Reflections as we go into the fight of a lifetime

If there was ever any doubt that Donald Trump would be willing to go deeper and further into racism, bigotry, and division to cement his base of support and stay in power, the events of mid-2019 have safely laid those doubts to rest. Trump’s ‘go back’ to your ‘crime-infested’ countries slurs to four Democratic Congress members of color confirm his intention to sow racial and other divisions as a conscious strategy to repeat his 2016 election victory in 2020.

To say that the elections of 2020 are a fight to maintain democracy, protect human rights, and defend basic civil liberties in America is far from hyperbole. The damage done by Trump and his enablers in two and a half years—from the daily cruelties on the border to the attack on voting rights and the ripping up of international agreements on climate change and nuclear weapons—demonstrates graphically the enormous damage that the Trump administration, emboldened by the popular mandate of an election victory, would do if he wins in 2020. And it very much can happen. 

So, what is to be done? What approach should Americans committed to protecting and advancing democracy, human rights and basic fairness take in the fifteen months leading to the November 2020 elections? While not wedded to a particular candidate or specific political program or plan, I share here some elements that I believe are key to maximizing our chance of continuing to live in a democracy, rather than under an autocratic demagogue in the years ahead. 

Any vision of a potential future and strategies to arrive there has to begin with a sober and rigorous assessment of the truth of where we are. The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned and died in Mussolini’s jails, called for ‘pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.’ We need to be rigorously honest in our assessment of the way things are—and then move forward with courage and hope to create a more just and compassionate world. 

Living 2,500 years ago—and focused primarily on an inner path to freedom—the Buddha encouraged his followers to take refuge in the truth. If we are to free ourselves from the suffering that arises from ignorance, greed, and hatred, we need to start where we are. Bringing awareness to the truth, right here, right now—in our individual and collective lives—is the starting point to free ourselves from suffering. So, what are the key elements bearing on the struggle ahead in the coming year and a half?

Currently, thoughtful analysts (think, Nate Silver) and unsentimental betting markets give Trump a close-to-even chance of winning again in 2020. It’s very early days and the Democratic field needs to winnow out before we have a clearer sense of who his opponent will be, but he is in a much more solid place this time around compared to 2016. 

  • The economy—normally a strong indicator of an incumbent’s prospect of re-election—is growing at around 3 percent and consumer confidence levels are relatively high. Trump now owns the Republican Party—no party leaders are willing to criticize him for fear he will launch a movement to unseat them, and the prospect of a strong Republican challenger appears dim. Trump’s campaign is awash with money—raising $108 million in the second quarter of 2019. And his prediction that if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue his base—perhaps a third of the population—would continue to support him, has been borne out as one of his truer utterances in recent years. 

  • But his strong upsides are matched by equally strong downsides: His overall approval ratings have rarely risen above 45 percent and more than 50 percent say they don’t plan to vote for him in 2020. In recent polls pitting Trump against potential Democratic Party candidates, Trump runs behind all the leading Democrats by varying degrees. The Democrats showed in the 2018 Congressional elections that they can win by mobilizing a broad base of support—young voters, people of color, suburban women, the college-educated—around a campaign focused on issues close to people’s daily lives (health care, pocket book issues, a living wage, student loans, etc.) And there is always the possibility—attested to by Trump’s desperate efforts to keep his finances and personal history out of public view—that something truly egregious will come out that might dent his already narrow base of support. But history to date would counsel us not to take this to the bank… 

So, two things appear true right now: 1) the race is currently a wash and any assumption that Trump’s poll numbers will inevitably lead to his defeat is Pollyanna-ish; and 2) Trump is committed to waging a campaign similar to 2016—emphasizing and increasing divisions based on race, ideology, sexual orientation, gender identity and other ‘cultural’ issues—essentially a white nationalist campaign in all but name. The effect this will have is to solidify his base through a campaign that emphasizes ‘fear of the other’ while lowering his ceiling of potential voters—turning away those who find repugnant his attacks based on racism and bigotry. It is a campaign that Democrats with a small and a big ‘d’ can win but equally can lose. If you accept this as a broad-brush assessment of where we are, what is the best way forward to ensure that Trump is a one-term president—and where we can begin in earnest to mend the damage he has done and address the national and global issues that affect every human on the planet?

