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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

September 9: Donald Trump Is No Ronald Reagan

As part of the effort to “normalize” the abnormal candidacy of Donald Trump, his running-mate Mike Pence went to the Ronald Reagan library and delivered a speech comparing his boss to the 40th president. It was a good try, but didn’t pass the smell test, as I noted at New York this week:

In Pence’s account, 2016 became 1980 redux. Now as then, a rough-hewn former entertainer mocked by the “smart set” came forward with “blunt” talk and attracted a huge movement of Republicans, independents, and particularly Democrats, determined to pare back government, rebuild the military, unleash businesses, get the oil wells pumping and the coal mines humming, and Make America Great Again.

Listening to Pence, you could almost buy the parallels, putting aside little problems like Reagan’s devotion to free trade, Trump’s odd infatuation with Russia’s dictator, Reagan’s preparation for the presidency in two terms as governor of the nation’s largest state, and most of all, the massive contrast between Trump’s dark and dystopian outlook and Reagan’s sunny optimism.

But then the Hoosier governor went too far, describing the “fundamental similarity of the two men” as being rooted in their common “honesty and toughness.” That was the first of six references to Trump’s honesty or truthfulness. Coming the morning after the mogul lied through his teeth about his original positions on the Iraq War and the military intervention in Libya, it’s amazing Pence was not struck by lightning — if not during his paeans to Trump’s honesty then during his claim that the great narcissist is a man of deep humility.

Pence follows a familiar approach in labeling Trump’s frequently hate-filled utterances as “straight talk.” This rebranding was skewered by the exasperated folks at PolitiFact, as they named his collective campaign statements the “Lie of the Year” for 2015:

“It’s the trope on Trump: He’s authentic, a straight-talker, less scripted than traditional politicians. That’s because Donald Trump doesn’t let facts slow him down. Bending the truth or being unhampered by accuracy is a strategy he has followed for years.”

If, as Pence said today, “honesty is the axis on which leadership spins,” Trump is the unlikeliest national leader you could imagine.

You don’t have to be a fan or Ronald Reagan’s legacy as president–and I am most decidedly not–to feel an impulse to defend him from this imposter.


September 8: Trump’s Scary Jacksonian Foreign Policy

At last night’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” sponsored by veterans’ groups and featuring consecutive appearances by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, moderator Matt Lauer got a lot of well-justified criticism for focusing on Clinton’s email practices and letting Trump get away with–well, not murder, but some bold-face lies. I wrote an immediate reaction for New York that took a serious look at what Trump actually said about foreign policy and national security.

Hillary Clinton spent most of her time answering hostile questions about her use of emails as secretary of state and her vote to authorize the Iraq War. She really did not need to present a national security philosophy, because she has been doing that regularly ever since her first race for the Senate in 2000. When finally allowed to escape her defensive crouch via a question about her process for deciding when to use military force to defeat ISIS, she gave a classic Democratic Goldilocks answer, eschewing too hot (ground troops) and too cold (disengagement) responses.

Donald Trump, however, is another matter. He has typically offered impulsive answers to sporadic questions about national security policy, and has occasionally — viz., his cluelessness in a primary debate about the strategic triad of air, land, and sea delivery systems for nuclear weapons — looked like someone who should be kept far from the levers of power.

In this forum, he did not sound clueless, which was a small triumph. But two strange aspects of his approach to national security became clear.

First, when challenged by moderator Matt Lauer to reconcile his talk of a “plan” for defeating ISIS with his boast that he would be “unpredictable” to confuse America’s enemies, Trump came down squarely on the side of unpredictability, criticizing Barack Obama for telling the world what he would do. The idea of a president deliberately pursuing an erratic course of action and refusing to articulate policies is certainly new.

Second, when asked about his expressions of admiration of Vladimir Putin, Trump doubled down, calling Putin a better leader than Obama and touting Putin’s domestic poll ratings as a validator of Vlad’s sterling qualities. This was cold comfort to Americans concerned that Trump might emulate his Russian friend in “uniting” his country and Making It Great Again via radical curbs on dissent and diversity.

