In Jon Lee Anderson’s wonderful, expansive biography of Che Guevara, the author investigates his young subject’s feelings toward Argentine president Juan Peron. On the surface, the two men were politically very different, and that gap would widen as Guevara grew into revolutionary Marxism. They shared an anti-American sentiment—Guevara’s was more emotional at that time, while Peron’s was grounded in its focus on shedding American economic influence—but beyond that, there were few ideological similarities between the men. Despite this, Peron became a significant influence on the young Guevara for his style of politics. Anderson writes:
Peron’s Machiavellian exercise of power illuminated a formula for effecting radical political change in spite of the powerful opposition of a conservative oligarchy, the Catholic clergy, and sectors of the armed forces. Observing Peron, Ernesto could see at work a political master who more often than not showed he could manipulate the magic keys to political success: knowing the mood of the people, knowing who his real friends and enemies were—and knowing when to act. The lesson was clear: What was required to make political headway in a place such as Argentina was strong leadership and a willingness to use force to meet one’s goals.
Now, I want to pause here and make two things clear:
1. This will not be one of those pieces that takes a wishy-washy stance toward Donald Trump, as in, “well, you may not like his politics, but you have to admit…” I think Trump and all his kind are fundamentally rotten, malicious people, and that any attempts to humanize him or his supporters are irresponsible and, at this point, almost collaborative. I don’t believe in trying to debate or win over his diehard supporters as a path to victory; when a group of people are so unshakably rooted in the ideology of antagonism, grievance, and hatred, the sacrifice you’d have to make to “win them over” is too great. That juice ain’t worth the squeeze, and if there are more of them than there are of us—which is not the case, thank God—we’d be screwed.
2. I’m not comparing Trump to Peron in terms of political skill, especially just a month before what might be—what will hopefully be—a disastrous first midterm. And I’m certainly not comparing Democrats to Che.
That said, I keep thinking about this tweet from Tuesday morning:
I'm not proud to admit this, but the remnants of the horrified, “have you no decency, sir!” Civility Liberal in me recoiled at this. Just as those remnants recoiled when he said this at a rally last week:
'You don't hand matches to an arsonist and you don't give power to an angry left-wing mob, and that's what they've become. Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob.'
Even as someone who writes about Trump every godforsaken day, and who thought he was inoculated against almost any conceivable horror after the administration ruined the lives of children at our border to make a failed political point, these two incidents gave me that old terror feeling in the gut—the one that says, “hey Shane? Maybe you ought to move your family out of this country somewhat quickish so you don't feel like a real rube five years down the road when some American Sadist who currently drives a pickup truck and screams racial slurs at people who get in his way in the Wal-Mart parking lot has permission to shoot you in the back of the head in a grim basement.”
Beyond that fear and disgust, I eventually arrive at a kind of reluctant…well, not admiration, but maybe a sense of awe at the man's audacity. The “paid protester” thing is a classic lunatic-right conspiracy, and the idea that Democrats are the dangerous ones in American society is laughable. But both of these statements are aimed at the same goal: Silence the opposition, demonize the opposition, consolidate power, and make it gradually more acceptable to destroy the opposition.
Most of all, there is no limit to this man. So much liberal energy, unspoken but featuring prominently in the psyche, is geared toward the hope that at some point, he will stop. He will realize that what he's saying is dangerous, that it will (and has) resulted in death, that it's threatening the fabric of democracy and etc. etc. And so much of the fear in our guts is that he will never stop. Our intellect hangs on to the hope that he will reach a point and go no further, but our instinct knows he won't.
Donald Trump's instincts are razor-sharp, and he listens to them, and that's what we need to learn. I don't mean that they'll necessarily lead him to more political victories, or that he's infallible. I mean that, to use Anderson's language, he knows who his friends are, he knows where his power base lies, and he can read the emotional language of his people. His message to them is always simple and intuitive. He knows what they want, he knows their anger and their thirst for dominance, and he knows that compromising himself for some standard of civil democracy—a standard he could care less about, since morality is an abstraction and, I'm convinced, he would burn the whole thing down for his ego—would only compromise his appeal.
You should be familiar with this excellent tweet by now, but if not:
It's so spot-on, both in its depiction of Trump and, especially, how it paints such an agonizingly clear picture of liberal decency—the pathology of pathetic meekness.
It also hints at an important truth: Defeating Trump is not about expecting anyone to hold him accountable. It's not about discovering logical contradictions in what he or his conservative brethren have said, and holding them up like trophies that actually mean anything.
