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Who Should the Democrats Be After Trump?

In the time since Hillary Clinton’s loss, Democrats have struggled to regroup and resist the Trump administration’s excesses. Will they ever assert themselves as effectively as Republicans have for the past quarter century?

Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I. The Noise

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump stood before Congress and delivered his first State of the Union address. It called upon a slow and cruel procession of victims, sitting all throughout the House chamber, deployed and invoked as pretext for the Trump administration’s more perverse obsessions: deportations, North Korea, and the importance of standing for the national anthem. Why most of the Democrats bothered to arrive and sit for the whole thing, we may never know. The Congressional Black Caucus made a modest protest display by wearing kente cloth and Recy Taylor pins in solidarity. The rest of the Democrats sat mortified and silent. Nancy Pelosi wore all black. “That was a pretty glum-looking group of Democrats all through the evening,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican, later observed on ABC News.

At least 11 House Democrats, including John Lewis and Maxine Waters, skipped the State of the Union. “I just cannot do it,” Lewis told MSNBC. “He does not deserve my attention,” Waters told the same network. A week ago, the Democrats forced a three-day government shutdown to frustrate Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Imagine them pushing the shutdown a week further through the State of the Union to increase their leverage while humiliating the president and consoling their terrified base. Imagine, if you will, the Democrats acting as aggressively, and effectively, as the Republican Party. The modern Democratic Party is hardwired to abide by ritualistic decency and procedural norms, even as the GOP distorts and collapses those norms all around them. Trump’s grotesque theatrics disgrace all parties involved. Imagine the Democrats — all the Democrats — excusing themselves from Trump’s 90 minutes of bullying and emotional manipulation. Imagine the Democrats resisting.

II. The Two Billionaires

Trump is a stage crasher. Whenever he stands at some hallowed lectern as the star of some familiar presidential pageantry, a critic might imagine all the more reasonable figures — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, et al. — who might otherwise stand in his place. It was especially tempting to wish Trump away in the first few months after his election, before and even slightly after his inauguration, when it seemed possible that Trump’s presidency might somehow be reversed or overruled. Trump’s election was so uncanny that liberals convinced themselves that the FBI surely had some duty to fix it (by extrajudicial means, if necessary). But there was no coup. Gradually, Congress and the federal bureaucracy acquiesced, and Trump did, indeed, “normalize” his presidency. Many of his angriest critics have dropped their once-frequent talk of indicting and impeaching Trump, and so the matter seems to be settled. Trump is the president, and that’s that.

In the first year of Trump’s presidency, the Democratic Party has struggled to mount a strong counteroffensive; the party’s stars and leaders have struggled to assert themselves with the forcefulness and cunning that Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell displayed during their party’s rebellious days under Barack Obama.

It is that dramatic impulse, coupled with the country’s unparalleled obsession with celebrity entertainers — such as Trump himself — that recently got everyone talking about one of Obama’s formative benefactors, Oprah Winfrey. On January 7, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded Oprah its Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Golden Globes, and Oprah seized the opportunity to speak in prime time for nearly 10 minutes about “a culture broken, brutally, by powerful men.” She spoke about civil rights and recent triumphs over monstrous men who abuse and silence women. “What I know for sure,” Winfrey said, “is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” On stage, Winfrey spoke with such moral clarity about the turmoil in the room, and with such a great and persuasive passion, that desperate viewers wishfully received Winfrey’s remarks as a presidential address. For years, Winfrey’s fans have imagined her running for president someday; so, for Winfrey, the timeless speculation has become fait accompli. At the Golden Globes, Winfrey’s rhetoric seemed to invite this conflation. “Speaking your truth” isn’t just a political imperative or a neat bit of personal advice; it’s one of Winfrey’s classic slogans, one of many catchy self-help tidbits that she has built into a billion-dollar multimedia enterprise. And yet, Oprah isn’t so ostentatious, certainly not as gaudy and insecure as the erstwhile New York real estate mogul Donald Trump. Winfrey is worth $3 billion, eclipsing Trump’s wealth several times over. Winfrey is a sympathetic challenger who is, nonetheless, so preposterously wealthy that her presidential campaign overcorrects for the GOP’s traditional fundraising advantages and practically pays for itself.