More generally, Trump is drifting toward a truly Jacksonian national security posture, which can be described as a philosophy of peace through strength — and craziness! He has taken to calling Hillary Clinton “trigger happy” (as he did tonight), even as he calls for much higher defense spending, a larger military, and the elimination of any restraints of use of military force against civilians. The idea seems to be to maintain a credible threat of insane, massively destructive overreaction to any friend or foe who messes with Uncle Sam. This “winning through intimidation” approach helps explain why Putin is a role model for the candidate.

Even though this global, nuclear-armed version of the motto “Don’t tread on me” has been a subcurrent of American popular culture for decades, we have never had a commander-in-chief so irresponsible as to make it the touchstone of actual U.S. policy. Hillary Clinton can be accused of a lot of mistakes and misjudgments over the years, but she has never entertained the idea that America should protect its interests by inspiring sheer terror and emulating despots.

And she doesn’t lie about her support for the Iraq War, either.


September 1: Trump Kisses the Latino Vote Good-bye

It was an amazing Wednesday on the presidential campaign trail. After his strange trip to Mexico, Donald Trump gave a long-awaited definitive policy speech on immigration. And as I explained at New York, he pretty much kissed the Latino vote good-bye:

To get a proper grip on where Donald Trump has taken the Republican Party after his latest spasm of speechifying and posturing on immigration, it’s helpful to go back to the RNC’s famous 2013 “autopsy report” explaining how the GOP could avoid the fate of Mitt Romney. Romney, you may recall, very accurately described his immigration policy as “self-deportation”: Through malign neglect (including random documentation checks by local law enforcement), make life as unpleasant as possible for the undocumented and many of them will go home and take with them the message that the Land of Opportunity was closing its doors.

Here’s how the “autopsy report” described the political consequences of that attitude:

“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”

That did seem to be the case, as Romney lost the Hispanic vote — the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate — in 2012 (according to exit polls) by an astonishing 71-27 margin.

And so the logical thing to do, concluded the report, was to go back to the support for comprehensive immigration reform that was originally devised by Karl Rove as one of the keys to an enduring Republican majority — before “the base” rejected efforts by its last two pre-Romney presidential nominees (George W. Bush and John McCain) to enact it into law.

As we all know, “the base” stopped that from happening once again, and the 2016 nominee turned out to be someone who had made hostility to immigration reform — and a variety of other white ethno-nationalist themes — signature motifs of an unprecedented challenge to Establishment Republicanism.

Now that Trump has (apparently, at least; one can never rule out countless additional reformulations and “pivots” with the wiggy dude) issued his most definitive statement ever on immigration policy, it seems he’s taken Romney’s “self-deportation” position and tried to add some teeth and a snarl.

You might not realize this right away, given his rhetoric, but Trump did not actually embrace a policy of immediate deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants, apparently realizing that would involve about a gazillion dollars and the establishment of a fascist police state. His proposal to prioritize the deportation of people convicted of crimes is actually the same as the Obama administration’s.

But if he’s serious about trying to immediately deport the roughly 4 million people who have overstayed visas, that’s a pretty big departure from current practice and would require a half-gazillion dollars and moderately vicious police-state enforcement strategies. That could be just a feint, though, designed (along with a new policy of deporting any undocumented immigrant arrested — not convicted, but arrested — for a crime) to put the word out that there’s a new sheriff in town who is determined to harass and immiserate the undocumented without the insane cost and bad impressions associated with setting up star chambers and massive relocation camps and then bringing out the cattle cars headed south.

Politically, Trump is making the opposite bet posed by the “autopsy report” — not just in the sense of moving violently and permanently away from comprehensive immigration reform, but in gambling that, along with the Wall, the most hateful attitude possible toward the 11 million will satisfy “the base” without the fateful step of going all the way to immediate mass deportations, the logical end of his rhetoric.

Some “pivot,” eh?