Here's what it's about: Crafting an emotional appeal that is as strong as, or stronger than, the one Trump broadcasts.
That's what politics in America is about today, and while it sounds achingly simple, it frees the mind for some broader truths that are going to be very important in the next two years. First off, it admits to the reality that almost every national election, and many state and local ones, are going to be extremely close for the foreseeable future, no matter how evil or bad one side seems. Second, it lays bare the ridiculousness of ever trying to win back Trump's base—for those people, you can't hit them with an emotional people that is more powerful than the factors mentioned above: Grievance, antagonism, hatred. They want to feel like victims, they want to trigger the libs, and they want to punish the Others. It doesn't matter that Trump's politics, and the politics of all Republicans, are going to throw them deeper into economic misery, or that many of them claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, or whatever; they're gone. Forget them. They'll always support people like Trump. Third, it speaks of the need for a convincing message, and the need to unify behind that message.
The Democrats in power haven't learned this. Individual Democrats have, but not the main body, and not the leadership. I mean, look at this from September 2016:
If you’re a Democrat, and you want Trump gone, that should make you extremely angry even in hindsight. She actually thought that appealing to the “party of Lincoln” was going to mean anything to these people. As if they wouldn’t hate Lincoln with a passion if they were alive during the Civil War. As if there was any path to victory that went through these people. (To her credit, Clinton seems to get it now: “The only thing that Republicans recognize, and respect, is strength.” Way too late, but…yeah.)
There are so, so many people who don’t vote, but who, if they were made to care enough, would only ever vote Democrat. Republicans spend a lot of time attempting to disenfranchise and gerrymander this group into irrelevance, because they know if they ever come awake, that’s the ballgame. It’s hard to tell if establishment Democrats don’t universally pursue these people because they’re too stupid to understand that they need them, or because they’re so beholden to corporate interests that they can’t embrace the policy positions they’d need to win them over. Probably both.
So, back to the emotional message—how do you win over the non-voters, along with the few “middle ground” types that still exist? It’s not complicated at all. You simply make them feel like they’re part of a movement. And that movement should convey this substance: You deserve more. You deserve a $15 minimum wage. You deserve free single-payer healthcare. You deserve free public education. You deserve not to starve. And you don’t deserve to be shunted into the poorest corners of American life because rich people hoard the wealth that rightfully belongs to you.
This doesn’t mean ignoring Trump. In fact, it means going at him harder—it means not apologizing when you describe his supporters as rotten deplorables (though you should choose a way cooler word, and your attacks should always be directed at the powerful). It means not couching your criticism in grand overarching themes of American unity that everybody knows is hollow. It means recognizing that American politics is a very serious war, that there is such a thing as a “bad guy,” and that we gain nothing by pretending otherwise. You can bring your positive message to the people while also telling the truth about the enemy.
But you have to mean it, the way Trump means it when he rallies his base. As Che Guevara learned the power of instinctual, emotional politics from Juan Peron, Democrats must learn from Trump.
You cannot go halfway. You cannot have some of your candidates walk the walk, while others don’t. You can’t have just a portion of your party leadership and your national committee support the most critical policies, even if that represents an improvement on 2016. You can’t be afraid to proclaim your message on a national level because of the wrongheaded fear that the Great Purple People will abandon you—the ones that are ideologically ruined are already gone, and the others, I promise you, are going to like free healthcare.
If you don’t do this, you know what you are? A reactive, defensive party. The Democrats should win the House in November, and they may win the Senate (spoiler: probably not), but if that happens, it will be because of who Trump is, and not who they are. They’re not leading the way right now; progressive activists are leading the way. They’re desperately trying to be the face of a movement they won’t readily endorse, and it may work in the short term because Americans don’t have any other options and there’s a real backlash to Trump. But any victory won in that manner is a tenuous victory, because it doesn’t offer the profound sense of political achievement, of ideology rewarded, that people need. It doesn’t offer what someone like Trump gives.
Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in Great Britain nailed it with their slogan: “For the many, not the few.” They stunned the conservatives by wrenching back a good share of power in what should have been a disastrous election, and despite the fact that the entire establishment and right wing is running scared and doing everything they can to undermine Corbyn with propaganda, he’s going to be the country’s next Prime Minister. He is on the attack, he is aggressive, and he has given people something to believe in.
That’s all we need here. Trump shouldn’t be hard to defeat. Beyond his raging drones, there aren’t enough people who want the future that he promises. But until the left matches his emotional appeal on a national level—until they understand what political power means—they will languish in the realm of the passive, and cede the initiative to a man who wants to destroy us.