A Conservative Worth Listening To

In his speech a couple of weeks ago, President Biden made it a point to note the difference between the “maga-Republicans” and the more moderate, mainstream Republicans.  It often seems that the latter group are scarce, at best, but they are out there … the ones that are sickened and disgusted by the former guy, the ones who see the maga-cult as a very real threat to this nation, to democracy, to We the People.  Among those is David Brooks, a well-known conservative political and cultural commentator who writes for the New York Times and is also a commentator on NPR and the PBS NewsHour.  I find his latest OpEd to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Surprising coming from a Republican, a conservative, but Brooks has always stood above the madding crowd!

Why Is There Still No Strategy to Defeat Donald Trump?

By David Brooks

15 September 2022

One of the stunning facts of the age is the continued prominence of Donald Trump. His candidates did well in the G.O.P. primaries this year. He won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. His favorability ratings within his party have been high and basically unchanged since late 2016. In a range of polls, some have actually shown Trump leading President Biden in a race for re-election in 2024.

His prominence is astounding because over the past seven years the American establishment has spent enormous amounts of energy trying to discredit him.

Those of us in this establishment correctly identified Trump as a grave threat to American democracy. The task before us was clear. We were never going to shake the hard-core MAGA folks. The job was to peel away independents and those Republicans offended by and exhausted by his antics.

Many strategies were deployed in order to discredit Trump. There was the immorality strategy: Thousands of articles were written detailing his lies and peccadilloes. There was the impeachment strategy: Investigations were launched into his various scandals and outrages. There was the exposure strategy: Scores of books were written exposing how shambolic and ineffective the Trump White House really was.

The net effect of these strategies has been to sell a lot of books and subscriptions and to make anti-Trumpists feel good. But this entire barrage of invective has not discredited Trump among the people who will very likely play the most determinant role. It has probably pulled some college-educated Republicans into the Democratic ranks and pushed some working-class voters over to the Republican side.

The barrage has probably solidified Trump’s hold on his party. Republicans see themselves at war with the progressive coastal elites. If those elites are dumping on Trump, he must be their guy.

A couple weeks ago, Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia, declaring the MAGA movement a threat to democracy. The speech said a lot of true things about that movement, but there was an implied confession: We have no strategy. Denouncing Trump and discrediting Trump are two different tasks. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, denunciation may be morally necessary, but it doesn’t achieve the goal the denouncers think it does.

Some commentators argued that Biden’s strategy in the speech was to make Trump the central issue of the 2022 midterms; both Biden and Trump have an interest in making sure that Trump is the sun around which all of American politics revolves.

This week, I talked with a Republican who was incensed by Biden’s approach. He is an 82-year-old émigré from Russia who is thinking of supporting Ron DeSantis in the 2024 primaries because he has less baggage. His parents were killed by the Nazis in World War II. “And now Biden’s calling me a fascist?!” he fumed.

You would think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would have at one point stepped back and asked some elemental questions: What are we trying to achieve? Who is the core audience here? Which strategies have worked, and which have not?

If those questions were asked, the straightforward conclusion would be that most of what we are doing is not working. The next conclusion might be that there’s a lot of self-indulgence here. We’re doing things that help those of us in the anti-Trump world bond with one another and that help people in the Trump world bond with one another. We’re locking in the political structures that benefit Trump.

My core conclusion is that attacking Trump personally doesn’t work. You have to rearrange the underlying situation. We are in the middle of a cultural/economic/partisan/identity war between more progressive people in the metro areas and more conservative people everywhere else. To lead the right in this war, Trump doesn’t have to be honest, moral or competent; he just has to be seen taking the fight to the “elites.”

The proper strategy in this situation is to scramble the identity war narrative. That’s what Biden did in 2020. He ran as a middle-class moderate from Scranton. He dodged the culture war issues. That’s what the Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman is trying to do in Pennsylvania.

A Democratic candidate who steps outside the culture/identity war narrative is going to have access to the voters who need to be moved. Public voices who don’t seem locked in the insular educated elite worldview are going to be able to reach the people who need to be reached.

Trumpists tell themselves that America is being threatened by a radical left putsch that is out to take over the government and undermine the culture. The core challenge now is to show by word and deed that this is a gross exaggeration.

Can Trump win again? Absolutely. I’m a DeSantis doubter. I doubt someone so emotionally flat and charmless can win a nomination in the age of intensive media. And then once Trump is nominated, he has some chance of winning, because nobody is executing an effective strategy against him.

If that happens, we can at least console ourselves with that Taylor Swift lyric: “I had a marvelous time ruinin’ everything.”

