We are a little more than a year since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and despite his attempts to portray an air of popular authority, liberalism and the resistance has lost no steam. The Women’s March was strong, support for DACA is growing, and all signs point toward a blue wave in 2018. Progressives have spent the last year so focused on the challenges without, however, that few are focusing on the problem within: liberalism is grooming itself for its own version of Trump.
How could this be, when liberals are repulsed by the very idea of Trump and everything he stands for? For starters, the normalization of Trump is likely eroding our resistance toward political figures who are willing to break cultural norms and who care little about what their non-supporters have to say. Just a few years ago, Americans would have been aghast at stories that barely make headlines under Trump. This is paving the way for future cultural mavericks across the political spectrum. What is more important is how willing the left-wing resistance may be becoming in co-opting right-wing tactics to gain power.
Starting with George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” 1988 presidential campaign and then into the 1990s, the national GOP adopted a “win at all costs” attitude. As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich formulated a legacy that legitimized government shutdowns, encouraged criminal investigations of political opponents, and held that compromises with Democratic presidents constituted weakness. These tactics were so insidious because they worked so well: Republicans realized major Congressional victories by utilizing them under Clinton and Obama. Winning at all costs, though, has a pesky side effect: it’s grossly unhealthy to the nation.
An explanation was needed to justify the GOP’s radicalism. Thus, the following message began to be broadcast across right-wing media: America is under attack from a “Legitimate Threat” that must be addressed immediately. To conservative media, that “Legitimate Threat” speaks to the betrayal of the opposition party. The leader of the opposition is thus illegitimate, freeing citizens from any guilt in resisting a duly elected official. If voters are convinced they’re under an imminent threat, that a poor leader has betrayed them, that their poor leader is illegitimate, then of course they won’t want their party to compromise. They’re even more likely to vote against their own interests; they’re not thinking rationally. This is the beauty of this tactic. When your base is convinced that you have to win at all costs, they don’t expect more from you than the bare minimum.
Don’t believe it? We’ve seen it in action. Weren’t we constantly reminded that Obama was a secret Muslim socialist who did nothing to protect America from terrorists, violent minorities, homosexuals and illegal immigrants? Didn’t Obama do this because he hated America — or, more nefariously, because he’s loyal to radical Islam? Weren’t those same conservative pundits trying to convince you that it was your patriotic duty to save America from a rogue president who wasn’t even born in the US? This same cycle of “Legitimate Threat,” of betrayal, of de-legitimization, was the platform on which Republicans ran and won, hundreds of them. It allowed them to put victories for the party over victories for the country. It allowed them to de-legitimize Hillary Clinton and the entire left.
Trump’s ascendance proves how dangerous this strategy can be. He lived in the bubble of its messages; like his base, he believes in the urgency of its arguments. This is why he can connect with the average Fox News consumer instinctually: he embodies their fear and anxiety over a changing world. They cheered Trump’s shockingly xenophobic and racist statements because they’d spent years being indoctrinated into implied racism and coded language. When Trump is lauded as a straight-talker, it’s only because he’s saying the very things that the GOP tip-toed around for years. When your party’s entire public appeal rests on a need for action, you’ll support the only candidate who appears willing to act.
Trump also possesses the marketing skills to realize the shortcomings of “win at all costs.” While standard Republicans like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie spent their primary debate time arguing over whether Obama intentionally or negligently ruined America, Trump realized that no candidate was actually saying what the GOP base wanted to hear: no more special interests, no more foreign wars, no more attacks on healthcare and entitlements and the social safety set that disproportionately benefits voters in red states. Through unhappy accident or a genuine messaging finesse, he mastered both the strengths and flaws of the Republican “win at all costs” mentality. He deserves credit for that.
So how does all this pertain to liberals? Much like the right-wing of the last decade or two, liberals are marinating right now in their own pressure cooker. They’re building up theories of their own about legitimate threats, betrayals and justification for obstruction. The seeds for “win at all costs” are planted.
Imagine the following:
In 2019 and 2020, a well-known progressive figurehead comes along. This person gets in front of large audiences and starts talking about the rise of right-wing violence:
“If we don’t confront this right now, the damage will be irreparable! Fascists are everywhere!”
This leads, perhaps inevitably, to a softening of resistance — on the left — to attacks on free speech and political violence. When confronted with evidence of it, the most zealous liberals will piously agree that violence is never the answer, but, they might also say:
“These are Nazis we’re talking about!”
Some might say that this is already the logic being used by the left. Next, this progressive figurehead reminds supporters that this is all Trump’s fault — his betrayal at moments like Charlottesville put us here. Dissenters against a common enemy now unite. Now, for this progressive figurehead to adopt a savior narrative, supporters of liberalism will next be reminded that Trump won the election illegitimately. Easy enough: the Russian collusion narrative is baked in; Trump’s allegiance is to foreign authoritarians. What do we do?
“Win at all costs!”
Just remember that liberals have only lived in this pressure cooker for a year; it took almost a decade to reach enough of a fever pitch on the right for Trump to rise. Yet, we’ve already started to see it happen. It wasn’t long ago that liberals decried government shutdowns and the de-legitimizaton of a president. Now, many liberals support both. The Democratic base is short on power? Find ample threats and betrayals in the mediasphere and play out the scenario.
But why is this a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be kind of nice to have our own no-BS strongman stick it to Mitch McConnell?
Here’s why: just as we’ve seen with Trump, there’s a good chance that whoever runs on a platform that best manipulates narratives and the powerful emotions they invoke will win. But how low will the bar be for them afterward? Like Republicans, the attitude of their followers will be “win at any cost” — they’ll be so happy that someone vindicated their deepest fears and concerns, that someone vocalized their anger. Could they disregard policy initiatives in exchange for the public humiliation and subjugation of Trump and his gangsters? Such a progressive figurehead could even be forgiven for failing to enact the necessary reforms we need, spending their time instead undoing everything Trump did. Undoing your predecessor’s achievements is a lot easier than making your own. And it’s unlikely that the wounds inflicted upon of liberalism will be healed; we can just as easily fester increasingly fantastical conspiracies about the opposition, just as Republicans are doing right now with the “deep state.” This is not a healthy arc for any political movement.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons for liberals and liberalism to resist Trump. However, if liberalism has any hope of avoiding its own version of the bombast billionaire, liberals must resist “win at all costs.” Blatant obstructionism, government shutdowns, and indulging in fantasies of illegitimacy and betrayal will only put liberalism in position to be exploited again, down the line, by someone else. If you think it wouldn’t be so bad to put your faith in a demagogue whose primary skill set is humiliating the opposition, I know some jobless Carrier employees you should have a talk with.