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How to Beat Donald Trump

Democrats need a new approach to politicking if they want to counter Trump's appeal to the worst in people.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It is tempting to imagine that Donald Trump’s campaign was so abusive and noxious that we won’t experience anything like it again. But the hard reality is this: Most presidents seek re-election, and they usually win. Only once since Franklin Roosevelt died has one party reclaimed the presidency from the other and then failed to control it for two terms, and that presidency was Jimmy Carter’s.

Whoever Democrats nominate for the presidency in 2020 will almost certainly be running against Trump, and they won’t necessarily be running from a position of strength. Whatever Trump’s governing failures turn out to be, we know to near certainty that over the next four years, Republicans will pass more voter suppression laws to make the electorate whiter and more right-wing. We know that in 2018, Trump will have an opportunity to appoint a new chairman of the Federal Reserve, who will in turn have the power to juice the economy ahead of the election.

In between, Trump will run the White House as unconventionally as he campaigned for it. This will confound Democrats whose opposition tactics have evolved over time to counter normal Republican politicians.

It would thus behoove Democrats to update their playbook to account for the fact that Trump is an authoritarian, and that authoritarians engage in a different kind of politics than even the most underhanded Republicans who’ve run for president in the past.

On some level, Democrats understand that Trump has upended their party’s strategic approach. The unexpected results of the election have forced the party into an irresolvable pattern of recriminations. The narrowness of Trump’s victory (100,000 votes across three states) makes this blame game particularly unproductive because all explanations—from the idea that Clinton lost due to political sabotage to the idea that Clinton lost because the Democratic Party isn’t left-wing enough—have surface plausibility. None of these diagnoses, however, grapple with the possibility that running against an authoritarian requires a less algorithmic, paint-by-numbers approach to politics than most campaign professionals typically employ.

At the Democratic convention in July, President Barack Obama himself warned his party that the election would pit liberal democracy against authoritarianism, rather than just progressivism against conservatism.

At the time, I asked the Clinton campaign and other Democratic operatives whether they had consulted with political professionals from abroad who have experience running against authoritarians, or academics who have studied those kinds of campaigns. Clinton’s team declined to comment, but in general the party’s approach to Trump was to not overestimate him. Trump says horrifying things all the time—just show the people his words, the thinking went, and the politics would take care of themselves.

There was a comforting logic to that approach, and it seemed vindicated by the fact that Trump trailed Clinton in the polls the entire race.

I didn’t begin to question it until four days before the election, when I read an article by Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley which explained, in so many words, why Trump’s many outrages hadn’t disqualified him or caused his poll numbers to tank irreversibly.

Most politicians in democratic systems appeal to voters much the way marketers do, tailoring a consistent message in different ways to reach different groups of people who have different value systems. Democrats, for instance, don’t talk about the need to combat climate change the same way to college students as they do to factory workers. Authoritarians like Trump, Stanley explained, operate much differently. They uncork rhetorical fantasies—inner city war zones, rigged electoral systems, hordes of terrorists and job thieves streaming across the southern border—that entice people to justify an agenda many of them wouldn’t normally support. “Donald Trump is trying to define a simple reality as a means to express his power,” Stanley wrote.

“The goal,” he added, “is to define a reality that justifies his value system, thereby changing the value systems of his audience.”

Letting Trump’s vile comments speak for themselves, in other words, isn’t bound to erode his support. It has the potential to enhance it.

During the primary, I assumed both Clinton and Bernie Sanders would beat Trump, but until I read Stanley’s article, I hadn’t considered one way Sanders would have been a better foil.

Sanders is demagogic himself, though not as brazenly so as Trump, and not in a repulsive, hateful way. When Trump claimed the “system” had been rigged against white people by collaborating minorities and elites, most Democrats responded by scolding him for trafficking in conspiracy theories and for scapegoating the vulnerable. A candidate like Sanders, by contrast, would have countered that the system had indeed been rigged, but by people like Trump, against Trump’s own supporters.

This may or may not have worked, but it would have created a competing “simple reality” for Trump’s eventual voters to consider. And the benefit of countering Trump’s story with a left-populist one is that the left-populist story is more-or-less true.

Clinton, both by temperament and by image, was ill-suited to deliver such a message. But it’s a message Democrats should get used to relaying over the next four years. Because when Trump fails to make America great again for his working class base, his impulse will be to blame their continued suffering on minorities. And if Democrats can’t reflect the blame back on to Trump himself, things could get very ugly.