Yet Another Weighs In

Between my own brief snippet, and the words of Charles Blow, I thought I had pretty much said all that needed to be said about President Biden’s speech last Thursday and the predictable backlash to it.  But then, I came across Dan Rather’s response and he made some additional points that I think have enough merit to be shared.

MAGA Meltdown

The aftermath of President Biden’s speech on American democracy

Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

03 September 2022

It is all so predictable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t shocking.

    Bad faith stampedes across American democracy.

    Hypocrisy oozes and drips over our national discourse.

    False equivalence muddies the stark choices we face.

President Joe Biden had to know that when he gave a speech on Thursday bluntly and unambiguously delineating an undeniable truth (that Donald Trump and his legions of MAGA Republicans pose an existential threat to the governance of the United States) that the response would be fury, lies, and a convenient amnesia — indeed, outright gaslighting, over everything we have witnessed in American politics over the past six years.

It serves no purpose to list with specificity the talking points that Republican elected officials and their amplifiers in right-wing media have trotted out in the two days since. They can be categorized generally as: How dare he? How dare he say we are against democracy? How dare he use such tough language? How dare he single us out?

Biden’s response to that is the very rationale for the speech: How could I not?

    Complacency in the face of what we are confronting is not an option.

    Mincing words to appease a contorted view of “balance” and “fairness” when the other side long ago abandoned any pretense of those values means obscuring the truth.

    To not name the threat with crystal clarity — as Biden said, “you can’t love your country only when you win” — is to risk losing the country and what it represents completely.

    To remain silent is to jeopardize who the vast majority of Americans believe we are as a people and whom we aspire to become.

To see Republicans who support Trump complain about the language President Biden used to characterize them and their actions is laughable. Pick a Trump rally at random and just press play. The invective, the “othering” of anyone who thinks differently from the chanting red hat crowd, the lies about elections and their results, the winks and nods at violence, and so many other outrages are standard fare. They are indeed why his minions wait hours and drive thousands of miles to attend. They bask in the insults and bathe in the direct and personal attacks on their political enemies.

The meltdown from Republican elected officials should be considered in light of the upcoming midterm elections. These feckless politicians are witnessing their poll numbers go down and President Biden’s go up. Democratic candidates have overperformed in special elections. This fall was supposed to host a “Red Wave,” but it may be more of a ripple, or the tide could even turn “Blue.” Republicans may yet win, but they are on the defensive now.

On Thursday, they saw a president they had long tried to dismiss as old, low energy, even senile issue a blistering condemnation of Trump the demagogue and the movement he unleashed — and to which most of these Republican politicians have sworn complete fealty. You get a sense that deep down, they know Biden is right about what MAGA means for American democracy, but they are either too cowardly or calculating to care.

So they lash out and call the speech “political.” They are right. It was political. Because it had to be. It was Trump and his followers who turned American democracy into a political question. It is Republicans in races across the country who have made election lies the central rationale for their campaigns. That means our democracy is literally on the ballot. Its future, our future, as a nation of laws where the government is accountable to the will of the majority, will be decided by politics.

But President Biden was careful to differentiate between MAGA Republicans and the entirety of Republican voters and elected officials.

“Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front. Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.”

Biden is betting that there are many Republicans who do not like Trump or his assault on democracy. Even a small shift of these voters away from Trump-backed candidates could have profound electoral consequences. Contrary to what many Republican politicians and Fox News talking heads are saying, Biden didn’t attack half the country. The true zealots are a much smaller cohort, albeit one bent on dominating the governance of the rest of us. The fact that so many people heard Biden talk about MAGA Republicans and thought, “Hey, he’s talking about me,” is telling.

There has also been a lot of discussion in the wake of Biden’s speech about the press coverage. Much of the criticism has centered on whether in framing his remarks, too many reporters and especially pundits of various backgrounds descended into that dangerous quagmire of false equivalence and whataboutism. To be sure, there was some of that. There was also too much handwringing over whether the speech was “political” without enough explanation of why it had to be. It is difficult for many, inside and outside the press, to wrap their heads around how dangerous the threats Trump and those who have picked up his mantle are to this country.

Biden wanted to be clear that he sees this moment as one of the great junctures in American history. Which road will we take? At this historic turning point, there are only two directions. There is no middle ground, no way to muddle through.

The presidency, as we know, comes with a bully pulpit and the power to frame the discourse of the nation. Biden laid down a marker that will shape how Americans, including those in the press, see this moment. Where we end up going will depend on whether those who believe he is right — and we know that includes a wide swath of the American public, including many conservatives — refuse to be quiet and are mobilized to vote.

Heated discussion over what President Biden said will carry forward now. With the American public as judge and jury, a verdict comes in November.