It’s been a tumultuous first month in office for the Trump administration, to say the least. Just a partial list of flubs, scandals and failures includes the firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (and the rejection of the position by Harward and Petraeus), a legal blockade of the executive order banning entrants from 7 Muslim countries, numerous leaks about investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia, an increasingly combative relationship with the press, historically low approval ratings and continuing nationwide protests. Did I mention made up terrorist attacks and a twitter fight with a major retailer? Not surprisingly, many on the left are almost giddy about the White House plunging into chaos, and the list of those calling for Impeachment has grown from just activists to include elected officials. The problem with even a brief moment of gleeful ridicule is that Democrats can’t afford it.
Trump may be deeply unpopular among the left, but a recent Pew Research poll found that 84 percent of Republicans and Republican leaning Independents approve of his handling of the Presidency. 84% of Republican respondents also said Trump makes them feel “hopeful” compared to 80% of Democrats who feel “uneasy”. None of this may seem shocking in a country where political polarization has become the norm and the segmentation of social media circles and bias affirming news sources increases with every click. These numbers should tell Democrats, however, that pointing to Trump’s prejudices, contradictions and deficiencies isn’t going to be enough to win back Congress or the White House. If Democrats want to prove that they can build a better country than their Republican counterparts, they need to be a better party - that starts with acknowledging their own mistakes and examples of hypocrisy.
Is the billionaire President who glides between the White House, the Mar-a-Lago resort he owns in Florida and whose family resides in a glistening tower in Manhattan with the Trump name emblazoned on the glass really a populist? Of course not. Trump is raising an unprecedented amount of ethical questions about conflicts of interest while also nominating fellow billionaires and business people to cabinet positions so that a revolving door between industry and policymaking isn’t even needed anymore - power can now be fully consolidated into the hands of CEOs. How any of this will benefit the working class is still a mystery. But it’s hard for Democrats to hyper focus on Trump’s lack of integrity when they also take campaign donations from Wall Street, Big Pharma, Oil and other major industries that lobby to keep their profits high at the expense of everyone else. What about Barack Obama’s choice of Tim Geithner as his Treasury Secretary and other Wall Street insiders as advisors after the economic crash that devastated the lives of millions of Americans? To this day not a single bank executive was charged with a crime and yet Congress has moved on. Before Trump promised to deport up to 8 million undocumented immigrants, Obama was dubbed the “Deporter in Chief” for breaking records and sending away 2.7 million people. For 8 years, Democrats in Congress were largely silent on the issue with the exception of hispanic members. Over 1.5 million people were allegedly caught up in a system of terrorist watchlisting during the last administration, but at the time Democrats willfully ignored Muslim profiling and the stripping of civil liberties under the guise of national security. The spectre of Trump attacking the press via legal means comes on the heels of Obama’s overzealous use of the Espionage Act. At the time, it was only far left that felt prosecuting leakers was a distraction from the content that was exposed. Rather than sweeping these uncomfortable truths under the rug, Democrats need to acknowledge that they are anything but innocent in a political history that set dangerous precedents and hurt regular people. None of this means excusing the same or expanded actions under a new President, or that honesty is moral equivalence. Their integrity is compromised, though, and moving forward requires change. So far, that message hasn’t gotten through.
At a debate in January amongst candidates running for DNC Chair, none dared to criticize Debbie Wasserman Schultz for the handling of the primary or upset Clinton supporters by mentioning the candidate’s faults. A DNC debate this week on CNN largely mirrored the first, with former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez avoiding the question of a rigged primary. Moving on from rehashing the fight for the nomination is essential to finding party unity, and many of those voting for chair are more moderate Democrats who don’t wholeheartedly agree ideologically with the Sanders contingent - but the fear of hurting feelings or straining long standing relationships by critically examining the full array of mistakes in the last election only exhibits political cowardice. Blaming Russian interference or James Comey for an election loss is deflection. Even in anticipating what’s to come, Democrats are already cutting themselves slack. At a recent retreat in West Virginia, some reports described Democrats as feeling liberated by a shifting of responsibility. Without the numbers in Congress to block Republicans, it seems they’ve decided it’s easier to let the house burn down and then say, “Don’t blame us”. The retreat also reportedly included associates of the Clinton family. On the same day as the Women’s March on Washington, some Democrats instead attended a donor event hosted by David Brock. If this is the grand plan for the party’s future, they are in trouble.
From here on out, Democrats need to hold themselves to higher standards if they want to cut against polarization. There’s no easy path. A newly energized and organized left wants its representatives to resist at all costs and is threatening to throw them out of office if they don’t see results. Trump voters on the other hand find the strict oppositionist stance to be a turn-off. Some voters complain that identity politics leave them feeling alienated while for others it is a long overdue official welcome. And let’s face it, some people will just never be won over and others Democrats are better off without. But maintaining the status quo of Washington politics - courting big donors and making deals with special interests, giving leadership positions based on waited turns rather than merit, forging questionable alliances for political convenience (like the Democrats new embrace of intelligence agencies) and failing to take responsibility for past mistakes - is a recipe for affirming Trump voters’ belief that they were right. Even if Trump’s supporters eventually turn on him, they will still want the swamp to be drained, and without sincere reform from within first, they won’t see Democrats as the party willing to do it.