Winfrey isn’t the only celebrity billionaire to captivate the Democratic presidential imagination. There’s also Facebook’s founding overlord, Mark Zuckerberg, a postpartisan liberal who doesn’t publicly identify as a Democrat and who lately trades in rumors that he’s running for president in 2020. Zuckerberg is a far less thoughtful and charismatic billionaire than Winfrey. Where Winfrey captivates, Zuckerberg bewilders. He is a goofy android boy who can only pantomime human charm. Theoretically, Zuckerberg’s appeal isn’t charisma; it’s the sort of global, futuristic insight that only a massively successful tech CEO can pretend to provide. For a self-consciously respectable thought leader, Zuckerberg offers the pretense of research-driven hypercompetence, hard-earned consensus, and big ideas in contrast with Trump’s petty, vengeful anti-governance. Plus, Zuckerberg is worth $75.4 billion. He could buy the RNC outright and spare us all the rematches.

Under Trump — the most divisive and least popular president in modern history — the Democrats’ fundraising is somehow at an all-time low, which suggests that overall confidence in the party isn’t as stark and desperate as a Trump critic might guess. For Democrats, the prospect of a Winfrey or Zuckerberg candidacy would solve the party’s fundraising angst. Still, the bigger, existential questions remain. How is it that the Democrats, post-Trump, are still so ineffective, gutless, and unsure? How does the Democratic Party manage to do such a poor job of resisting?

III. The Status (Quo)

Still, the Democratic Party has its defenders. In the broad and dysfunctional network of anti-Trump organizing, the Democratic loyalists bill themselves as the Resistance, a loud, legalistic mob of conspiracy theorists who once agitated daily for Trump’s impeachment and arrest. Not to be confused with the socialist and anti-fascist factions that oppose Trump, the Resistance retains its basic faith in the two-party system. More than the socialists and antifa, the Resistance holds out hope that the Justice Department, special counsel Robert Mueller, and the FBI will vanquish Trump through some spectacular reassertion of the rule of law. If only, the Resistance supposes, the Democrats could exploit Trump’s scandals and, in the meantime, win some congressional elections. Then, the nation would be back on track.

Under Trump, Democrats have won several off-year elections that Republicans were favored to win. In Alabama, Republicans lost one of their safest Senate seats to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, who beat the GOP nominee, Roy Moore — who has denied several women’s accounts that he molested them as children — by fewer than two points. Moore embarrassed the Republican Party, and also humiliated Trumpism’s electoral architect, Steve Bannon. Jones ran a savvy campaign, and he made a name for himself prosecuting Klansmen in the South. But nationally, Jones is seen as a bland and conventional Democratic figurine — a 63-year-old white guy in a bad suit — who didn’t defeat Moore so much as allow Moore to defeat himself. (According to FiveThirtyEight, Jones is now the Senate Democrat who votes most in line with Trump’s agenda.) The same could be said of Ralph Northam, the reformed George W. Bush voter whom Democrats recruited to defeat Republican candidate Ed Gillespie for governor of Virginia. Gillespie, once a bland, establishmentarian GOP strategist, ran a post-Trump campaign against immigrant protections and in defense of Confederate monuments. The race presented an opportunity for a Democratic challenger to underscore the GOP’s broad descent into Trumpism. Instead, Northam backed down from his once having called Trump “a narcissistic maniac” to conditionally pledge his cooperation with the wildly divisive president’s agenda.

Under Trump, the Democratic Party seems to function as it always has, throwing focus-group-tested moderates up against right-wing demagogues in tight, high-stakes races where there’s supposedly little margin for real ideological distinction and left-wing advancement. Jones, Northam, and the young House candidate Jon Ossoff, who lost a June 2017 special election in Georgia, all embody a cautious impulse toward Democratic politics as usual. There are meaningful differences among these three men in terms of policy and qualification, but they’re all a common ideological archetype; they’re dry, triangulating mannequins. At the national level, Democratic politics is so overrun with this archetype that it barely occurs to anyone that Democrats could be different.

