For all that progressives hate Donald Trump’s policies, his tax cuts and his travel bans, nothing has been more outrageous to them than his personality: his boorishness; his bullying; his unshakeable satisfaction with his white, male, wealthy self. That’s why Democratic candidates have approached the next presidential election with the single-minded purpose of not being Donald Trump. Their policies are not like his, but more significantly they are not like him. If he is insulting they are civil. If he is obnoxious they are respectful. If he is reactionary they are progressive. If he is uncaring they are empathetic.
The problem, though, as these candidates will learn, is that you cannot just be not-Trump. You must be something else.
The saddest example of a not-Trumper is Howard Schultz, the blissfully blinkered overpriced coffee baron who has surrounded himself with so many yes men that he thinks America craves a shambling technocrat. He claims that a ‘silent majority’ of Americans are socially and economically liberal and dislike Republican and Democrat extremism. Sometimes a silent majority is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. Pressed on what he will do, and how, Schultz has cheerful buzzwords such as ‘civility’, ‘honesty’ and ‘results’ which are as effective in political rhetoric as they would be as chat-up lines. The most charitable explanation for his campaign is that he has confused the feelings of his advisers for the feelings of the nation.
Beto O’Rourke is another not-Trumper. While Trump has been cold and boorish, O’Rourke has tried to seem warm-hearted and sensitive. Trump shouts. He listens. Beto’s arms windmill, his eyes are doleful and his mouth is overflowing with right-on sentimentality. Asked if he would back attempts to mandate that when babies survive abortions they should be kept alive, for example, he said Americans should trust women to make decisions for their own bodies, as if this was a profound answer to the question and not just blather.
Hearing clichés spout from him like water from a broken dam makes you wish that he had never left his youthful edgelord days, when his poems about godlike cows and genitals did at least express some kind of personality.
If you had a slim chance of securing the nomination you would think you would do something to stand out a little: draw attention to neglected issues, for example, or offer original policies. Not a bit of it. The likes of Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand have been campaigning largely on the premise that they are not Donald Trump. Klobuchar has been presenting herself as a kind, motherly figure who has transcended her humble, troubled origins, uploading a quirky campaign video made by her daughter and talking about her father’s history of alcoholism. The image of a good woman who rose from nothing is clearly intended to be set against the image of the boorish son of privilege now in the White House. But since Klobuchar has been dogged by charges of workplace bullying it is hard to imagine this homely act taking off. Gillibrand, meanwhile, has stirred herself up into a warlike anti-Trumpism. ‘Will you be brave,’ she shouted in a recent speech, ‘Will you do what it takes to defeat President Trump…Will you fight like your life depends on it, because the truth is it does.’ By the end you’re is unsure if she is asking people to vote for her or to stockpile ammunition.
Biden may win the Democrat nomination, largely on the basis of having been VP in happier times for American progressives. The most impressive candidates, however, have been Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders: the first two because of the level of detail and creativity in their policy prescriptions and the latter for having a clear, unique and principled idea of his vision for the United States. Warren might be too uncharismatic, Yang too obscure and Sanders too ambitious to secure the nomination – that remains to be seen – but all of them have had a sense of what will count in 2020.
As a conservative I disagree with them on many things, but from a purely strategic sense it seems obvious that if being ‘not Trump’ is not enough to secure the Democratic nomination, which will be decided by his worst enemies, then it will not be enough to secure the inbetweeners, the undecideds, the apathetic and the disaffected Republicans who could make the difference in next year’s presidential race.
What about Obama, you might wonder. He was to a great extent not-Bush. But he was also more charismatic than any of the candidates for 2020, he was an exciting African-American candidate, he made use of social media in a pioneering way. Plus, shocking though it may be to progressives, George Bush was more unpopular than Donald Trump. Trying to be the next Obama, as Beto O’Rourke has arguably done, is as worthless strategically as just being not-Trump.
Perhaps Democrats could learn from an analogy with professional wrestling. In pro wrestling you have ‘faces’ (good guys) and ‘heels’ (bad guys). It does not matter how despicable and loathsome the heel is, if the face is bland as a wrestler and persona the audience are not going to cheer for them. If anything, they might end up cheering for the more charismatic heel. Democrats can still criticize Trump, of course, which is only natural for the party of the opposition, but if they want to win in 2020 they must set aside the fevered anti-Trump conspiracies, the soppy platitudes and the reductionist againstism and tell Americans what they will do to improve their lives and the lives of their families. As Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has said:
‘…what impacts people’s everyday lives are health care costs, anxiety over their next mortgage, anxiety over their next paycheck.’
Not, in other words, Donald Trump’s mean tweets.