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Once upon a time, there were two patriotic parties in America. If you don’t believe me, watch the Nixon-Kennedy debates. There you will see the hawkish Kennedy complaining that President Eisenhower was weak on defense, having allowed a “bomber gap” to materialize on his watch. Overall, John F. Kennedy’s and Richard Nixon’s views were fairly similar, and their narrow differences reflected the intrinsic unity of a nation made up of people with common values and common struggles.
The toxic politics of the last few years suggests we’re living in two different Americas. Democratic activists have harassed the successful female lieutenants of the Trump Administration, including Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen. While these antics are likely to offend those in the apolitical middle, as well as further radicalize Republicans, they have been the cause of raucous cheering among some Democrats such as Maxine Waters.
In recent weeks, we saw a coordinated media hit campaign exploiting the kids at the border. Trump short-circuited the “reunite families” propaganda campaign with an executive order, so the new Democratic Party mainstream view quickly evolved into “Abolish ICE.” In other words, the Democrats have read the tea leaves of the last election and concluded, “Americans want weaker borders and more immigration.”
Finally, in a blow to the old-line establishment, it turns out the Democrats of Queens actually took seriously their own B.S. rhetoric that they need a “party that looks like America,” and promptly booted a senior white congressman in favor of an upstart former bartender (and proud socialist Bernie activist), Alexandria Ocasio Castro.
The anti-Trump rhetoric has changed its focus periodically, but the venom and scope of the negativity are astounding. The targets have expanded from Trump to his cabinet officials, to Trump voters themselves. In eight years the Democrats went from “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” to “If You Voted for Trump, then Screw You.” Attacking voters in the wake of the “deplorables” controversy might seem foolhardy to a sane political observer. Nonetheless, this appears to be their strategy.
The Rise of Today’s Left
To the extent the Democrats have a message, it is mostly anti-Trump and everything he has done. When it is substantive, the message is more extreme and resentment-driven than anything sold either by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The leaders are following their activists and, far from moderating their message after a lost election, the Democratic Party has become more extreme than at any point in its modern history, expressing increasing hostility to the country’s core institutions, defining characteristics, founding principles, and people.
This has all been a long time coming. Something went awry with the Democrats during the Vietnam War and the general national meltdown of the 1960s. The Democratic Party, whose mainstream endorsed the consensus policy of containment, at first supported the war (which, after all, was begun during two successive Democrat administrations). But Americans of all persuasions grew weary and doubtful of the campaign and, in 1968, the party’s far left was angry and alienated not only about the war but about America itself. They rioted at the 1968 Chicago Convention. They called cops “pigs,” expressed contempt for the “squares” of middle America, and, in some cases, sought to foment violent revolution. This was only a cohort of the party, of course, but since that time, it has become the dominant cohort. This wing had much to do with the rise of George McGovern, their failed presidential candidate in 1972. And the influence of the party’s far left wing can be seen in other failed nominees like Walter Mondale, as well as in insurgent candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson, and, most recently, Bernie Sanders.
The Democratic Party that nominated Hillary Clinton had an already left-leaning establishment, but it was a hybrid of managerial-class leftism that also endorsed global free trade, “humanitarian” wars, and the tech economy. Like the Bolshevik street fighters who morphed into the Soviet Union’s staid nomenklatura class, the left under Obama was in charge not only of the state, but of the major institutions of culture, like the media, universities, and cutting-edge businesses.
The now aging former hippies, Weather Underground terrorists, and radicals became professors, lawyers, and elected officials. Their hostility to the establishment was muted or aimed at phantom enemies, like the WASP country-club elite which has long since been upended; after all, they had all become a part of the establishment or prospered under it, having undertaken a gradual “march through the institutions.” Activists were somewhat uneasy, however, because they saw an emerging big business and big government alliance. So much for “power to the people.” They (and their progeny) sometimes bolted for third party candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein.
The Democratic Party’s leadership and activists were united, however, in ditching its old identity as a party of the “working man.” Instead, it became a party for the elites and of the dependent. After all, the unions were now smaller and mostly in the hands of government employees, not industrial workers, who began trending Republican as early as 1972, giving Richard Nixon his victory under the banner of “law and order” and the “silent majority.”
Just as Democrats have taken their voters for granted—presenting octogenarians like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi as the proper spokesman for their black, brown, gay, and poor voters—working-class Republicans weren’t exactly thrilled by cuts in the capital gains tax cut, nor the stagnant wages that had prevailed since the 1970s. That is, they were Republican more for social issues than economic, even though the party rarely delivered on any issues other than the economic. Even so, the Democrats’ increasing emphasis on multiculturalism, gay rights, and open borders Left them cold.
Trump won by appealing to this group’s interests and concerns (and idiomatic modes of expression) directly, realizing that working-class whites were the heart of the swing vote, not the mythical “economically conservative, socially liberal” cohort of Republican strategists’ fantasies. This quasi-libertarian group is numerically insignificant and already bolted for the Democrats under Obama or by now have revealed the cloven hoof by explicitly opposing Trump, even as he undertook conservative policies.
Purity Tests and Failure
The Democratic Party’s embrace of its left wing has done Donald Trump and the Republican Party a great service. Obama, after all, won in 2008 and 2012 by pretending to be a moderate, deploying unifying rhetoric, and providing social services, including affordable healthcare, to the middle class. Only after his 2012 win did he revert to his Hyde Park socialist background, taking sides on contentious issues like the Trayvon Martin shooting and the anti-police riots in Ferguson. In his second term, he finally decided to push for gun control and the normalization of transgenders in schools and the military. Most importantly, he made it clear that he would do nothing to stop the demographic re-engineering of America and its electorate by stopping immigration, instead, he de facto legalized the-so-called Dreamers through executive order.
As the continuity candidate, Clinton lost. The voters found a voice and a choice in Trump. Instead of going back to the drawing board—as Democrats did with Bill Clinton and his Democratic Leadership Council candidacy in 1992—they have instead shown they think the party simply needs to shout their message more loudly and with greater purity.
Midterms are usually a good time for voters to express their unease with a single party in power, but voter support for Trump has proven remarkably durable. Indeed, even after June’s “month of the border kids,” Trump is hanging strong at nearly 48 percent approval. Outside of a few K Street and think-tank cranks, the NeverTrump phenomenon has dissipated, as traditional Republicans have seen the importance of issues like Supreme Court nominations, solid moves on taxes and regulations, as well as surprising agility by Trump on matters of foreign policy.
Perhaps the most important thing has been the boomerang effect of Democratic attacks on Trump; because people interested in politics belong in some sense to a team, these attacks have encouraged certain Republicans, otherwise uneasy with President Trump, to defend him reflexively—particularly when the attacks are made in an unhinged way.
It may seem quaint, but there are people who think the president and the people who elected him are due a certain degree of deference and respect. Perhaps the Democrats will have to lose a few elections in a row to rethink their strategy. In the meantime, thanks.
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Photo credit: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images