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If Trump Is a Unique Danger Why Aren’t Democrats Acting Like It?

December 12, 2019
If Trump Is a Unique Danger Why Aren’t Democrats Acting Like It?
(Gif by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

Crisis. An existential threat to our democracy. A mortal danger. A White Supremacist. Emergency

This is what President Trump’s opponents on the left say they believe about the current administration.

These accusations are serious and the fact that people on the left have made them before, about every Republican presidential aspirant from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Mitt Romney doesn’t make them untrue and this time around at least, they are claims with which I largely concur.

So let’s take the idea that Donald Trump is an existential threat to our constitutional order seriously, for just a moment, and assess what that means for our politics.

In any other aspect of life, if a person believes they are facing an emergency or a crisis or a mortal danger, there would be a corresponding set of actions that would follow.

For example, last year the apartment complex that was under construction behind my condo was torched to the ground in the dead of night. Flames engulfed the block and little balls of fire began raining down into our courtyard as if the End Times had cometh.

When the firemen came to evacuate us, we did not spend a few hours searching their twitter archives for problematic tweets before accepting their assistance.

We didn’t make sure that we brought every single item from the house with us.

After all, this was an actual emergency. So we grabbed the essentials as quickly as possible, ensured everyone was safe, and followed the instructions of the professionals who were trying to keep our home from burning to the ground. (In the end, our complex was spared and nobody was hurt—bless up to the Oakland Fire Department.)

This is the survival instinct in action. It’s how people experiencing real crises act. According to the CDC the three stages of those experiencing emergencies are first denial (hello election night 2016!); then deliberation (been a few years now); and finally, decisive action.

Nowhere in that response matrix does the CDC mention “torturous nitpicking of allies.”

People who think they are legitimately in danger don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the not-dead. They don’t take shots at those who are trying to help them. They don’t spend much time navel gazing, either. They deny, then they deliberate, and then they act.

Does this any of this sound at all like what is happening in the Democratic primary right now?

I mean that seriously: When you look at the behavior of the candidates and their partisans, does it match what you would expect from people in the midst of a crisis that threatens the foundations of the country?

It sure seems like a big bowl of No to me.

To take just one, exceedingly minor, example, last week I wrote a piece that mocked some of the more absurd attacks that have been levied against Pete Buttigieg from his Twitter antagonists. The response to me pointing out that This guy over here trying to beat Trump is being attacked unfairly was for more people who say they’re trying to beat Trump to lose their minds about how awful it was that Mayor Pete was being defended by a Bush lackey in a neocon rag.

Please understand: This isn’t about me. I’m extremely well acquainted with the fact that some on the left will always think I’m a Bad Person with Bad Thoughts. What seems absurd is the insane levels of antipathy aimed at Buttigieg—a guy running to try to stop the mortal danger, white supremacist, existential threat-crisis.

And it’s not just Mayor Pete! Elizabeth Warren is getting dragged for making money as a consultant (a real consultant, not a Hunter-Biden consultant). Everyone on Twitter has basically decided that Joe Biden is somehow unfit for office even though he’s a year younger than Bernie Sanders and was considered beyond reproach for the 8 years he was a heartbeat away from presidency.

Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

It’s mystifying to me that this continues to happen, when the person that emerges from the Democratic primary is going to need not just the Peteys, but also the Bernie Bros, and the Yang Gang and the K-hive—not to mention the human scum—to all be in the same boat fighting against the Category 5 Sluricane that they claim to believe is threatening to end the very existence of our democratic republic.

And yet, here we are, with Pete Buttigieg being labeled History’s Greatest Monster because he rang the bell for the Salvation Army one time and was an entry level staffer at McKinsey.

Here’s a thought experiment for Democrats: If right now, today, the president of the United States was Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or John Kasich, then would the party be behaving any differently? How so?

Got anything?

Because I’m coming up almost empty. It’s possible that the polling might be shifted somewhat. Anecdata tells me that there may be a few more folks in Biden’s camp who are with him more as an “in emergency: break glass” candidate than there would be if the GOP opponent was slightly less hated. But beyond that, it seems to me that the Democratic primary and the online debate about the candidates would be essentially the same, maybe sans some of the high-falutin’ rhetoric about the violation of norms.

That’s a stark departure from what I expected coming into the primary. Given the seething hatred of Trump from Democrats (and his manifest unfitness for the office) I genuinely believed the Democratic contest would be tame to the point of orderliness.

Watch the first Democratic primary debate in 2007—if you can make it to the end without dozing off. It’s basically a mutual admiration society. Eventually that primary got kind of bitter, but even then Obama had to apologize for calling Hillary Clinton the senator from Punjab.

That hasn’t been the case so far. In a few of the Democratic primary debates Trump has barely been mentioned at all, while the candidates have spent minute, after minute, after minute, cracking back on each other about the minutiae in their healthcare plans. When Joe Biden released a rapid response video targeting Trump for getting laughed out of NATO, his very internet unfriendly campaign was rewarded with 12 million views and a big online conversation share – mostly because none of the other campaigns are doing it.

The Democrats aren’t just litigating their policy differences—they are absolutely sliming each other on a personal level. They are taking pretty minor process disagreements about transparency to 11, while rarely mentioning that Trump is running an unprecedented and opaque corporate welfare scheme benefiting his own business from the White House with serious national security implications. As Frank Luntz pointed out last week, many of the Democrats’ intra-party attacks are going to resurface during the general election, weaponized by Trump.

I understand: Politics ain’t beanbag, yadda yadda yadda.

But that old saw only holds in times when we’re arguing between the 40 yard lines. The whole idea of there being an actual, real-deal, emergency-crisis is that the normal rules of engagement get suspended.

All of which is why I have the sneaking suspicion that a lot of Democrats don’t actually view Trump as a unique crisis.

Or rather: They don’t view him as being more than a difference in degree from the “emergency-crisis” Republicans always represent. For these Democrats, all of Republican/conservatism has been inevitably leading to Trump and the only difference between Trump and, say, George H.W. Bush, is that Trump says the quiet part out loud.

For other Democrats, I suspect they genuinely believe that Trump is a crisis, but also that, as a wise man once said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And now is their chance to push for more of what they’ve always wanted.

And still other Democrats seem to think that the election is a gimme. Recently I talked to a Democratic campaign consultant who said a lot of his peers have convinced themselves that Trump is so weak that this is the moment to bring on the most radical revolution they can get. (These individuals seem not to remember 2016.)

In a weird way, I understand these three groups. I mean, they are, as an analytical matter, wildly incorrect. But I understand why, if they view the world that way, they’re acting the way they are.

But for the Democrats who say that they think this is a unique hinge of history and that Trump must be defeated in order to preserve the political order, why are they fighting each other with an intensity that is indistinguishable from 1992, or 2000, or 2004, or 2008, or 2016?

Actual emergencies require sacrifice. They require willingness to work with people that you have major differences with to achieve a solution. They require hard choices and reflection about what you are willing to part with to come out the other side.

I believe Donald Trump is an actual emergency. I hope Democrats who agree will start acting like it.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.