August 31: Trump’s “Outreach to African-Americans” a Disaster

Before lurching off into a reformulation of his immigration policy and then jetting down to Mexico, Donald Trump had been focusing on an alleged outreach to African-Americans. It’s been a disaster, and I explained some of the reasons why at New York earlier this week.

There are a couple of reasons Trump’s “outreach” could be not only failing but backfiring. For one thing, he is rather conspicuously conducting it via nearly all-white campaign appearances in nearly all-white communities. Yes, he’s going to Detroit next weekend to attend services at a black church. But he’s not risking an actual speech to the congregants there; he will instead do a one-on-one interview with the church’s televangelist minister.

But just as damaging as the medium is Trump’s message itself. Its heart is familiar to those accustomed to conservative agitprop on race: Black folks are dupes for a Democratic Party that has enslaved them on a “plantation” where they give up their freedom and any chance at dignity or equality in exchange for the idle life of welfare beneficiaries. According to this revisionist theory, the modern welfare state is just a continuation of slavery and Jim Crow, with the Democratic Party serving as the continuous oppressor from antebellum days until now, and Republicans offering a continuous option of liberation via self-sufficiency and capitalism.

As Jamelle Bouie observes, the “plantation” theory may be comforting to Republicans who want to deny their party’s incorporation of white racists from 1964 on, but it’s deeply and inherently insulting to African-Americans:

“Beyond incoherent, the ideas underlying Trump’s narrative are racist, full stop. If ‘plantation’ theory is true, then black voters are the mindless drones of American politics. Nefarious Democrats gave them a taste of government, and they never abandoned the hand that fed them. White voters, by contrast, are active citizens—noble republicans in the best tradition of the founders. It’s ironic: For as much as they disdain Democrats as the real racists, it’s the proponents of plantation theory who echo the arguments and propaganda of the pro-Southern, anti-emancipation Democrats of the Civil War era. ‘The Freedman’s Bureau!’ sang one poster from the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, advocating on behalf of Hiester Clymer and his white-supremacist platform. ‘An agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man.'”

To put it another way, it’s probably not a coincidence that Trump’s view of black people as lazy freedom-despising dependents living in a hellish prison built of their own pathologies happens to coincide with that of white racists everywhere, past and present. Black people do tend to notice that.

And then, of course, there is this question of the political leader who, according to the “plantation” theory, is the chief straw boss for the Man, the great betrayer of African-Americans: Barack Obama. Bouie puts it well:

“Tens of millions of black Americans hold the president and his family in high esteem as exemplars of the black community. For them, he deserves respect regardless of your politics. And if there’s anything that defines the GOP in the present age for black voters, it’s the outsized disrespect for Obama, from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s ‘you lie’ to the birther crusade pursued so vigorously by Trump and others. Black Americans see this, and they remember.”

Observers who are mystified by Trump’s low standing among African-Americans do not seem to grasp the deeply racist subtext of birtherism: that the first African-American president must by definition be an “alien” and the product of a white-hating, “anti-colonialist” point of view, injected into the mainstream of U.S. politics by subterfuge. That first impression of Trump as a political figure was searing and enduring for voters who are intensely proud of Obama and what he represents.

So the failure of Trump’s “African-American outreach” so far is not very surprising; when you talk smack about people to their suspected despisers (conservative white voters) and then aggressively peddle a theory that reduces them to an easily duped collection of scary predators and helpless dependents, they do not respond well. The transparent nature of the whole exercise may even be apparent to its actual target: white voters who are made uneasy by the white identity politics Trump has so notably championed.

It’s unclear Trump’s support among African-Americans could have gotten much weaker. But ending his “outreach” to them is probably the best way to avoid finding out for sure.


