by Ali Minai
For the last three years, I have struggled with a dilemma: As a reasonable, quite liberal person, what should I think of my 60 million fellow Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and the vast majority of whom continue to support him today? Normally, a personal dilemma is a private thing, not a topic for public airing, but I feel that this particular problem is one the vexes many others – perhaps even a majority of Americans, as more of us voted for Hillary Clinton and many did not vote at all. Since that bleak day in November 2016, an unspoken – and sometimes loudly spoken – question hangs in the air: What kind of “deplorable” person would vote for Donald Trump?
By now, it is clear to any reasonably sentient person that Donald Trump is a venal, corrupt, narcissistic individual with no shred of human decency or moral principle. From his first announcement where he called Mexicans rapists and criminals, to the Access Hollywood tape exposing his habit of groping women, the mocking of a disabled journalist, the xenophobic Muslim ban, calling white supremacists “very fine people”, the abduction and caging of innocent children, the destruction of environmental protections, the denial of the climate threat, the shredding of all ethical norms, the open defiance of laws, the appointment of racists and thugs to high office, the pardoning of war criminals, the decimation of government institutions and policies, the betrayal of allies, the subversion of American democracy, the celebration of despots, and blind obedience to Vladimir Putin – and much, much more – everything Trump has done has established him as a person of truly monumental vice. And yet, something like 40% of American voters still support him reliably, including many who have been grievously hurt by his policies and know that they have been hurt. Why? And how should those who cannot stand Trump relate to them?
First, there cannot possibly be a single recipe for relating to all Trump supporters. To any one of “us”, most of “them” are nameless strangers, abstractions dwelling in places we know of only vaguely and living lives we barely understand. But not all. Some of them are our friends, our coworkers, our family members – even our parents, spouses, or children (though blessedly few of these). Relating to these Trump supporters among our near-and-dear ones is a personal issue best left to each individual. I will confine my thoughts to the former group – that apparently inexhaustible population of “Trump voters” that NPR seems to interview every week and that New York Times reporters love to seek out in diners across the Midwest – always with the vague implication that these are the only true red-blooded virtuous, patriotic Americans who live in the “heartland” and belong to the only possible “working-class” in America. As such, they are the newest incarnation of that previous mythical creature – the voter who preferred to have a beer with George W. Bush rather than Al Gore.
In a way, the fascination of the “liberal media” with these voters is understandable precisely because these voters defy rational understanding. It’s like being obsessed with a new species of penguins. Whole books have been written that are supposed to help us “understand” them. They have been analyzed, dissected, wondered at, pitied, and reviled by pundits and reporters. They have managed to bring even their harshest critics to a point of grudging admiration for their imperviousness to fact and reason, so that now even the most sensationally scandalous news about Donald Trump is immediately discounted because “it won’t move the MAGA crowd”. In a real sense, they are the armor that Trump wears in his battle against decency and reality. But as the election of 2020 approaches, the question of relating to these voters is acquiring greater urgency. Should Democrats court them or dismiss them? Should they be seen as misguided or evil? Are they alien or just alienated?
Like many others opposing Trump, I have thought a lot and talked a lot about all this in the last three years, and have generally been quite unsympathetic towards Trump voters. But now it is time for a more analytical look at the problem – which is the topic of this piece.
I think that the question at hand should be addressed separately at three distinct levels: The philosophical level, the moral level, and the political level. Philosophically, one has to relate to Trump voters in the context of human nature. They are not strange or unusual. Indeed, they are much more like the standard issue human being that has populated history than today’s liberals are. As I have written elsewhere, liberal humanism is a recent and rather unnatural attitude for humans – albeit an attitude that one hopes will grow and become a more natural habit of mind. Fear of change, distrust of the Other, blind allegiance to authority, worship of god-like leaders, have all been quintessential aspects of human nature and human behavior through the ages, right down to our own times. It is only within the framework of liberalism that these features have acquired negative value. If anything is surprising, it is that only 40% of the American population is evincing full-blown Trumpism – clearly indicating the inroads that liberal ideas have made into the American psyche.
