Will the Dems get Trumped? Why I dread the 2020 primary campaign

Fight Trump on Trump's terms could spell disaster. To save democracy, Democrats will have to act like grownups

Published January 15, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders; Beto O'Rourke; Donald Trump; Kamala Harris; Elizabeth Warren (AP/Getty/Salon)
Bernie Sanders; Beto O'Rourke; Donald Trump; Kamala Harris; Elizabeth Warren (AP/Getty/Salon)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked forward to presidential elections. My area of concentration in college was the American presidency and it’s chiefly what I’ve covered professionally for decades. That said, at least for now, I’m dreading the forthcoming Democratic primaries, especially after powering through the previous two Democratic Thunderdome-style presidential contests in 2008 and 2016.

This one’s going to be more than a bloodbath for the left, and, generally speaking, for similar reasons as we’ve witnessed before. The shovel fight between the center-left base and the activist progressive wing of the party -- a similar shovel fight to the one we witnessed between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and then between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- will surely be multiplied by a factor of five or 10, with a gigantic field of candidates already lining up to seize upon Donald Trump’s growing list of vulnerabilities. Consequently, the battles on Twitter and in the comment sections here and elsewhere will be far uglier than we’ve seen before. Bet on it.

One of the big debate-worthy factors topping the list will be how exactly to conquer both Trump and his “Trumpism” brand of politics. Along those lines, Jonathan Martin published a piece in the New York Times about how the Democrats are apparently torn between running on the issues or running to defeat Trump and Trumpism. In response, NeverTrump conservative and CNN analyst Rick Wilson tweeted this on Monday:

Over the last couple of years, I’ve eagerly devoured Wilson’s juggernaut takes on the Trump crisis. Additionally, you’ve likely read a few of my articles about forming a coalition with NeverTrumpers to pass a series of constitutional amendments that can prevent a second Trump from emerging. Despite all that, I strongly disagree with Wilson on this one. In fact, he appears to be pushing for the one thing that I thought he opposed: adopting Trumpism as the standard for modern presidential campaigns.

I hasten to note that yes, absolutely, the eventual nominee has to be razor-sharp on television and in terms of social media messaging. I mean, duh. That’s been the case at least since 2004-ish regarding the internet, while extending back to the 1960s with television. It’s mandatory, of course. As far as the last part, where Wilson says the Dems need to “fight Trump on the battlefield that exists today,” it seems as though he’s suggesting that Democratic presidential hopefuls must fight Trump on Trump’s terms.

Whether Wilson meant it that way or not, it brings up a point we have to kill with fire now before we get too deeply into the belly of the primary season.

Why should anyone play on Trump's terms? Doing so is a recipe for metastasizing Trumpism into the normal state of the modern "battlefield." This needs to be rejected and replaced by a different model: playing hardball but as adults; laser-focused political savvy, but for grownups.

Of course the temptation to attack Trump using Trump’s own screeching stream-of-consciousness, his childish name-calling and knee-jerk lies, will be there for the taking. Given the size of the Democratic field, the odds are pretty good that at least one of the candidates will go there. But that’s also the nightmare scenario because it’ll definitely get a big reaction, namely online, making it even more tempting. Once Trumpism has escaped containment, it won’t easily be shoved back into its rotting orange shell.

The smart move, on the other hand, is to resist the urge to out-Trump the president. Trump’s loudmouth trolling is unique to him, and copycats on the Democratic side should be chastised rather than cheered for borrowing it in ham-fisted fashion. Likewise, Democratic leaders, activists, and observers alike need to remember that there’s a hierarchy in the political debate. In this context, our leaders at the vanguard of American government should leave the name-calling and the jokes and the memes to pundits like me. Rest assured, we’ve got this! Indeed, true leaders -- women and men at the top of the heap -- need to rise above all that while, to paraphrase Neil Peart, delivering tough talk for tough times.

Again, there’s a way to counterattack Trump without co-opting Trumpism, and that's by campaigning against him in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the destruction of our collective reputation as a representative democracy. Candidates need to be tough and need to unapologetically own their liberal platforms. Most important, they need to seize the initiative against Trump instead of letting him dictate the terms of the debate.

One of the best moments for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general election was when she correctly and unflinchingly attacked Trump as a puppet of Russia, forcing Trump to recoil with the now infamous childish blurt, “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” -- a line that ought to be the cautionary chapter title in future textbooks about his historically ridiculous presidency. With a little thought and a little timing it’s not difficult to lock Trump into a defensive posture, especially following a few more months in which his support continues to diminish and the walls of justice close in around him. Every time Trump is forced to defend himself, he’s not tweeting about “Pocahontas” or “Crazy Bernie” or whomever. The Democrats can relentlessly and furiously carve up Trump without borrowing Trump’s stunted comment-trolling -- that is, without selling out to Trumpism itself.

It’s not just American voters who will be watching. The entire world, perched on the edge of its seat, will be following the 2020 election for a variety of harrowing reasons. Chief among them is the question of whether Trumpism will suffer an extinction-level event or whether it’s now woven into the fabric of how we do politics here. Furthermore, if American democracy is overrun by buffoons and dilettantes, emerging democracies could very easily follow suit with deadly repercussions -- one of the repercussions being the abandonment of democracy as a viable system.

If our leaders continue to succumb, as Yoda once said, to the “quick and easy path,” we might as well relinquish our world leadership status to China, Russia and other despotic regimes. We’re already dangerously close to the end of the American experiment and the beginning of banana-republicanism, a nightmare scenario that becomes locked in place if the adults don’t show up to win.

No pressure, but it’ll be up to the 2020 Democrats to pull us back from the ledge. The death of Trumpism, almost as much as preventing the re-election of an accused agent of the Kremlin, may ultimately prevent the violent political disintegration of America as we know it.

The world is watching. Let’s not screw this up.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.