The Response to Trump vs. the Response to Obama

The Washington Post and the New York Times both published articles yesterday with the same basic premise.  The Democratic base has has moved so far to the left that it is embracing socialism. The left’s voters are so angry and fearful that they’re calling for the abolishment of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencyThey’re voting out their own leadership in favor of intemperate and vituperative radicals who espouse unworkable and foreign-sounding ideas that won’t play in the heartland. The responsible adults are losing control and the best recent analog for all of this is the 2009-2010 rise of the Tea Party.

In fairness, they aren’t making this up out of whole cloth, and some of the concern they’re reporting on is coming straight from the mouths of veteran Democratic politicians and strategists from Washington, DC or high up in the party’s top organizations.

“There is a big difference between a strategic message targeted to win an election and an emotional call like ‘Abolish ICE,’ ” said former congressman Steve Israel (N.Y.), who led the Democratic House election effort for two cycles. “One feels good for the person screaming, and one works for the person voting.”

“What sounds good in Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t work in Brooklyn, Iowa,” Israel said.

I have a lot of objections to how this story is being reported but one of the main ones is the comparison to the Tea Party. The analogy bothers me for two reasons. First, the Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party revolt sprung into being during a period of historically low federal taxation and in response to a housing crisis that grew and exploded under Republican leadership. It was immediately repurposed to fight health care reforms, and that was at least a reaction to a sharp change in longstanding policy. Overall, however, the Tea Party movement was obsessed over debt, deficit spending, and government overreach, which were things that concerned Republicans not at all during the Bush administration and no longer concern them now that Trump is president.

What Democrats are responding to at the moment are momentous changes that are really too long to list. The president just said that some states will soon ban abortion, which has has been constitutionally protected for forty-five years. The Supreme Court just gutted public sector unions, legalized racial disenfranchisement through state redistricting, and gave the president the authority to impose a nakedly racist and religiously bigoted travel ban. Trump is in a Watergate-level of trouble over his suspected coordination with Russia during the election and his policies toward our allies in Europe, the Far East, and on our borders amount to a brazen compromise of American alliances and values. His self-dealing is unprecedented and his violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution are going unpunished. He’s openly obstructing justice every day. The environment is under attack. Science is under attack. The FBI and Department of Justice are under attack. The press is threatened and intimidated constantly. Our system of immigration is being reworked in radical ways, and white nationalists are serving as senior White House advisers and on the National Security Council.

Oh, and did I mention that Trump is about to replace Justice Kennedy with a true movement conservative and give these radicals a clear majority on the Supreme Court for the first time, and that their majority may last for decades?

So, the first thing that bothers me is that the two situations (Tea Partiers in 2009-10 and Democrats today) are far too dissimilar to be breezily compared to each other.

The second thing that bugs me is that the press doesn’t seem to have updated their estimation of the effectiveness of the Tea Party movement to account for their midterm successes in 2010 and 2014 or the election of Donald Trump. This dismissiveness was wrong from the get-go, as it focused only on the races the Republicans lost in 2010 and 2012 that they might have won with more status quo candidates. It’s true that the GOP left some Senate seats on the table, but they seem to have bounced back from their nadir in 2008 to gain the biggest majorities they’ve held in this country since the 1920’s. The radical rhetoric of the Tea Party surely contributed to these successes and if so-called Democratic socialists have the same kind of successes over the next ten years, I don’t think they’ll mind the comparisons.

In any case, as Trump supporters revel in their current power, they surely have earned the right to laugh at every analyst who said the Tea Party’s extremism would doom the right.

There’s a better case to be made that their radicalism doomed the country, and if the press wants to write concern-troll stories about how radical-sounding Democrats are going to contribute to ripping the country party apart, that would at least be an interesting debate to have. What doesn’t seem merited, at all, is to argue that strong, impolite rhetoric will spell electoral doom or that utopian ideas based on fantasies will be broadly rejected out of hand.

We like to cherry-pick things, exaggerate their consequence, and then act shocked when the electorate acts like it doesn’t give a damn or actually likes the things we thought they ought to hate. It’s true that the Republicans weren’t thrilled to have Senate candidates calling for Second Amendment solutions to our political differences or assuring us that they are not a witch. They were embarrassed to hear their candidates argue that rape cannot cause pregnancy and that, regardless, God loves rape babies. Those candidates lost winnable seats, but did it really hurt the party in the bigger picture? Did Trump’s insults and sexual assaults and blatant racism hurt him in the bigger picture?

There’s definitely a story in how the country seems to be moving in different directions at light speed. The crack-up of the Republican Party, irrespective of its electoral success, can definitely serve as a cautionary tale for party leaders on the left. But there’s just nothing to really support the idea that the radicalism of the right was anything other than helpful to the right’s electoral recovery from the Bush years.

What we’re seeing, rather, is a new sort of the electorate. Suburbs become blue, red areas get redder. That trade-off just barely worked for Trump and it works great for the Republicans in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. The Democrats need to be mindful of this, and that’s one reason to listen to yourself talk so you can hear how something might sound in Brooklyn, Iowa rather than in Brooklyn, New York.

The truth, however, is that people who are fed up will vote for almost any kind of change. Mexico showed that last night, and Donald Trump demonstrated it better than anyone ever could back in 2016.

Then there are the merits. Obama got his health care bill and it didn’t plunge the country into bankruptcy or tyranny. It helped tens of millions of people without fundamentally changing how most of us experience our day to day lives. The apoplexy that fed the Tea Party revolt was based on fairy tales. The apoplexy of the left in response to Trump is shared by the middle, many former Republicans, our Intelligence Community, our foreign policy establishment, and all of our allies.

Given that, any similarity between the radicalization of the right during Obama’s presidency and the radicalization of the left in response to Trump’s is completely superficial.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.