So this is really happening. The single most likely person to be the Republican nominee for President in 2016 is Donald Trump. The other possibilities — nomination stolen from Trump at the convention and given to Ted Cruz, GOP elites fleeing the party en masse and casting write-in votes for Rick Perry — aren’t much better.
Understandably, Democrats are feeling pretty good about their chances in November. Before they get too excited about the phrase “President Hillary Clinton,” however, they should stop and think about what the general election season would look like. Because just as important as whether Clinton beats Trump is how she beats him. And the answer is quite likely to be something liberals won’t like.
There are two ways for the Democratic Party to fight Trump in a general election. The first is by targeting his base. Trump’s rise and, across the aisle, the phenomenal success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign point to an election cycle in which populist anger at political and economic elites has reached fever pitch. For a lot of people, Hillary Clinton is the face of those elites. This observation forms the core of the argument that Sanders, whatever disadvantages he would face in a normal general election, is more electable against someone like Trump.
But he doesn’t have to be. Clinton could embrace Sanders’s economic populism in an attempt to both solidify the Democratic coalition—particularly young voters—and win over Trump’s supporters. Trump’s core appeal is racism and proto-fascism, yes, but he also appeals to vulnerable working-class whites who, quite rightfully, feel as though they’ve been abandoned by America. Support for Trump comes disproportionately from less-educated, poorer counties. These counties are dying, geographically, as residents flee for other regions. These counties are dying, literally, with higher mortality rates for middle-aged whites.
It is not absurd for the Democratic Party to try to win the support of these people. There is already an opening: these voters are far more receptive to progressive positions like providing health care and defending social security. Clinton can, and should, make a case that Democrats will fight for these people. The Republican Party offers you tax cuts for the rich, she should tell them, Donald Trump offers you racism; Democrats will offer you a good job for good wages. This would require more than just rhetoric: the Democratic platform would have to embrace some of Sanders’s popular policy positions as well, like paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage, and robust infrastructure spending. To be clear, this would in no way require a shift away from strong progressive stances on other issues. And as a result, some Trump supporters would certainly not be receptive; xenophobia and nationalism are often stronger motivators than class, after all. But trying would not only be good politics — it would strengthen the Democratic Party’s moral standing as a progressive force in America for generations.
There is, however, a second way to fight Donald Trump. There are a lot of Republican voters who do not fit the profile of Trump supporters. Many party elites and donors, for example, represent a strain of more cosmopolitan conservatism that is at odds with Trump’s demagoguery. These voters are wealthier and live in more suburban areas. They probably aren’t totally comfortable with liberal positions on affirmative action, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage, but nor are they rabidly opposed. Their allegiance to the GOP has long been rooted in their support for low tax rates and their hatred of labor unions.
These voters are a natural target for Clinton in a general election with Trump. They would—again, rightfully—be horrified by Trump’s bigotry against Hispanics and Muslims, his long history of blatant sexism, and his incitement of violence. If they want to vote for Clinton, a generally moderate candidate who is unlikely to, say, triple their tax burden or prosecute investment bankers, then who are we to stop them?
The problem is the temptation that Clinton might face to pivot even further to the center in order to entice these voters into the Democratic Party. This isn’t hard to imagine. Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama have long supported free trade agreements and reducing the deficit, and their support for organized labor has been tepid at best. But this pivot would have to be greater, and would likely involve more explicit attempts to co-opt this voting bloc by championing economic deregulation, work requirements for welfare programs, and reforms to social security. Indeed, it is plausible — though not certain — that Clinton’s widely panned comments on Nancy Reagan and AIDs, and protests against Trump in Chicago, were not gaffes at all, but rather calculated attempts to seize the political middle in an election year when one major party has embraced the extreme.
This second approach is both easier and, perhaps, more likely to succeed in the short term. But it would be a terrible mistake. Putting the merits aside, it is bad politics: it would alienate key Democratic constituencies, including young voters, and further drive the white working class into the arms of the Republican Party.
Most of all, this approach is dangerous. The Trump constituency is not, by itself, large enough to win an election. And the evolving demographics of America will make it smaller every election cycle. But these people are not going away. They will get angrier, and more desperate, and support more and more extreme candidates in order to have a chance at winning. We have seen the violence and bigotry that Trump has inspired. What will it look like in 2020? What about 2024? 2028? What guarantee do we have that they will continue to trust in the democratic process to achieve their goals if an electoral win becomes increasingly mathematically impossible?
If the Democratic Party becomes the party of socially liberal donor class cosmopolitanism, the Republican Party will be left as the home of economic desperation and pure white nationalism — a natural breeding ground for true fascism, of the type that would make Donald Trump look like Lincoln Chafee. Hillary Clinton may not want, or need, these voters to win big in November. But the fate of her party, too, and of our system of government, may depend on them.
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