It’s an odd thing to reflect upon, with the president’s approval rating stuck below 40 percent and off-year election margins showing double-digit improvement for Democratic candidates, but for most of the 15 months since November 2016, Democrats have been wringing their hands over how they should run against Donald Trump.
Much of this uncertainty grew out of the trauma of losing the election to such a wildly disliked and erratic figure. Hillary Clinton spent most of the election casting Trump as a hideous anomaly, rather than the leader of the Republican Party. She spoke of his unfitness for office, and his vulgarity, and his race politics more than she spoke of his ideology—a puppet of Russia, rather than a puppet of Paul Ryan and the Koch brothers.
After she lost, warring factions in the Democratic Party treated these avenues of attack as mutually exclusive from one another, and tried to whittle the optimized Democratic message down to a tweet. Not Russia, but kitchen table issues; not kitchen table issues, but racism.
Tuesday’s State of the Union address, and the Democratic response to it, should mark the end of that contrived argument. Even a spit-shined rendering of Trumpism, draped in all the trappings of the presidency, is an ugly phenomenon that any number of competent politicians can attack as a vulnerable whole.
Earlier this week, in helping Trump tee up his address, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped clarify where the congressional wing of the GOP stands on the whole Trump show.
“2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here,” McConnell beamed on Fox News. “The best year on all fronts. And a lot of people were shocked because we didn’t know what we were getting with Donald Trump.”
All of the things Republicans privately claim to fear and dislike about Trump pale in comparison to their appreciation of his adherence to right-wing orthodoxy.
Strip away the layers of scandal and ineptitude that have defined the Trump presidency, and the essential bargain becomes clear. Trump has signed an enormous tax cut for the owners of concentrated wealth, short-circuited the vetting process to nominate as many right-wing federal judges as possible, and scapegoated non-white immigrants—including ones who’ve lived in America their entire lives, and by all rights should be voting citizens—all of whom he’s targeted for deportation.
Trump’s State of the Union address was essentially a victory lap around the three tentpoles of Trump-era conservatism: plutocracy, authoritarianism, and racism. This agenda isn’t entirely lacking in popular appeal—Trump remains well liked among the GOP’s white identitarian base. But it’s no random accident that each facet of this fusion is antidemocratic in its marrow, and seeks to sustain itself not through popular force, but through plunder, fiat, and racial division.
A coalition like this will almost invariably be shot through with corruption; the fact that it is blasé about a foreign intelligence operation aimed at sabotaging American democracy (and helping Republicans hold political power) is no surprise whatsoever. The Russia stuff and the economic stuff and the racial stuff are all part of one schema.
The official Democratic response to the State of the Union, delivered by Rep. Joe Kennedy, III (D-MA), presented a familiar, alternative value system, with a lineage that extends back to the founding of the country and remains vibrant today.
If you read the speech, you could easily confuse it for a Barack Obama speech; not just thematically, but in its specific phrasing. Like most Obama speeches, this one doesn’t mention the object of its critique by name. The subtle difference is that Obama usually held out notions of equality and human dignity in contrast to an abstract conservative vision contained in budget blueprints, and eventually the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.
Kennedy’s foil is Trump and Trumpism, which is an incumbent force, and breaks faith with the notion of democratic equality in an expansive way. Kennedy defines the danger as an administration that “isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us—they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
That penumbra is wide enough to encompass nearly all of Trumpism, from the familiar—“an all-out war on environmental protection”—to the novel—“Russia knee-deep in our democracy.”
One could quibble with the specific language of the speech, or with the identity of the speaker, or with the strategic value (admittedly low) of a State of the Union response. But Republicans have clarified what they are and Democrats have taken notice. The idea that a coherent critique of Trumpism eludes liberals, or that they inherently lack the capacity to present a more compelling vision, should have been laid to rest Tuesday night.