Donald Trump was historically unpopular when he won the 2016 election with a minority of the vote, and since then, a majority of Americans have come to view his presidency as a terrible mistake if not an outright emergency.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 56 percent of Americans say they will “definitely not vote for him in 2020. A similar Marist poll found that 57 percent of registered voters intend to vote against him in 2020, which in a two-way race, would likely hand the election to Democrats in a landslide.
Certainly many millions of Americans hold the opposite view: not just that Trump is a good president, but that the things about his presidency that most alarm the majority—the bigotry, the authoritarian bent, the way he abuses and seeks revenge against his critics—are the best things about it.
But they are not numerous enough to sustain power and wreck the country, if the Democratic Party is united and energized in a way it was not two years ago. Trump’s success woke vast swaths of the population up to terrible problems plaguing American democracy—both at a root level, where our laws and institutions disenfranchise millions of people, and up through the branches where the antidemocratic right, along with a class of entrenched interests, have aligned themselves foursquare against all meaningful efforts to strengthen the social compact.
There is considerable disagreement within the Trump opposition—about whether this crisis of democracy is passing or endemic, and thus whether overcoming it will require incremental or radical reforms—but the outcome of the 2018 election suggests, by and large, that most of us who claim to believe Trump is unfit for the presidency are genuinely committed to defeating him before duking it out about how best to make sure another Trump doesn’t win the presidency in 2024 or 2028.
With historic turnout, and by a landslide margin, a pro-democratic coalition elected a fantastically diverse class of Democrats, who include progressives and labor activists and prosecutors and spies and veterans. The election that made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a household name and returned Nancy Pelosi to the speakership was also the election where James Comey, the Republican former FBI director, donated money to a Democrat for the first time, to defeat his congresswoman Barbara Comstock—who was also once his spokeswoman at the Justice Department.
In a presidential election, these factions won’t be able to paper over their differences by voting only for district-level representatives, but they will be able to shape the outcome of the presidential primary, so that the eventual Democratic nominee has broad appeal. Everyone will have to sacrifice something, but everyone can be heard. As we transition into that process, we’ll learn who truly takes the Trump crisis seriously and who’s been posturing.
The news that the billionaire Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is thinking of running for president on a platform of social liberalism and austerity has roiled American politics for several reasons. He’s rich enough to spoil the election through sheer force of will, which makes his candidacy news for the media establishment. Because he’d likely spoil the election for Republicans, Trump and his smarmiest loyalists are saying what they think they need to say to entice Schultz into the race. And because he has set himself on a course to fracture the Democratic coalition, in service of his own interests and ego, he’s ignited the righteous fury of the entire progressive firmament.
Schultz is just one billionaire, but he’s standing in here for a small but astonishingly powerful class of individuals who whose actions over the past two-plus years belie the sincerity of their anti-Trump comments. Schultz, like other public-facing billionaires, may genuinely believe that Trump is unacceptably racist and incompetent, but he and they also apparently believe that the only thing worse than a catastrophe like Trump is a tax level high enough restore public faith in the American political system.
Schultz himself has spent the week treating popular ideas like tuition-free public college (which would not be very expensive) and single-payer health insurance (which many countries pay for handily, and would mostly just move money we already spend on to the federal balance sheet) like ludicrous pipe dreams. He calls plans to reduce inequality—by raising the top tax rate to where it once was, or by taxing exorbitant wealth like they do in some European democracies—“un-American” and “extreme.”
In this way, Schultz resembles the global plutocratic elites who last week welcomed Brazil’s new president, the aspiring tyrant Jair Bolsonaro, to Davos, then mocked the growing international clamor for higher marginal tax rates on the rich, called critics communists, and brushed off responsibility for inequality, war, and climate change. He also resembles the executives who theatrically withdrew from Trump’s now-aborted economic advisory panels after Trump praised the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, VA, then participated without fanfare in a gross GOP propaganda campaign to help Trump tout his multi-trillion dollar corporate tax cut.
Schultz’s candidacy is a counterpoint to corporate America’s winking complicity with Trump’s agenda. It’s a warning from donors to Democrats not to respond to Trumpism with an appeal to working-class solidarity—a threat to boobytrap the applecart if Democrats promise to upset it.
The proposition is not that he or another billionaire can persuade the anti-Trump majority that the economic status quo in the country is basically fine, but that they will return Trump to power if Democrats don’t accept their terms. Schultz has declined to enter the Democratic primary, because he knows entering the Democratic primary would be a pointless waste of time and money. Running outside of it, dividing the united front, gives him and his peers the leverage they’ll need to bring a progressive answer to Trumpism to heel.
There aren’t really actors on anti-Trump left who have similar impulses. The former executive director of the National Nurses United union did recently say that if Bernie Sanders doesn’t enter the Democratic primary, “The passion in [his] base goes away. That base evaporates. It doesn’t go to someone else. There would be a void so deep it would go to Trump.” It’s only a half-step from there to Bernie or Bust. But this is just one activist, not a billionaire who can self-finance her campaign, and the notion that Sanders will run for president outside of the Democratic tent is just unthinkable.
Democrats will spare themselves a lot of heartache by if they can remain clear eyed about how the Schultz class has really responded to Trump’s victory. To avoid scaring off donors, some of them will be tempted to treat the members of this moneyed elite as if they are, by and large, allies in the fight rather than opportunists. But Schultz and his supporters have taken themselves out of the fold. To continue to reward them with policy concessions would be worse than a betrayal. It would communicate to the whole coalition that doing what’s necessary to beat Trump isn’t worth a bit of affliction for the comfortable. The fracture would spread like a crack in a windshield. If Democrats don’t learn to welcome the hatred of the plutocrats, we will either be stuck with Trump, or his movement will come roaring back in four years to take on a governing party that will have nothing to show for itself.