How Democrats Can Help Trump Fail

They'll need to restrain some of their less productive political instincts.

Back to basics.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

It's been clear for a long time that Donald Trump is unfit to be president, but there are degrees of unfitness. Last week, with his response to the march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, he sank to an amazing new low.

He crossed a new line not in defending the right of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to march, nor in expressing the view that Confederate statues shouldn't be taken down (until recently, a permissible position, even if it's wrong). And he didn't cross it by pointing out that some of the counter-protesters turned up looking for a fight (because they did). Instead, the jaw-dropping moment was Trump's claim that marching alongside the avowed racists, fascists and other degenerates in Charlottesville were some "very fine people."

No wonder David Duke was delighted. In plain sight, this was the moral bankruptcy Trump has long been accused of. I don't know if he actually meant those words, but, under pressure, and driven as always by pathological vanity and refusal ever to be corrected or contradicted, he sure enough said it.

With luck, this turn of events will accelerate the fall in Trump's support, rendering him, beyond a doubt, politically toxic for the Republican Party. This would make it easier for Republican politicians to do what they should already be doing, and start opposing their own president.

Democrats can help too, but they need to be smart about it. They should take care not to get too much in the way of Trump's self-destruction. They can oppose him most effectively by restraining some of their own less productive political instincts.

Politics after Charlottesville has turned to the question of Confederate monuments. The monuments should go -- and the decisive arguments for removing them are, first, that they give deep and justifiable offense to many Americans and, second, that they've become a rallying point for the unhinged far right. In other words, this is an argument that can be cast in terms of patriotic solidarity. It's an opportunity to live up to the highest American ideals and repudiate the fascists who oppose them.

This argument shouldn’t divide liberals and conservatives. But it very well could, if Democrats don't handle it intelligently. Many Trump supporters don't much care for the president, but they dislike the relentless self-righteousness and condescension of the liberal elite even more. The removal of the statues is an invitation to indulge those sentiments -- one that many Democrats will be unable to resist. "So we were right to call you deplorable, weren't we." Or: "You've honored your loathsome history long enough. We spit on your heroes and will make you recant whether you like it or not."

All but a small number of Americans see slavery as a terrible stain on their country's history. All but a small number of Americans deplore white supremacists and neo-Nazis. If you start by recognizing that, a common patriotic cause can be made for seizing this moment as a way to get past that history and unite around America's founding ideals, correctly understood. But succeeding in this calls for an effort to soften, not harden, the class and cultural divisions that got Trump elected in the first place.

The Trump presidency may be melting down. Let us hope so. But in seeking to advance this prospect, we should remember the tens of millions of votes that Americans -- many of them very fine people – gave Trump, despite knowing what they knew before last November. This surely ought to tell Democrats, no less than Republicans, something about the failure of their politics.

Mark Lilla's superb new book-length essay, "The Once and Future Liberal," would be a good thing for Democrats to read as they ponder this question. Lilla's work is an attack on the identity politics around which the Democrats have lately organized themselves -- as a coalition of single-issue movements, rather than, as their party used to be, a vehicle for American solidarity.

There can be no liberal politics without a sense of "we" -- of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals --including ones to benefit particular groups -- in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. Ours must become a civic liberalism. 

After Charlottesville, and Trump's appalling response to it, that could be a potent message -- and one, above all, that many of Trump's supporters are capable of hearing.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.