August 25: Democrats Are on the Brink of a Historic Presidential Winning Streak

As the two major political parties struggle once again for the presidency, it’s being largely missed that Democrats are likely about to break a record of presidential election success that dates all the way back to 1828. I discussed this development and its significance at New York:

When you think of the great political coalitions of the past that were dominant for long stretches of time, you’d probably include the Democratic “New Deal” coalition, the Republican “Gilded Age” majority, and maybe the antebellum Democratic and post–Civil War Republican winning streaks. More recently, you might consider the Republican-dominated period from Nixon to Poppy Bush with its suggestion of a GOP “electoral college lock” pretty notable.

But as Ron Brownstein notes today, the contemporary Democratic Party is on the brink of exceeding them all by one key measurement. If Hillary Clinton wins this year, the Donkey Party will have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections.

There are some qualifications that must be attached to this accomplishment, of course. Most obvious, the Democratic popular-vote victory in 2000 did not lead to a Gore administration; Democrats suffered the same fate after winning the popular vote in 1876 and 1888. In three of the five most recent victories, the Democratic candidate did not win more than 50 percent of the popular vote (and the odds are pretty good that even with a comfortable decision Hillary Clinton will be a plurality winner as well). And most significant, Democratic success at the presidential level has not been accompanied by consistently strong performances down ballot, especially in midterms, where Republican landslides during Democratic presidencies (1994, 2010, 2014) are becoming pretty common.

Still, something is going on that makes the presidential-popular-vote winning streak possible, particularly when you add in the Democratic near-miss in 2004 and contrast this era with the 1980s and its three straight Republican wins by large margins. Brownstein points to a common feature of all dominant presidential coalitions: the close alignment of a party with “growing groups in the electorate.” For today’s Democrats, that means “minorities, Millennials, and whites who are college-educated, secular, or single (especially women).”

Today’s Republicans, of course, by nominating Donald Trump, have gambled everything on winning a supersize and super-energized share of the declining groups in the electorate: white folks, old folks, non-college-educated folks, self-consciously religious folks, and married folks (especially men). If that strategy fails, as appears likely at the moment, then the GOP will have the dual problem of a continuing and intensified misalignment with prevailing demographic trends, and a disappointed and angry old-white-male “base” that may be even more radicalized by the election of the first woman president following the first African-American president. It’s not a scenario that will lend itself to a quick recovery, which means the Democratic winning streak could grow even longer.

Or so Democrats hope. Karl Rove had similar visions of a permanent Republican majority in the early 2000s, but objective reality rudely interfered. That can always happen.


August 24: Clinton Could Create the Most Progressive SCOTUS Since the Warren Court

It’s not an especially novel observation to note that the future shape of the Supreme Court is at stake in this presidential election. But more specifically, the long-time control of SCOTUS by Republican nominees could be coming to an end, a possibility I examined at New York.

[T]rue domination of the Supreme Court by one party or ideology takes time, and usually consecutive presidencies of the same party. A Clinton presidency following an Obama presidency could do the trick.

That would be a really unusual opportunity for the Donkey Party, which has not had more than eight consecutive years of controlling the White House since Harry Truman left office. Republicans have had vastly better luck in securing SCOTUS nominations. Indeed, because Jimmy Carter did not have a single SCOTUS vacancy to fill, Republican presidents appointed an astonishing ten consecutive justices between 1969 and 1991. The only reason this did not produce a profoundly conservative SCOTUS era is (as any conservative, and especially Christian conservative, will tell you) that multiple Republican-appointed justices turned out to be relatively liberal on certain issues (notably abortion) or liberal altogether (e.g., John Paul Stevens and David Souter).

As Dylan Matthews explains at Vox, a second President Clinton (especially if she won a second term) would have a good shot at creating the first unambiguously liberal Court since 1971, and perhaps a 6-3 liberal majority on SCOTUS in fairly short order. Aside from stopping a conservative trend on the Court in areas ranging from campaign-finance reform to business regulation to labor law, such a development could lead to progressive constitutional landmarks unimagined for decades, such as prohibitions on mass incarceration and establishment of a truly national right to vote without state and local obstruction and harassment.

