advice to Democrats after their 2016 defeat carried more weight than the average act of punditry. On the evidence of Berlusconi’s many victories and rare defeats, he argued, the best way to beat Trump was to do exactly what many liberals understandably didn’t want to do – to essentially normalize him, to treat him “as an ordinary opponent” rather than an existential threat, to focus on issues rather than character debates, to deny him both the public carnival and the tone of outraged hysteria in which his brand of politics tends to thrive.
I think that many prominent elected Democrats have tried to follow this advice. The spirit of the activist Resistance is certainly visible in Congress, but legislatively the party’s leaders have mostly battled Trump the way they would have battled any Republican, and around the country the party’s successful nominees have focused as much on unpopular aspects of the Republican agenda as on Trump’s various grotesqueries.
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The reasonable Democratic hope has been that grass-roots and online anti-Trump fervor will drive their base’s turnout, even as the official faces of the party reassure swing voters that they’re voting for a check on Trumpism, not a radical impeach-or-bust movement. And for the first year of the Trump era this strategy seemed to be working for the Democrats, with a handful of notable electoral triumphs and a generic ballot lead that promised a 2018 wave.
But lately you can see the limits of the normal-politics strategy. For it to work, you need a political and policy landscape that plays somewhat to your party’s advantage, and there’s always the possibility of becoming a hostage to fortune when the politics of normal start to favor the incumbent instead. Which is exactly what seems to be happening to the Democrats, judging by their steadily shrinking generic ballot lead, which disappeared entirely in one poll this week.
This decline reflects the fact that in the just-the-policy debate that Zingales recommended, Trump now has three advantages. First, he’s presiding over the best economy in 10, 15, maybe 20 years. Second, his foreign policy, however blunder-rich, keeps failing to produce the feared descents into war – the main metric by which voters tend to judge success or failure overseas. Third, his party has wisely stopped trying to pass major new legislation, abandoning an unpopular agenda in favor of behind-the-scenes deregulation and judicial confirmations.
Had Republicans actually passed their wildly unpopular Obamacare replacement, their current position would be much weaker. But because they failed they have less of a record to answer for, and so unlike Democrats defending the then-unpopular Obamacare amid a bad economy in 2010, GOP candidates in 2018 will probably be running as standpatters amid low unemployment. This is not the sort of visionary agenda that sets op-ed hearts aflutter, but it allows Republicans to duck away from their many unpopular policies and simply advertise themselves as stewards of prosperity – which in a normal election would probably be a ticket to a decent-enough showing.
How, then, should the Democrats respond? One possibility is that they could lean further into policy debates by not just fighting but deliberately shifting on policy – either moving somewhat back toward the center on social issues in imitation of the Clintonism of the 1990s, or going full left-populist in the hopes of mobilizing the disaffected who stayed home in 2016.
I offer the first possibility only theoretically; I know that the current alignment of forces in the party makes a move rightward all but unimaginable. But the second possibility, #fulltiltpopulism, is already being tried out by Bernie Sanders and a clutch of ambitious senators, who are offering single payer and a job guarantee as the Big Ideas that will crush Trumpism and deliver a new Democratic era.
I would not bet against the full tilters in the long run, but my suspicion is that left-populism needs another downturn or crisis to really seize its moment; in a world with 4 percent unemployment, the promise of a guaranteed job and government health insurance is likely to feel abstract and risky even if the ideas technically poll decently. And the Republican retort, for now, writes itself: Why gamble on socialism when the Trump economy is already supplying the jobs we need?
If that’s the case, then the Democrats are likely to be pushed inexorably toward precisely the place that Zingales warned them not to end up – toward an electoral battle in which the policy stakes seem to diminish, and the awfulness of Trump himself becomes once again central to their message.
Like Zingales, I think a campaign that harps too much on the president’s outrages risks playing into Trump’s hands. But there are smarter and dumber ways to go about it. The dumb ways would be either to just rehash Hillary Clinton’s failed “look how terrible this guy is” messaging or to turn the rhetorical dial all the way to 11 and talk constantly about treason and fascism and the looming fall of the republic.
The smarter path, to which a certain amount of liberal punditry and Democratic strategizing is already pointing, is to focus on Trumpian corruption, the sleazy, sordid, self-dealing side of his administration and the obvious reluctance of congressional Republicans to execute more than a cursory sort of oversight. Between the ineffective poles of Trump sleeps with porn starsand Trump is a Manchurian candidatelies the most compelling Trump-specific message: That his administration is a grift that’s in desperate need of policing, oversight, constraint.
Of course this message is itself provisional and self-limiting. But limits are what ambitious Democrats may have to live with if neither a disaster nor a downturn nor a true Robert Mueller bombshell intervenes.
And limits are probably what they should have expected all along. The rule of the age of Trump, after all, is this: It is always possible to beat him. It is never so easy as it looks.