If we are to correct the situation in Congress, if we seek either a democratic majority in one or both houses, or at least a better balance, if we seek to throw out the members of Congress who are in the pockets of big business and lobbyists such as the NRA, then democrats are going to need to get busy now. It is easy, and I have engaged in it myself, to denigrate Trump based on his outrageous behaviours, but is that the most effective way to ensure our success in the November mid-term elections? Perhaps not. Can we learn from the lessons of a similar situation in another country?
Yesterday, I read New York Times writer David Leonhardt’s January 30th column titled, How Trump’s Critics Should Respond in which he posits that the best way to counteract Trumpmania is to treat him like a normal politician who’s failing to deliver. Rather than focus on the circus aspect of this presidency, Leonhardt opines, we need to address facts to counter his many failures. If you think about it, it makes sense. Trump’s many odious qualities are, after all, what won him the election (along with some help from the Russians, voter apathy, gerrymandering, and James Comey’s ‘October surprise’).
“The trouble with constantly disparaging him — as a person and as the Worst President Ever — is that it doesn’t win over very many Americans.”
There seems to be truth in this, though those of us who have engaged in such disparaging are hard-pressed to understand why his supporters are not appalled at his many, many blunders.
In his column, Leonhardt references an essay written shortly after Trump’s election by Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago. Leonhardt refers to Zingales’ essay as ‘the smartest essay’ written on the topic, and while I cannot claim to know whether it is the smartest, I would certainly say it provides food for thought. Zingales is from Italy, where a wealthy, businessman demagogue, Silvio Berlusconi, served as Prime Minister during 1994–1995; 2001–2006; and 2008–2011. Berlusconi is famous for his populist political style and brash, overbearing personality. In his long-time tenure he was often accused of being an authoritarian leader and a strongman. Sound familiar?
Here are a few excerpts from Zingales’ essay, though I encourage you to read it in its entirety.
“Now that Mr. Trump has been elected president, the Berlusconi parallel could offer an important lesson in how to avoid transforming a razor-thin victory into a two-decade affair. If you think presidential term limits and Mr. Trump’s age could save the country from that fate, think again. His tenure could easily turn into a Trump dynasty.
Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.
We saw this dynamic during the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her. The news media was so intent on ridiculing Mr. Trump’s behavior that it ended up providing him with free advertising.
The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi … Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.
And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.
Finally, the Democratic Party should also find a credible candidate among young leaders, one outside the party’s Brahmins.”
This is likely the soundest advice we could get, yet it may be the most difficult to heed. The temptation is strong to focus on Trump’s affairs, his belligerence, his name-calling morning tweets, where his policy failures fade into the background.
Leonhardt, in his column, points out one such failure that we have largely ignored: the loss of jobs at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis a few weeks ago. The same Carrier plant that became an icon in Trump’s campaign after he visited it and announced that he had worked a deal to save jobs at the plant. Two other plants in the area are also laying off employees. But did we hear about this? No, instead we heard about Trump paying a porn star to remain silent about an affair.
It makes sense, when you think about it, that the only way the democrats are going to see victory in November is to find good candidates who are above scandal, and who run based on facts and issues, with a solid platform that serves the nation and its people. While I am a realist, and I know that the temptation is too great to resist calling out Trump’s clownish actions and speech, we need to also remember that this only plays into his hands, as it mobilizes his base to come to his defense. Every single race in November is going to take hard work, patience, common sense, and restraint. But this we must do, for the stakes are too high not to.