Some of this can perhaps be explained by moving to the moral level. One reason why Trump is not much more popular – especially in a time of economic prosperity – is his abysmal moral performance. Many people who would be willing to cheer his policies are turned off by his inhumanity and indecency – and that is no small blessing. Just as prejudice, anger and greed are part of human nature, so are kindness and grace. All human beings are repelled by cruelty and corruption even as many are also attracted by xenophobia and bigotry. In today’s America, it appears that these two forces reach equilibrium around a 50-40 state, with 10% too confused to know what they think. But as we look at those who support Trump, we cannot fail to recognize a bit of our own selves in them: MAGA, but for the grace of liberal indoctrination, might we have gone too. To this must be added the much discussed but nevertheless real problems facing the populations that support Trump: Social decay, economic anxiety, hopelessness, addiction. While several analyses and studies have shown that the proximate causes of support for Trump are related more to race, xenophobia, loss of dominant status, attraction to authoritarian attitudes, and fear of cultural change, these toxic attitudes are surely amplified by the underlying socioeconomic anxieties. And, in fact, many of the socioeconomic problems have been made worse by Trump’s policies such as the trade war with China. Should this be enough for liberals to empathize with Trump voters at a human level? Yes. But sympathize with them? Absolutely not! The premise of a democratic system is that people must take responsibility for their votes, and bear their consequences. Such accountability is the only way democracy can work. Though the election of 2016 was patently flawed because of the Electoral College, Trump voters at least have no moral claim for sympathy on what has followed. The suffering inflicted upon them as a consequence of their vote is fully deserved, though, as fellow humans, we wish it had not come to pass. Morally, our sympathy has to be reserved completely for those who did not vote for Trump and still suffer under his policies – often in much more egregious ways than his supporters.
This brings us to the political question: Should Democratic candidates court Trump voters in the next election? This issue can be decomposed into two separate questions: 1) Is there a significant population of persuadable Trump voters? And 2) Is it worth persuading them given the costs and benefits of such persuasion?
To take the first question first, almost every day, we hear about polls showing that Trump has “90% support among Republicans”, but that is extremely misleading. First, these reports don’t tell us that those identifying as Republicans are only about 28-30% of the electorate. The number for Democrats is similar, and the remaining 40-45% call themselves independents. When the political leanings of these independents are measured, they divide almost exactly 50-50, which is how we get to that extremely critical balance we see between the parties. Second, that 90% number (or the 94% recently touted by Trump himself) is grossly inflated. Credible polls show Republican support for Trump between 74% and 86%. That suggests that even among Republicans, there are opportunities for Democrats. More importantly, the low party affiliation in the electorate indicates that looking at popularity within the parties is not very useful. At this stage – with the Democratic candidate still unknown – the best global picture is provided by Trump’s national approval/disapproval numbers. As of today, Trump’s approval stands around 42-44% and disapproval at 52-53%, per FiveThirtyEight.com and RealClearPolitics.com. That looks very much like a losing hand, until one remembers that the numbers were quite similar in 2016 and Trump still won. But that argument is seriously flawed. First, this is not 2016. Then, most voters had only a vague idea of what kind of president Trump would be, and many assumed that the job would curb his worst instincts. Now no one has any illusions. He is a completely known quantity, and the opinions expressed in polls represent real feelings, not hopes and expectations. Even more ominous for Trump is his “strong disapproval” number that hovers in the 40s – an unheard-of situation in American politics. Strong approval, on the other hand, is usually below 35%. Thus, when we hear of the impervious MAGA base, the real set of committed voters against Trump is much larger than those who will vote for him no matter what. That is the landscape into which the posse of Democratic presidential candidates is riding today.
We also have the evidence of elections held since 2016 – all of which have shown huge moves towards the Democrats. In the 2018 elections, Republicans were decimated across the board in U.S. House and statehouse elections. A big reason for this is that, for all its vaunted strength, the hardcore Trump base is not that big. There is a significant fraction of Trump voters that are not only persuadable, but actually were persuaded in 2018. To be sure, it’s not a large fraction – perhaps 10-15% of Trump voters – but in a 50-50 country, that’s a huge number. However, it is also worth noting that the Democrats won by running a “horses for courses” campaign: Centrist candidates in Trump-friendly districts, and liberal firebrands in progressive districts. The traditional Democratic “big tent” really delivered. It is still not clear whether Trump voters switching to Democrats played a big role in the reversals of 2018 – suburban white voters and women are likelier factors – but perhaps one can argue that the results do indicate the presence of some persuadable Trump voters.
But, as every politically-sentient American knows, the US presidential election is not decided by popular vote. The abominable Electoral College is where the game is actually played. The bad news for Democrats is that Trump is much stronger in the Electoral College than he is in the popular vote – to the point that, for all his dismal approval, he would still have to be considered fairly likely to win re-election (my own purely gut-level estimate is that his chances are 50-50 at best). But what is a problem for the Democrats is also an opportunity. It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that the 2020 presidential election will be won and lost in six states: Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), North Carolina (15), Florida (29), and Arizona (11) – the numbers in parenthesis indicate electoral votes. The next level battleground states – Iowa (6), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6) and Ohio (18) – are much less likely to be competitive. The rest are locked in. The first thing to note is that all six states in the critical set were won by Trump, so every loss there deducts from his tally. The states he won in 2016 account for 306 electoral votes (Trump got 304 because two electors went faithless). Thus, he cannot afford to lose more than 36 electoral votes out of the 101 votes covered by the six states. The Democrats really have to analyze these states and their electoral demographics very carefully to decide their strategy. Which brings us to the second question: Are Trump voters worth picking up?