IV. The Rot of Clintonism

Only recently has Hillary Clinton faded from the zeitgeist, having concluded her press tour to promote her campaign memoir, What Happened, and rehabilitate herself. For a full year after Trump’s election, she haunted the discourse as the specter of a future that might have been. Clinton’s biggest boosters — campaign strategist Peter Daou, ex-press hound Philippe Reines, and New York columnist Rebecca Traister — have litigated the 2016 race to no end, as if Clinton were still, nearly a year and a half after her defeat, pressing on with a presidential campaign against Sanders and Trump. On one level, Clinton stalwarts seek to preserve the dignity of the first woman nominated by a major U.S. political party for president. It would be rude and foolish to fault them for that. But then, Clinton stalwarts also seem to celebrate a political lineage that has rendered the Democratic Party marginal and too often pathetic. Trump is president, the GOP has conquered all reaches of national government, and so Clintonism has delivered the Democratic Party to a dark and awful nowhere.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency and throughout the 2000s, Democrats eagerly theorized that the GOP’s regional advantages would naturally erode due to inevitable, unfavorable demographic shifts. Immigration trends and rising birth rates among Latino and Asian American families suggested that the Republican Party — withstanding an overhaul of its economic agenda as well as its race rhetoric — clung to a shrinking share of the electorate. Under this assumption, center-left Democrats who win elections in tough territory — West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who recently voted in favor of the GOP’s 20-week abortion ban, for instance — stand as placeholders for a true, revolutionary class of Democrats. Gradually, the prospect of turning the Electoral College map blue, as a sort of revenge against Nixon’s and Reagan’s respective second-term sweeps, marked Democrats’ obsession with party expansion at the expense of ideological depth. The center-left Democrats — the so-called “New Democrats” — believed they might coast into a new century. Instead, having lost tremendous electoral ground all through Obama’s presidency, the party crashed.

V. The Candidates

Following the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, a Democrat, Republicans nominated Trump, a bigot who launched his political career by disputing Obama’s citizenship and disparaging a great number of Mexicans as rapists and thieves. Clearly, the GOP understands partisan contrast.

Despite the white-nationalist backlash to Obama, the Democratic Party and its base persist in cultivating a 2020 class of presidential pretenders that is more diverse than ever before. No candidates have declared their intentions to run for president in 2020, but several Democrats have courted speculation through interviews, staffing and fundraising decisions, and their records on high-profile votes. The projected field features a greater share of women and blacks than either party has ever elevated in a presidential primary season. The black contenders include California Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who first rose to national prominence as the reformist mayor of Newark, New Jersey; and Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts. In addition to Harris, the leading female contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination include Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s foremost critic of Wall Street; and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a star who’s risen in recent months as she’s become a champion of the #MeToo movement.

Gillibrand, in particular, has forced a reckoning among Democrats regarding her party’s feminist credibility as well as its ethical bearing. In November, she challenged Democrats to rethink the ethical implications of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, and she was the first Democratic senator to urge her colleague Al Franken to resign amid several reports of his past sexual misconduct. Franken did not go quietly. Hillary Clinton’s press aide, Philippe Reines, publicly hounded Gillibrand, and only reluctantly did Gillibrand’s Senate colleagues join her calls for Franken to resign as more stories about him came to light. Thus, Gillibrand set a standard of conduct. In this particular context, she elevated the party. Going forward, the question is whether the Democrats will learn to scale and sustain such renovations in purpose — not just in a series of presidential primaries two years from now, but in Congress and all across the country today.

IV. The Future

The Democrats assigned their official, prime-time State of the Union response to an obscure Kennedy — the young Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III. Standing before TV cameras and a crowd seated in an auto garage, Kennedy gave a decent speech about the frivolity and distractions that animate Trump’s divisive politics. He said all the right things. But he also seemed to be the sort of classic man to whom Democrats have always resorted in moments of weakness: a telegenic white boy, yet another Bill Clinton, yet another Jon Ossoff. For many Democrats watching, Kennedy signified the establishment’s refusal to fully embody the party’s rage and ideal future.

After Trump’s speech, Bernie Sanders also responded in a Facebook Live address, and Maxine Waters is scheduled to deliver a further rebuttal to Trump on Wednesday night. But the boldest response came from the flamboyant Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez, who slipped out of the House chamber during the final minutes of Trump’s speech. Later, he issued a statement citing the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the Hurricane Maria aftermath in Puerto Rico as “a metaphor for how this president sees all Latinos and people of color” in all manners of public policy. “He does not see us as his equals and he does not see us as fellow human beings,” Gutiérrez wrote. “I was hoping to get through my life without having to witness an outwardly, explicitly racist American president, but my luck ran out.” Gutiérrez, 64, sees the same indignities that the rest of his party resents, condemns, and loosely opposes. He could sit there and take it for only so long before he joined fellow Democrats in rebellious absence. Now, imagine if all the Democrats in the House and the Senate had stood alongside John Lewis instead of Trump, and the State of the Union had been the president rambling to just his reactionary faction. For once, the Democrats might have been clever and competitive. Alas.

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