Over the last few years, I have labored mightily to discover some governing principle, or barring that, some microscopic particle of scruple, lying beneath what might charitably be called the “conservative worldview.” But I have failed to discern anything beyond what is plainly evident to any person of good sense; namely, a toxic compound of hatred, contempt, and lust for power.
The object of this hatred is merely an ideological expediency, and varies according to fashion. Communists, abolitionists, pornographers, homosexuals, immigrants, progressives — the precise name matters not. What matters is their ceremonial function within the conservative ritual of purgation: to embody the necessary impurity whose expulsion brings about the mystical renewal of a Golden Age. Mitch McConnell is the current high priest of this Trumpian atavism, feeding the burnt remnants of the body politic to his constituents while continuing to stoke the sacrificial fire. And the masses devour these sacraments greedily, savoring each vicarious morsel of power with all the passion of the fetishist.
It is this fact that so perplexes and exercises the liberal mind. Liberals cannot conceive of power as anything but an instrumentality. They labor under the delusion that Americans are united in their respect for the institutions and organs of republican government. They imagine, for example, that it is possible for the Supreme Court to be “tarnished” by Kavanaugh’s elevation to that august body, or that it somehow compromises the Court’s legitimacy that he advanced by means of such obvious partisan obduracy. But this fundamentally misunderstands the Republican mentality. To them, power is its own principle, its own end, its own justification. Tarnishing the Supreme Court is a practical impossibility according to this system. If your constituents do not judge you on the basis of concepts like civility, probity, or nobility of purpose, it is impossible, ipso facto, to be found wanting in respect of them.
The Kavanaugh hearings afforded Republicans a signal opportunity to exercise their power in rather stark and brutal terms. They did this by first browbeating, and then steamrolling, their opponents. The fact that Kavanaugh had been credibly accused of sexual assault only added to his luster. What may have appeared merely sexist, boorish, and overbearing to liberal eyes, was for the conservative observer a titillating display of domination. I strongly urge liberals not to misjudge the allure of this primal force, which is, I suspect, the governing animus behind the Trump cult of personality. It cannot be bargained with, cajoled, placated, or pacified. The sooner Democrats accept this, the sooner they can attend to the only business that really matters — winning elections.
But Democrats, recent midterm successes notwithstanding, simply do not have a plan. They’re much too busy wringing their hands and rending their garments over the latest Trumpian outrage, or else attacking their own allies for a perceived lack of ideological purity. This is a waste of precious energy, for it focuses much too much attention on the exigencies of the moment. Whatever else may be said about Mitch McConnell, he is an able strategist. Like others of his tribe, he long ago foresaw the demographic demise of the Republican coalition, and has done everything in his power to set up a store of judges against the coming winter. In this he has succeeded, I am sure, beyond his own wildest imaginings.
It’s high time we broke the pointless cycle of liberal shock and outrage. It’s time we took it for granted that conservatives will throw off every decent restraint to their ascendancy. Hypocrisy, spite, and boundless prevarication are endemic to their strategy, not negotiable anomalies of an otherwise reasonable governing philosophy. They are bent on an antidemocratic vision of enduring political dominance, a species of minority rule reinforced by nakedly partisan judicial and legislative policies they call “originalism” and “states’ rights.” And, as recent events have shown, they are perfectly comfortable with the violence that springs from their rhetoric.
The only lasting solution is for Democrats to start winning more elections. How this might be effected is still a matter of bitter debate, but I have a few modest observations. Firstly, we must acknowledge that the conventional wisdom, which holds that Democrats abandoned their blue collar base, is largely correct. Working class people have virtually no representation in the upper echelons of the party, and rightly perceive that their interests attract little attention among the wonks and technocrats. This can only be remedied by sponsoring the election of people who actually belong to the working class — say, by setting aside five or ten percent of all open contests and recruiting the best available blue collar candidates to run for those offices. The safest course would be to start with local elections, and cultivate the most competent and successful candidates for consideration of successively higher offices.
Adoption of such a policy would demonstrate a willingness to share political power with the working class. It would also trigger a gradual realignment of the electorate away from cultish tribalism and towards the formation of rational coalitions oriented around shared interests.
Secondly, the Democrats need to break the conservative stranglehold on the news cycle. Mass media is like the Eye of Mordor, darting its anxious lighthouse beam to and fro. Trump has learned how to direct that gaze whither he will — as during the run up to the election, when he kept it firmly fixed on the migrant caravan from Central America, and away from anything of substance. It may seem like magic, but it’s really nothing more than misdirection, the kind of sleazy sleight-of-hand practiced by shoddy charlatans since the dawn of civilization. What makes his own particular brand of misdirection so potent is his utter lack of restraint; it isn’t just that he lies, but that he does so with such frequency and transparency. This has the paradoxical effect of absorbing the attention of reporters and commentators, trapping them in the intoxicating urgency of Now.
Of course, the presidency and the media did not evolve independently; ever since the introduction of television, presidents have been symbols and semaphores on the world stage, their every gesture laden with hidden portents. This has only intensified in the internet age. Trump inherited an information network attuned to even the merest tremors of presidential syntax, so it is no surprise that he has overwhelmed that system by the sheer magnitude of his fabulism. Journalists have been slow to recalibrate their instruments to the Trump scale, perhaps to avoid being numbed into a state of cynical stupefaction. But their unflagging attention to his (patently absurd) speculations and his (unhinged) personal insults has only served to drown the signal in the noise.
The Democrats need to respond with discipline: coordinated messaging, forceful rebuttals, and focused leadership. They must distract the Eye away from Trump’s targets and towards the failures of his Administration. They must proselytize their own policies with tireless intensity. And most importantly, they must articulate a clear vision of the kind of country they want to create, and promote that vision by collecting and crafting narratives from the interest groups they purport to represent. Find the right spokesmen — telegenic, quick-witted, and charismatic — and instruct them in the Great Democratic Narrative. Enjoin them to hew to that narrative with every sinew and synapse at their disposal, what storms may come. Over time, this narrative will begin to insinuate itself into public consciousness, and the restless Eye will settle more and more on the unaccustomed images of real suffering and injustice that have languished hitherto for want of scrutiny.
Thirdly, the fractious party of the donkey must discover hidden harmonies within their coalition. I’m sure many qualified aspirants will emerge for the 2020 nomination, but the party leadership must ensure that the Democratic primary does not become an internecine bloodbath. Assemble together in a smoke-filled room and whittle the candidates down to the strongest few. Strike whatever deals you must with the disappointed wannabes, but avoid at all costs the kind of carnival atmosphere that afflicted the last several Republican primaries.
Finally, Democrats need to adopt a harder negotiation posture. One of the many frustrations of the Obama era was the president’s tendency to assume good faith on the part of his political opponents. Again and again he reached out his hand in fellowship, only to have it slapped away by Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan. In perhaps the most famous instance of this practice, he abandoned single payer before ever sitting down with the opposition to hammer out a deal on healthcare. This left many of his constituents scratching their heads at what appeared to be a policy of preemptive conciliation. I think I speak for all such constituents when I say: by all means, compromise; but at least start from a position of strength.
Republicans will not see placatory gestures as acts of generosity or good faith — they will see them as signs of weakness. They will exploit whatever advantages you proffer them. That is their nature. Scorpions sting; crows feed on carrion; wolves howl at the moon. Republicans prey on the weak. Democrats would do well to remember that.