How Democrats Escape the Ariadne Trap

by Michael Liss

My father hated the Richard Strauss opera Ariadne Auf Naxos. FullSizeRender

Dad obviously had his preferences, and they had a certain strongly expressed idiosyncratic logic to them: He liked “good tunes,” so thumbs up to Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Offenbach and Bizet. He didn’t like too much recit or harpsichord, which meant Mozart often tested his patience. Wagner was a no—too Wagnerian (I don’t think the Hitler thing helped). The Beethoven and Tchaikovsky efforts puzzled him: When you write symphonies and concertos as magnificently as these two, why waste your time with mediocrities like Fidelio and Eugene Onegin?

Dad was more than capable of clearly articulating, at length, the reasons for his dislikes (this was a quality he also applied to the world beyond opera), but he would not get specific about Ariadne Auf Naxos. Ariadne Auf Noxious was not discussable. It did not make his formidable collection of open-reel tapes. He actually walked out of a performance (between acts, of course, but our seats were conspicuous) and never returned. Milton Cross couldn’t tempt Dad. If, by some chance, it would appear on his subscription, he would give away the tickets (an act not lightly taken). Because of this, I had absolutely no memory of the opera, not even a wisp of a melody, so, as a public service to the reader, I subjected myself to about 15 minutes of it, and I think I almost blacked out. Dad was right. Very bad.

Yet, as we “celebrate” a year of Donald Trump, I can’t stop thinking about this ridiculous, over-the-top, oddball, play-and-opera-within-an-opera as metaphor. The Donald Trump Show is our Democratic Ariadne Auf Naxos (Clockwork Orange version). It’s like someone has tied us to our seats in the Trump-Lovers Section, and forced us to watch them leap up, screaming bravo, at his every croak. What’s worse is that we (especially those of us in coastal Blue States) had to pay double for the tickets. It’s driving us nuts.

One year is enough. Time to get off the feedback loop, because Trump-madness leads to electoral doom. Indulging in it is a fix, blaming it is a crutch, and frankly, with surveys showing more Republicans trust Putin than the FBI, it’s our patriotic duty to do better. We have to start thinking with our heads instead of our glands. So, here are my 12 steps to sobriety:

1. Let Trump be Trump. Why fight a hurricane with a five-dollar umbrella? Trust the public to judge. Recognize that there is a large group of bedrock Trumpistas who will never leave him. They really believe the Deep State, Secret Society, Globalist Conspiracy, #fakenews mantra and nothing is ever going to shake that. So, let Trump do his thing, because every time we voice our outrage … his people cheer. They have been waiting for a champion a very long time, and for whatever incomprehensible-to-us but clearly genuine reasons they may have, he’s their guy.

2. Learn from the situationally sycophantic. Not the true believers, but the ones we think are hypocrites; the professional preachers, the party apparatchiks and the uber-wealthy—those guys. Take careful notes, because they have much to teach. Of course it’s disgusting when Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham trade piety for power. Or when economic titans hold their noses with one hand while the other is palm upstretched. But bear in mind, Trump delivered for them. That’s how they judge him. On theocracy and plutocracy, Trump delivered. What are we going to deliver?

3. Pay attention. Before we even start to answer the question of our deliverables, we have to realize how we’ve completely missed the boat on the largest tectonic movements in the last half-century: First, the fracturing of the post-World War II construct of liberal democracies defending political and economic liberties against Communist Cold War opponents. Second, as an unintended consequence of our attempts to pacify the world with trade and free military support, the creation of a raft of competitor nations that deliver cheap products to multinationals that have, in turn, destroyed whole sectors of our domestic industry. Third, the fear that is engendered by violence and stateless terrorism; the idea that threats can no longer be localized and treated at a distance, but may somehow come embodied in any “otherness” that needs to be quarantined. In fairness, Establishment Republicans like Jeb, Cruz, Rubio and Walker didn’t recognize the first two either, but these are some of the defining problems of our age. Democrats have to figure out a way to address the peace and security issues without suggesting either infinitely permeable borders, or adopting Trump’s cultural purity, blood-and-steel approach. The country needs a serious answer to this, and I have yet to see any cohesive, thought-out approach come out of a single Democratic mouth.

4. Watch Mueller and Trump. Republicans are privately fretting about Trump’s promise to testify under oath—they consider it the ultimate “perjury trap,” because everyone is acutely aware that Trump can’t tell the same story twice. But they are also worried about Trump firing Mueller, Nunes Memo or not. They will be expected to throw themselves on the hand grenade—and not just by Trump, but by Trump’s base and Trump’s media supporters, and those folks are not a forgiving bunch. We Democrats need to stop talking about impeachment, which just causes queasy Republicans to circle the wagons, and focus our energies on defending Mueller, which also happens to be defending the rule of law.

