Essay — From the April 2018 issue

Four More Years

The Trump reelection nightmare and how we can stop it

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I paint a gloomy picture here, I admit. If the economy zooms, I have conjectured, Donald Trump has a good chance of being reelected. If economic conditions don’t change and Democrats play out their strategy of indignant professional-class self-admiration, they have only a fair chance of chasing him out of office — after which they will undoubtedly be surprised by some new and even more abrasive iteration of right-wing populism.

What I want to focus on now is how right-wing populism can be defeated more or less permanently. Donald Trump will never seem like a natural or inevitable president to me — not merely because he is a cad with a cantilevered comb-over but because right-wing populism is itself a freakish historical anomaly. Yes, I know, it has been running strong for decades. By its very nature, however, it is a put-on, a volatile substance, riven with contradictions: it rails against elites while cutting taxes for the rich; it pretends to love the common people while insulting certain people for being a little too common; it worships the workingman while steadily worsening his conditions.

Nor can I reconcile myself to the sort of prosperous, pious liberalism that predominates nowadays, a nice suburban politics that finds it easy to love Google and Goldman but can be downright contemptuous toward the desperate middle class that liberalism was born to serve. To my eye, the passionless technocrats it has repeatedly chosen as its leaders seem as unnatural as Trump himself.

But maybe that’s just me, still dazed by what happened on Election Night in 2016. Nothing in politics seems right anymore. I keep assuming that a society plumbing the depths of inequality ought to be a society turning to the left — that a populist moment ought to be a Democratic moment — that the natural agent of public discontent ought to be the more liberal of the two parties. That one fine day we will give the TV set a smack, everything will snap back into focus, and Americans will clearly understand what a mountebank Trump is. That in January 2021, they will eject him from the White House in disgrace — a Herbert Hoover with a spray-on tan, a scowling mistake we will never make again.

What might Democrats do to bring that about? A while back, I used to write earnest essays exhorting President Obama to do this thing and that during his final years in power. Enforce antitrust! Prosecute financial fraud! Today, however, the party has no national power to demonstrate its solicitude for the crumbling middle class. Republicans have pretty much captured it all.

What is left to liberals today is positioning and public declaration. They must do the obvious, of course: find a way to capitalize on the incredible political blunders Trump has made, pointlessly disparaging almost every possible demographic. “He is pissing people off at such an accelerated rate,” marveled Keith Ellison, the representative from Minnesota who serves these days as the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As ugly as Trump’s ravings may be, they can’t help but mobilize the Democratic base.

Getting those voters out is the tactical challenge. The larger, strategic question has to do with the Democratic Party’s identity. Does it accept the Republicans’ invitation to continue on as it has before, making itself more and more into an expression of professional-class disdain? Friend to the enlightened financier, careful curator of the silicon millennium? Or do the Democrats rediscover their roots as the tribune of blue-collar America? For me, the answer has never been more obvious. For others as well. “Sit with some folks who work for a living” is Ellison’s prescription. “Ask them what they want. And you’ll win.”

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt set down his vision of American political history, in which two “schools of political belief,” liberals and conservatives, fought endlessly for primacy. Regardless of what it was called at any particular moment, he wrote, the liberal party “believed in the wisdom and efficacy of the will of the great majority of the people, as distinguished from the judgment of a small minority of either education or wealth.”

What Roosevelt did not foresee was a party system in which the divide fell not between the few and the many but between the small minority of education and the small minority of wealth. How could he have known that his great majority would be split in two and offered a choice between enlightened technocrats on the one side and resentful billionaires on the other?

Get that great majority back together, I think, and it would be unstoppable. There is really only one set of successful politics for an age of inequality like this one, and it naturally favors the party of Roosevelt. Trump succeeded by pretending to be the heir of populists past, acting the role of a rough-hewn reformer who detested the powerful and cared about working-class people. Now it is the turn of Democrats to take it back from him. They may have to fire their consultants. They may have to stand up to their donors. They will certainly have to find the courage to change, to dump the ideology of the Nineties, the catechism of tech, bank, and globe that everyone now knows is nothing but an excuse for an out-of-touch elite. But the time has come. History is calling.

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is the author of Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Swat Team,” appeared in the November 2016 issue.

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