Donald Trump’s presidency scares the daylights out of many liberals. During the campaign, we made the mistake of taking his words literally but him not seriously. Now we are making a worse mistake, taking both him and his words literally, and letting them both terrify us. In my opinion, to minimize the injustices and harms that he and his Republican colleagues will cause, we need to take a calmer and more calculated approach than has yet materialized.
The ultimate aims are to preserve our democracy, to act consistently with our core national values, and to serve the public interest. The aim is not to defeat Donald Trump or the Republican Party. On the contrary, preserving democracy and core values requires Republican collaboration, because a deeply divided country cannot long function democratically. And not everything that Trump proposes is bad, whereas the Republican tactic against Obama, of total opposition to everything, is rooted in un-American values and destroys democracy.
The approach I advocate, then, is based on three pillars: First, create a credible, popular opposition party that provides voters, including Republicans, with a good alternative. Second, distinguish between policy disagreements based on core principles, those based on expected results, and those based on political gamesmanship. Each type requires a different tactical approach. And third, focus on creating effective ways to influence public opinion.
A Credible Opposition Party
In winning an election by about 60% of registered voters, Donald Trump received 63 million votes, only 27% of the eligible voters. About 90 million of the eligible voters failed to vote at all. Nor does Trump's vote represent support, since many of his votes were reluctant ones, motivated mainly by dislike of Hillary Clinton.
For the Democrats to succeed, then, it is not necessary to cater to the Trump base, but rather to focus on the more than 70% of eligible voters who did not vote for him. In my view, although the Democratic Party’s platform was good, there are two other obstacles that Hillary Clinton could not overcome and that virtually any Democratic candidate would face in the future.
One is the extraordinary ability of the radical right wing press to smear any Democratic candidate. We saw this with Kerry, with the race-based opposition to Obama, and with the extreme about face in the popularity of Hillary Clinton, who quickly went from being a highly admired Secretary of State to being a widely vilified candidate. Any Democratic candidate will face the same deadly propaganda barrage unless the Democrats greatly improve their communication skills.
The second obstacle is the loss of credibility with both white and blue-collar employees. In part, this is due to the extraordinary decline of union membership, a decline that Republicans have strongly promoted, but that has other causes as well. But in addition, the loss of credibility derives from a perceived Democratic neglect of worker and middle class interests, leaving a vacuum that Trump tried to fill.
On the surface, it may seem that Trump’s appeal was unique to his personality, and no doubt that played a role. But I think that at a more fundamental level the Democrats have unnecessarily created a vulnerability that any Republican can exploit. The actions that the Trump administration will undoubtedly take should give the Democrats excellent opportunities to remind voters who is their friend, and who is not.
Some of Trump’s policies, such as the ban on Moslems and the mass deportation of the undocumented, including people brought here as children, are so contrary to moral and civic values, so destructive of our integrity as a nation and our standing in the world, that we must resist them by all feasible means, the fiercer and louder the better. There can be no compromise, no quarter in such struggles.
Some of his likely policies, such as repealing Obamacare, emasculating or eliminating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, stripping the Dodd-Frank Act, giving coal and oil free play and more subsidies, or reducing taxes on the very rich, and so forth, seem to be very harmful to the public interest, but are essentially policy differences rather than challenges to our sense of America. Democrats must and should oppose these pollcies and work with Republicans to ameliorate them whenever possible.
Finally, some of Trump’s possible policies, such as reducing regulatory burdens on small business, getting NATO members to pay their fair share, or modifying the business tax code in sensible ways may deserve Democratic support if the final legislation does what is promised. I think Democrats should make this three part division in their responses clear to the public, and stick with it.
President Obama’s budgets and State of the Union proposals, and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party platform offered excellent policies that would have well served the interest of virtually all Americans. But who knew? They both slighted effective public presentation of their ideas, despite plenty of expert advice to the contrary. In committing this political malpractice, they gave the radical right wing press a free field of fire against their goals and ideas. A continuation of this disregard for effective public presentation guarantees the same results in the future.
And now, we face not only Fox News and its ilk, but an electronic horde of cyber attacks, fake news, and hacking that Putin and others have launched against our freedom, our rule of law, and our humane values. Blocking this new Mongol invasion of the West is clearly crucial, but so will be the ability of liberals and Democrats to vastly improve their public presentations. How to do so is well known; it is the perception of its importance that has been lacking so far.
 Total votes: United States Election Project, http://www.electproject.org/2016g Trump’s votes: CNNPolitics.com, http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/ Both accessed 2/17/17.