Here are some broad conclusions about vision and strategy for the 2020 elections:

  1. Be ambitious but not ‘risky’: People are currently open to arguments and programs based on fairness—for example, that the very rich have gained almost all the benefits of growth in recent decades while the majority have stagnated—and everyone having a fair shake and getting a living wage. But if plans come across as ‘nice in principle but how are you going to make it happen in practice?’ they will be open to being painted as risky and ‘socialist’. (These names will be applied whatever the programs and I’m not suggesting that we should be afraid of name-calling, only that we not give hostages to fortune by proposing plans and programs that strike the average winnable voter as risky and pie-in-the-sky…)

  2. Fight for every winnable vote: The 2018 House Democratic strategy provides a template for 2020—pocket-book issues, fairness, Trump and Republicans as interested only in the interests of the very wealthy—supplemented by stressing how outside of the norm of U.S. presidents (and democracy) Trump is—his love of autocrats, attacks on the rule of law, racism and other bigotry... The natural base of the Democratic Party—people of color, youth, a majority of women, blue collar voters, liberals/progressives of all generations—need to feel they have something worth voting for that is not just more of the pre-Trump status quo—thus, an ambitious and progressive program. At the same time, to win suburban women, win back Obama-Trump voters, and get the support of independents and erstwhile-Republicans-appalled-by-Trump, the Democratic candidate’s policies need to be well thought out and not over-ambitious. So, on health care, for example, much as I would like to see a Canadian or UK health care system, yesterday, I believe a winning approach would guarantee coverage for all but build on existing health plans—if people want to keep them—with a public option that can move towards ‘Medicare for all’ as the public option proves a better alternative over time. 

  3. A ‘safe pair of hands’: The reason Joe Biden has been doing so well in the polls—at least prior to the first debate—is that, as well as being a loyal partner to President Obama, he is seen by many of those desperate to get rid of Trump as a ‘safe pair of hands’. To continue with the anatomical metaphors, however, he also seems to have feet of clay and a mouth with a mind of its own. The campaign ahead will tell if he can rebound and inspire those looking for more than the pre-Trump status quo while presenting his four decades of political experience as exactly what is needed to stabilize the country after the roller-coaster ride of the previous four years. (I’m not betting on this happening, but like many others would vote for Joe in a heartbeat if he ends up being the candidate.) Whoever the Democratic candidates for president and vice-president are, they need to present themselves as reliable, trustworthy and not risky—Trump is the loosest of cannons, but his strategy will be to present his opponent as an even looser cannon. Two loose cannons and Trump wins re-election. 

  4. Steer clear of ‘Impeachment Now!’: I believe that pushing for impeachment now is not a winning strategy—much though Trump deserves impeachment more than any president in history. The strategy currently being adopted by Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership is I believe a wise one: Continue to carry out investigations of Trump through House committees, marshal the evidence to convince those beyond the already-converted, and, if Trump’s stonewalling prevents that process moving forward, move to impeachment as a last resort. As long as impeachment can be painted as a purely partisan issue—Democrats are just out to get Trump, annul the result of the last election, etc.—then the downside—Trump mobilizing his base, independents remaining unconvinced of the need for or timing of impeachment—will outweigh the benefits and even strengthen Trump in 2020. This is a fluid and changing situation, so impeachment may soon be the wisest—and perhaps only, option—but I don’t think we are there yet.

  5. A campaign based on inclusivity, compassion, honesty, and a vision of what America can be: As Trump prepares to run what may be one of the dirtiest campaigns in U.S. history, the Democrats and their candidates need to put values front and center—caring for each other; a system that gives everyone a fair shake; being a nation of immigrants; a society where, with all its troubling past, the arc of history is always moving towards justice, towards the best of what America can be. And, at a time when lies have become the coin of the realm for this president, a rigorous commitment to telling the truth to the American people is crucial. Nothing will distinguish a candidate more from Trump than telling people the truth. 

  6. Mobilize as though our lives—and those of our children and grandchildren—depended on it: Because they do. We all hope that the strongest of the two dozen or so contenders—with values and policies close to our own—comes out of the primaries as the Democratic presidential candidate. But we also know that just about any sentient human would be an improvement on Trump and less of a threat to democracy and human rights in America and around the world. So, we must commit to mobilizing wholeheartedly for whoever the candidate is—voting, getting out the vote, protesting, defending the most vulnerable, donating, and a hundred other ways—because the future of this two hundred plus year experiment in democracy is truly hanging in the balance.  

Finally, the key to lasting change—that is more than ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’—will be to bring together the ancient and proven ‘inner’ practices of mindful awareness, compassion, loving-kindness, and equanimity with visions and strategies of social change developed over centuries by labor, civil rights, women’s, LGBTQIA, environmental, religious, and other movements and groups that have worked courageously for social justice, equality and peace. Then, as Teilhard de Chardin said, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Hugh Byrne teaches mindfulness meditation in the U.S. and internationally. He worked in the field of human rights and social justice for more than two decades and has a law degree from London University and a doctorate in political science from UCLA. 

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Hugh Byrne