5. Watch Putin and Trump. Putin will interfere again in 2018 and 2020. Don’t take my word for it; Mike Pompeo, Trump confidant and CIA Director, says so. Putin will do so because he likes destabilizing American democracy. He will be aided not just by the Devin Nunes types, but also by a lot of less rabid Republicans who still feel they have to defend Trump and so have gone all in on the Putin-Good, FBI and pre-Pompeo CIA-Bad trope. The GOP hasn’t grasped the threat Putin poses. They don’t seem to understand that all those bots and hacks and selective leaks can be turned against them—and they can be turned against the country, to erode trust in government and to paralyze at a time when decisive action may be needed. This leaves us Democrats with no choice but to go it alone for now. We need to invest in technology and encryption; we need their own global threat team, and we have to do far better at the local level, where Putin is clearly, and quite smartly, directing resources

6. Watch Trump himself. Don’t underestimate him, because he benefits from incredibly low expectations, and he has his own special kind of genius. Trump’s unlimited self-confidence that all deals not negotiated by him are, by definition, horrible, and his instinctive dislike for people different than him, enabled him to seize the fear and resentment and economic uncertainty many felt and make those issues his own. He still maintains the upper hand on all of them. He also grasps something else—that where the head moves, the body follows, and the vast majority of his adopted party will stay in line as long as they fear his strength more than they fear the electorate recalling them. Since many are operating from safe seats, that will hold at least through the 2018 elections.

7. Focus on 2018, not on 2020. Democrats absolutely must make serious inroads in the Midterm elections. We need it for our base, of course, so people don’t lose hope, and we need it for recruiting. But we also need it to show those who invest opportunistically that Democratic candidates can win. Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, made an interesting observation recently which one could read as a threat—he said the Democrats would lose in 2020 unless they found a pro-business candidate. Now, that’s a CEO protecting his company and the ocean of borrowed cash Trump and the GOP just handed him, but there is a critical point to be made—the smart money invests; it doesn’t buy lottery tickets. The smart money is going to give bonuses to employees in September and October to boost Republican chances. Democrats must convince business that going all in on one side, as the NRA does, may not be prudent for 2020. Winning does that.

8. Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure. Fundraising (Bernie, you need to help here) and phone banks, voter registration, logistics, and lawyers, where necessary. House parties, town halls, breakfasts, and meet-and-greets. Candidates born after the Korean War—better yet, after the Vietnam War. And be thoroughly prepared for maximum voter suppression by Republicans. This is something likely to come both from the grassroots level, stirred up by inflammatory media figures spinning fantasies of platoons of illegals being bused from one polling place to the next, and pushed from the Oval Office itself, with Trump directing Sessions to have the DOJ support Republican candidates.

9. Respect the moderate. Doug Jones didn’t win in Alabama just because Roy Moore was a creep. He won because he was a credible candidate, with a career of service, moderate positions on many issues, and a guy who looked like, if you will excuse the imagery, someone you could trust to pick up your daughter’s soccer team after school. Alabamians didn’t agree with every Jones position, but they agreed with enough of them to choose him. Find enough Doug Joneses, people who understand and are largely in sync with their communities, and you can make a lot of seats competitive. Being doctrinaire is the luxury of those who either can’t lose or can’t win.

10. Protect your own. Senate Democrats are defending 25 seats. Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Jon Tester (Montana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are running in states where Trump crushed Hillary. Four others, Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Bill Nelson (Florida), and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), are also up in Trump states. You want to know right now who these folks really depend on—it’s Chuck Schumer, whose job it is to make sure their backs are covered and they aren’t forced to take unpopular votes. And it was Chuck Schumer who just took one for the team on the DACA/Shutdown mini-crisis. Schumer has an excruciatingly difficult job—working with a Majority Leader who uses his 51 votes as if he had a unanimous mandate, and the Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, which wants drama. Beware the allure of the heroic loser. You won’t feel better if McConnell has a filibuster-proof majority.

11. Make it about the voters. Trump and the GOP have spent their time in office benefitting a minority. That makes them vulnerable. But the Democrats have developed a disturbing political tic in recent years—they take up causes and forget about everything else. Tip O’Neill once said that the lesson he learned from his first (and only losing) campaign is that “people like to be asked” for their support. Ask the voters for their support; don’t preach to them on how to be humanitarians. Make it clear that you will work for them, that you are thinking about them, that you will bring their concerns to the office each day. Make them the focus, not only some fuzzy feel-good thing that seems totally out of touch with their concerns.

12. Look to the future. The Republican base clings to the past. That’s the real promise of Trump—that he will restore America to its Mayberry, Kitchen-Children-and-Church days. And that’s the America they crave, one of homogeneity, order, certainty, and stability. The reality is different, and younger voters know that. But don’t just rely on Millennials’ dislike of Trump and his values, or their more liberal social views. Start with things that resonate with them: privacy and economic opportunity, resolving the burgeoning entitlements crisis, healthcare, job training, climate change, the threat of technology displacing workers.

Do these things guarantee that Democrats will thrive or at least survive? I don’t know, but I can say with certainty that if we don’t do them, we are going to go the way of the Whigs.

Which, I suppose, is what happens when bad operas happen to good people. So, let me leave you with Ariadne Auf Naxos’ oddly prescient penultimate words:

“When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.”

Let’s find some new music, please.

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