The problem is not that the electorate is polarized, siloed into self-reinforcing media echo chambers and mutually contemptuous — that’s the cause. The problem is that neither the partisans of the left nor those of the right can imagine themselves, for even a second, on the other side of the ideological divide.
This phenomenon is perfectly illustrated by the spectacular rise of Donald Trump’s Republican primary poll numbers, first following his indictment for business fraud by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, and then after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his run. According to conventional (liberal) wisdom, both these events should have hurt Trump politically. What the heck, Democrats wondered, is going on with those wacky GOP voters?
Donald Trump thinks, at least he claims he does, that the deep state and the media are out to get him. Judging the long list of congressional investigations, Justice Department inquiries (which were subsequently determined to have been unjustified), multiple impeachments and criminal charges that have targeted him, the former president’s paranoia appears to be grounded in reality.
Trump brilliantly projects his personal and political travails upon his supporters. “In reality they’re not after me, they’re after you,” he tweeted in 2019. “I’m just in the way.” After The Donald, in other words, would come a deluge of liberal statism gone wild: more taxes, fewer guns, migrants stealing your job, cities awash in bums and criminal gangs, transwomen raping your daughter in the ladies room.
You can’t defeat Trump unless you undermine his relationship with his supporters, who view him as a guardian and an unrepentant advocate for their values and concerns, and love the fact that he drives liberals crazy. Want to get under Trump’s skin? Get zen, stop reacting and call him out for the promises he broke to right-leaning voters.
Democrats, however, can’t begin to understand conservatives’ concerns or the mindset of voters who share them. Stuck in their New York Times/NPR/MSNBC bubble, in which everyone who votes Republican (especially for Trump) are inbred, uneducated, racist hicks too stupid not to impale their brains when they pick their noses, they attack Trump for the things they dislike about him—which, to his supporters, are features rather than bugs. They deploy tactics that would diminish a politician in their eyes, only to elevate him among MAGA types. Rather than separating Trump from his voters, everything Democrats do is pushing them closer together.
Detach yourself emotionally from your visceral dislike of the short-fingered vulgarian and it’s easy to see why a party whose base sees itself as beleaguered and aggrieved rallied around Trump after a liberal Democratic DA arrested him in order to fulfill a political campaign promise. Yet Democrats still believe that more of the same will yield different results.
Filing criminal charges against Trump over the classified records found in Trump’s office at Mar-e-Lago “suggests a fateful new reckoning is looming over Trump,” CNN mused on May 18th. Wait, there’s more! If could be that Trump’s Biggest Legal Danger Comes From Georgia as New York magazine said, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has signaled that indictments over election interference might be filed against Trump this summer.
Precedent and common sense indicate that any criminal indictment by a Democratic prosecutor will be viewed by Republican voters as more political grandstanding over offenses that are trivial, ginned up, or both. Democrats are blind to this reality. Republicans aren’t different than you and me; if a passel of Republican DAs were to go after Joe Biden at the same scale over analogous offenses, they too would close ranks around the president.
Well-funded, popular in his home state and articulate, DeSantis poses the only substantial (albeit long-shot) threat to Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination.
As a populist culture-warrior who has carefully studied Trump’s appeal, DeSantis knows he has to attack Trump from the right, on issues like the COVID-19 lockdown, abortion, spending and crime, marketing his administrative experience. Having established his bona fides on illegal immigration, the Florida governor might jab Trump for completing less than 400 miles of his promised “border wall” along the nearly-2,000-mile border with Mexico, which, Trump’s promises aside, Mexico did not pay for. “Donald likes to talk,” I’d say if I were him, “but that’s all he’s got—lots of loud words, no action.”
At this point, however, DeSantis’ culture-war red-meat is like a restaurant with great desserts and boring entrees—he’s got tasty extras but where are the basic policy items? So it remains Trump’s nomination to lose. As for the general election? There’s no indication that the Democrats have learned anything about Trump’s vulnerabilities since they underestimated him in 2016.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)