It is theoretically possible, of course, that Clinton appointments could disappoint liberals the way Nixon and Ford and Reagan appointments have disappointed conservatives. But probably not: The brouhaha over “treacherous” Republican justices has made it vastly more acceptable to vet potential nominees carefully for their past record and their judicial philosophy. There may be some doubt about what Donald Trump will do in the way of shaping the Supreme Court in a coherent manner. But Hillary Clinton’s direction in judicial appointments should be clear enough, and will probably motivate an unprecedented degree of conservative resistance in the Senate and beyond.

If we are lucky, conservative resistance to progressive SCOTUS nominees will be a worst-case scenario for Democrats.


August 8: Trump’s New Campaign Chief Freaks Out Conservatives, Too

The news that Donald Trump hired Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon to serve as his new campaign chairman, even as his fellow Republicans were begging him to “normalize” his campaign, shocked people all over the political spectrum (at least outside Breitbart’s own fever swamp!). But the most savage condemnations came not from the Left but from the Right, as I noted at New York.

Here’s conservative activist and TV commentator Erick Erickson:

Bannon coming onto the Trump campaign is just a doubling down on crazy. It means the Trump campaign has not really learned any lessons, does not really recognize its message is not a winning message, and it’s just going to go out in a blaze of conspiracy theory and bitterness.

We are now moving beyond a dumpster fire. We’re more at Chernobyl. The only thing that’ll be coming out of the Trump campaign by November are three headed rats, which is kind of fitting.

Here’s Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard:

“The campaign overhaul means that Trump is choosing to end his campaign living in the alternate reality that Breitbart creates for him on a daily basis — where everything he does is the best, where everyone who questions him is an idiot or a traitor, where big rallies portend electoral victories, where House speaker Paul Ryan is the problem with modern conservatism, where polls that find him down are fixed, where elections he loses are rigged, where immigration and trade are the nation’s most pressing issues, and where, truly, Trump alone can fix it all.

“Breitbart is the only place that is more Trumpian than Trump.”

And more succinctly, here’s conservative talk-radio host Charlie Sykes:

“Trump’s campaign has now entered the hospice phase. He knows it’s dying and he wants to surround himself with his loved ones.”

Last but not least, there is the bitter jeremiad from Ben Shapiro, a former colleague of Bannon who left Breitbart because it was becoming a “Trump Pravda”:

“Many former employees of Breitbart News are afraid of Steve Bannon. He is a vindictive, nasty figure, infamous for verbally abusing supposed friends and threatening enemies. Bannon is a smarter version of Trump: he’s an aggressive self-promoter who name-drops to heighten his profile and woo bigger names, and then uses those bigger names as stepping stools to his next destination. Trump may be his final destination. Or it may not. He will attempt to ruin anyone who impedes his unending ambition, and he will use anyone bigger than he is — for example, Donald Trump — to get where he wants to go. Bannon knows that in the game of thrones, you win or die. And he certainly doesn’t intend to die. He’ll kill everyone else before he goes.”

Now, it is true that all of the above detractors of Trump and Bannon are prominent Never Trump activists who look forward to regaining power in the GOP after a Trump defeat. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable cascade of venom involving people who once served the same political gods. And, if they are right about the hiring’s significance, they won’t have to wait long to get the old band back together with the Trumpites in full disgrace.

If they’re wrong, of course, big plates of crow will be in order. But the country as a whole will have much bigger problems.


August 17: Trump’s Offer: Give Up Your Rights For Illusory Security

When Donald Trump came out with his proposal to administer an “ideological test” for immigrants and even visitors to the United States from certain countries, he talked as though he would insist these outsiders embrace U.S. values of acceptance of LGBT people and of gender equality. I discussed the broader implications of the proposal at New York.

The strangest of many strange aspects of Donald Trump’s new, improved position on how to keep “bad” Muslims out of the United States is that this favorite of homophobes and misogynists is promising to protect LGBT folk and women from terrorists. One of his louder supporters, the anomalous gay voice of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos, wrote about this at his perch at Breitbart.com, arguing that Trump is offering LGBT Americans the only thing that matters.