This question should be answered in terms of costs and benefits. Of course, any party should always try to pick up voters, but it must also consider whether some voters are too expensive to go after. Careful analysis of the 2016 election shows that though Trump increased the Republican vote nationally, Clinton could not even match Obama’s 2012 vote (as this analysis from Vox shows). Very crucially, the third-part vote increased by 5 million (249%) from 2012 to 2016 – more than twice the extra votes Trump brought in. Indeed, that is one reason why Trump actually received a smaller share of the vote (45.95%) than Mitt Romney in 2012 (47.15%). The conclusion is clear: The incremental vote that would normally have gone to the Democrat went to third parties, or failed to turn up. Based on this analysis, there are three clear imperatives for the Democrats in 2020:
- Keep the Democratic base united and excited, not taking them for granted, and minimizing leakage to third parties.
- Hold on to the new parts of the Democratic coalition that have fueled post-2016 victories.
- Counter Republican disinformation and voter suppression aggressively.
Trump’s success – such as it is – is based entirely on the strength of his base. He may have 43% support, but 80% of that 43% will show up to vote. The Democrats have 52% support, but if only 60% of them vote, Trump still wins. The Democrats must – absolutely must – keep their base excited and unified to the point where 80% of them too show up to vote. Any attempt to woo Trump voters cannot be allowed to compromise this requirement. The sources of strength in the traditional Democratic base before 2016 were African-Americans, Latinos, union voters in the Rust Belt, and white voters with higher education (groups such as non-Latino immigrants and Jewish voters were strong but very small). As mentioned earlier, two reasons for Clinton losing to Trump in 2016 were that: a) A large number of white union voters switched to Trump (as they had to Reagan); and b) A significant fraction of the other core groups did not vote due to suppression tactics (mainly African-Americans), over-confidence in Clinton’s victory, or – crucially – lack of excitement for Clinton. As shown by subsequent analyses, the surge in third-party voting alone was more than enough to account for Clinton’s loss.
The best factor keeping Democratic voters excited and united is, ironically, Donald Trump. But that was not enough in 2016 even post-Access Hollywood, and it would be dangerous to just count on that in 2020 because Trump is also uniquely energizing to Republican voters. One of the most significant developments for the Democrats in the Trump era has been the emergence of an energetic young, progressive movement inspired by Bernie Sanders and represented best by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – or AOC, as she is known universally. Capturing the energy of this movement is absolutely critical for 2020, and perhaps argues for its representation on the final Democratic ticket. Certainly, Democrats cannot afford to alienate this group in their question for Trump voters. However, there is a larger and even more crucial group of Democratic voters to which this admonition also applies, and that is non-white voters. The key reason why it is important is that, while progressives bring energy, this groups brings numbers in the right places. Progressive energy exists everywhere and cannot be discounted anywhere in a 50-50 electoral situation, but it is concentrated mainly in states that will already vote Democratic. The black and Latino vote is big in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, and Nevada. The congruence of this list with the lists of swing states given earlier is not coincidental. Let it be noted that Barack Obama won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida twice, and North Carolina once. Clinton lost them all. Getting back two or three of these states is all that matters for the Democratic candidate in 2020, and the focus should be on groups that are disproportionately more important in these states. Wooing back white working-class/union voters will certainly help in Michigan and Ohio, somewhat in Pennsylvania, and also in Wisconsin and Iowa. But if wooing these voters means placating them on their anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights attitudes, that will risk depressing the black and Latino vote, which will hurt the Democrats in all the critical states – and a lot more than the gains on the Trump voters – Michael Moore’s fantasies notwithstanding.
A similar argument applies to the second imperative listed above: Holding on to new parts of the Democratic coalition. The 2018 midterms as well as off-year and special elections in Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and Kentucky have shown that the Democratic surge post-Trump is fueled by two very large, very influential groups: Women, and suburban voters. Women already leaned Democratic before 2016, but Trump’s violently misogynistic, bigoted rhetoric has created the largest gender gap in recent American electoral history. His approval with men is usually slightly positive; with women hugely negative. Since women vote in greater numbers, this is probably the single greatest impediment to Trump’s re-election, and the Democrats must do everything possible to sustain this “gender chasm”. Suburban voters – both men and women – have also been turned off by Trump’s behavior and rhetoric, even as most of them have benefited from his economy. As suburbs in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Birmingham, Cincinnati, and elsewhere turn more Democratic, the Republican hold on formerly safe Southern states is also getting weaker. That too is a trend to be encouraged, which means that soft-pedalling any part of MAGA-hat Trumpism – and especially its misogynistic aspect – is poison for the Democrats.
So, given that Democrats simply cannot afford to appease Trump voters on civil rights, immigration, and women’s issues, how are they possibly to pick off any of them that are ripe for the picking? The answer is that the Democrats must do what effective campaigns have always done: Find better wedge issues.