“[D]ecline to bake a cake for some lesbians and you are a heinous bigot. Murder 50 fags and injure 50 more and you’re a tragic victim, probably reacting to islamophobia, whose dad will be invited to stand behind Hillary Clinton at a rally.

“There’s no diplomatic way to put it. In this historic announcement, Donald Trump has dramatically overtaken the chronically Muslim-friendly Democratic Party on gay rights…. The right is quickly realising that, thanks to the silence on Islam, it is they and not the left who are destined to safeguard women, gays, and minorities from the barbarians of the East.”

As you contemplate this argument, recall that the recently adopted platform of Donald Trump’s party denied LGBT folk any right to marry or adopt children, be guaranteed access to public accommodations and services available to everyone else, or even (in the case of minors) to resist being subjected to the inhumane hoax of “gay conversion therapy.” The GOP depends heavily on a Christian-right constituency group that more or less officially considers LGBT people an abomination to the Lord, and their claims to equality a hated “homosexual agenda.” That’s the party that would control the entire federal government and soon the Supreme Court if the 2016 general election went the way Team Trump wanted it to go. But hey, there’s a silver lining: A President Trump wouldn’t let any of that “equal rights” nonsense get in the way of keeping gay-hating Muslims — apparently, as a matter of probability, more likely than gay-hating Christians to actually kill people — out of the country. That’s the bargain Trump is asking LGBT Americans to accept: Throw away your claims to freedom and equality and I’ll protect you from being murdered, at least by Muslims.

When you think about it, that’s sort of the same bargain Trump is offering women and minorities, too: Throw away “the left’s” paltry support for mere rights and privileges in everyday life in exchange for security against Muslims.

Donald Trump is the nominee of a party that adamantly denies women reproductive rights, legislative mandates for equal pay, or anything like an Equal Rights Amendment; that won’t lift a finger to restore key elements of the Voting Rights Act; and that is fighting a scorched-earth battle to restrict voting opportunities for minorities in the name of the phantom menace of voter fraud. Trump himself has promised to create a Supreme Court that will make the spirit of Antonin Scalia the supreme law of the land. He inflames racial fears at every opportunity, and rejects any accountability for police who murder the people they are supposed to protect just as he rejects any limitations on the use of torture by military or CIA interrogators. And most of all, Donald Trump rejects small tokens of respect for women and minorities as “political correctness.”

In a broader sense, it’s the bargain Donald Trump is offering all of us: more of one thing you want in exchange for giving up freedoms you can probably do without. As my colleague Jonathan Chait recently noted, Trump provides all sorts of Americans with the age-old temptation of authoritarianism: It can protect you from certain threats quite effectively — for instance, in the case of rich people, the threat of redistribution — so long as you don’t mind giving up, or forcing other people to give up, certain rights and democratic norms.

The most maddening thing in Trump’s case is that what he offers most insistently, absolute security against terrorism, is a chimera. No one can with 100 percent assurance promise to “stop” a lone-wolf terrorist with access to high-powered weaponry and a suicide wish from taking innocent people along with him to the afterlife. As Steven Brill put it in an exhaustive analysis of post-9/11 security:

“We can’t be right 100 percent of the time. The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces have stopped between three and five dozen plots since 9/11, depending on one’s definition of a plot. [FBI Director James] Comey’s ‘well-oiled anti-terror machine’ has indeed improved our defenses. And the TSA, Customs, the air marshals, and other DHS units have undoubtedly deterred attacks. But we can’t catch everything.”

But, in a grand irony, that observation, which any homeland-security expert would quickly echo, is the most “politically incorrect” statement of them all, in the sense that politicians just cannot say it. It is the illusion that absolute security is possible that Donald Trump is exploiting — the hope that enough violence and discrimination against other people will keep Americans absolutely free of the fear of more “breaking news” of a terrorist attack.

Sadly, Donald Trump has come within site of the White House while offering this false and corrupt bargain.