This piece is already too long to get into a discussion of what these wedge issues might be, but several are immediately obvious: Healthcare; Social Security; the minimum wage; drug policy; and – above all – competence. On healthcare – including Obamacare – the Democrats already have a huge lead, and it is an issue that resonates as strongly in white communities as it does in black and Latino communities. The Republicans are seen very negatively on this issue, and Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, so is he. No one has forgotten that he tried to take away Obamacare and John McCain saved it with his dying breath. That story should be kept front-and-center by the Democrats. That is why the muddying of the healthcare message with mandatory Medicare-for-all is such a terrible strategic mistake by Sanders and Warren: It allows the Republicans to demagogue against the Democrats on the issue where they are weakest. The merits of the policy matter far less than whether a Democrat can win to make any improvement at all.
It may seem to most Democrats that Trump voters no longer care about competence in government, and that the Foxification of their worldview has detached them totally from reality. However, this is not uniformly the case. Trump regularly gets far lower approval ratings on his handling of several issues than even his dismal 43% overall approval, showing that, on these issues, there are Republicans who don’t approve of his methods. One surprising issue in this regard is national security. Trump’s trashing of the FBI and CIA, his weaponizing of the Justice Department, his wrecking of alliances, his decimation of diplomacy, and his treatment of the military leadership, have not gone entirely unnoticed. The most stunning example of this is captured by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post in their recent piece, which describes how Trump treated his cabinet secretaries and how he made grave national security decisions. More details are given in their book: A Very Stable Genius: Trump’s Testing of America. Similarly devastating portraits have been painted in The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis and other books of this genre. Opposing the lawless incompetence of Trump with a Democratic promise of Obama-style no-drama competence will pry some voters away from Trump. That is also why the impeachment drama playing out in Washington is so critical – it will not remove Trump, but it will highlight his modus operandi and the servility of Republicans towards him in ways that will pierce even the Fox News bubble.
There is also one inviting potential wedge issue that the Democrats must stay away from at all cost: The budget deficit. Whenever a Democrat is in the White House, the Republicans use this issue to stymie all Democratic policy priorities, but when Republicans get the Presidency, they feel no need for such restraint and use taxpayer money freely to support their priorities and win voter support. That cycle must end after Trump’s shameless use of tax cuts and military spending to juice the economy. The Democrats must realize that the deficit issue does not work on their behalf in any situation: It makes their own base voters anxious (because they depend more on government services), and does not placate any Republican voters. No one voted for Trump because he was going to reduce the deficit, and no one is going to vote against him because he has ballooned it.
The third imperative for victory – aggressive communication and countering voter suppression – is a different topic for another day, but these needs do also connect with the other two imperatives. Voter suppression targets the Democratic base, and an effective way for them to energize the base is to engage in active counter-measures and to use this issue as a core part of their aggressive communication strategy. Not only will that excite the base, it can also deliver many more voters in crucial states like Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona.
There is one other point that’s worth keeping in mind in all this discussion. Winning the presidency is an existential imperative for Democrats, but it is only a necessary condition for success, not a sufficient one. Just as important as winning the presidency is to have a chance to govern after the victory, and that, in turn, depends on a strong, sustainable base of public support, and a Democratic takeover of the Senate. If these conditions are not met, any newly elected Democratic president will soon find herself or himself in an untenable situation. A McConnell-led Republican Senate will block all legislation and judicial appointments, causing rapid disillusionment among the voters who elected the president. Fox News and other right-wing media will spin a narrative of “Democrats in disarray”, and the mainstream media – already deeply invested in this narrative – will amplify it. The result will be a downward spiral, leading to another Republican wave takeover of Congress in 2022. The entire process is familiar to many because this has happened twice before in living memory – in 1992-94, and again in 2008-10. Indeed, in both those cases, the Democrats had actually won the Senate in the presidential election year, but even that was not sufficient to stop the calamity that followed. In both cases, the elected Democratic president tried to use his majority in Congress to enact a big legislative initiative – the 1994 tax reform bill for Bill Clinton, the 2010 Affordable Care Act for Obama – which the Republicans demagogued successfully. If a Democratic president is elected in 2020 – still a big if – they must bring with them a rock-solid base and a clear majority of committed supporters who can end the disastrous pattern of the past. Over the last four decades, Democrats have largely failed at solidifying their base and failed miserably at creating a communication machine to rival the Fox-Talk Radio juggernaut of the Republicans. This is why Democratic victories always look precarious and Republican ones inevitable. Perhaps this is inevitable – that the nature of liberals is to dispute and of conservatives to unite. As the adage goes, “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” There’s no one running in 2020 with whom the large-tent Democratic voters are likely to fall in love, but they had better learn to fall in line because the Republicans have fallen in love with the devil.