August 11: Will Ticket-Splitting Make a Comeback This November?

Even as Hillary Clinton takes what looks to be a sizable lead in the presidential contest, the impact down-ballot remains unclear. I discussed the possibilities at New York earlier this week.

[T]he idea that Republicans can save their congressional majorities, even as Trump goes down to a dreadful defeat, really does depend on a degree of ticket-splitting that has become less and less common in the 21st century. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, in 1992, 11 of the 34 states holding Senate elections produced different partisan results for the upper chamber and the presidency. In 2012, despite two Democratic Senate pickups in red states where the GOP candidate basically imploded, only six states split their results.

Reasons for this trend are well-known. In a process often called “the great sorting-out,” liberal voters have increasingly associated themselves with the donkey party, while conservatives have clustered in the shadow of the elephant. This “ideological polarization” has itself reduced ticket-splitting, as there are fewer opportunities for voters to find like-minded candidates on the other side of the partisan divide. But it has also increased “partisan polarization,” whereby voters prone to support one party (as self-identified partisans, or as independent “leaners” who almost always vote like partisans) tend to view those in the other party as enemies, or even as threats to the republic.

Democrats focused on down-ballot races this year are hoping that this pattern holds in 2016 — assuming Clinton wins, of course. But Republicans think (and certainly hope) that Trump’s exotic nature — amplified by the sheer number of GOP opinion-leaders who are keeping their distance from him — will send a signal to swing voters that the genial, glad-handing Republican pol who represents them in Congress or the statehouse has nothing to do with the rude, raging beast at the top of the ticket. There’s even a belief, more speculative than empirical, that if Trump really falls apart, it could make it easier for voters to split tickets — partly because everybody’s doing it, and partly because some will want congressional Republicans to act as a counterweight and safeguard against Hillary Clinton running wild, with her radical ideas of gender equality and access to health care and child care and so on. The last time there was any clear evidence of widespread “strategic voting” of this type, however, was all the way back in 1972: Democrats picked up Senate seats despite the debacle that George McGovern suffered at the presidential level. And back then, of course, it was very easy for voters in the South and parts of the West to vote for conservative Democrats down-ballot, along with the conservative GOP presidential candidate. In Georgia, where I lived at the time, there was even a ballot line where you could vote straight-party Democratic, right after you cast your presidential vote against the communistic McGovern.

There’s really not much clear evidence of how this is going to work out either way. Even as Clinton moves ahead at the presidential level, no one is seeing signs so far of a “wave election” which might sweep not only the Senate, but possibly even the House, into the Democratic column. Some vulnerable Republican senators (e.g., Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania) seem to be running ahead of Trump in their states, but often voters make up their minds late on such contests. The best-case scenario for Democrats is probably for 2016 to be the mirror image of 1980, when a presidential-level landslide gave Republicans wins in just about every close Senate race. After the Republican victory in 2014, such an outcome would also almost certainly produce big House gains as well, if not necessarily a majority. But whatever happens, it’s clear that a lot of the talk from Republicans about Trump and Clinton is really aimed at keeping the GOP rank and file in line — for the benefit of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.


August 10: In Nasty Comment on Clinton, Trump Blows Second Amendment Dog Whistle

Donald Trump’s latest outrage involved a statement–originally called a “joke” by his supporters but now being spun as an innocent call for high turnout by gun owners–that “second amendment people” might have the only solution to a President Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations. Trump is actually drawing on an old extremist meme that’s a familiar dog whistle to second amendment ultras, as I explained at New York.

[E]ven as they condemn the shocking utterance, a lot of observers seem to be missing the fact that Trump is adapting a dangerously common right-wing claim. It’s that the most important purpose of the Second Amendment is not to allow people to defend themselves from robbers and muggers and would-be murderers and rapists if the police cannot get the job done, but rather to create a heavily armed populace prepared to undertake revolutionary violence if the government tries to impose “tyranny.” Let’s be clear about this doctrine: It lets the gun-wielders decide for themselves whether high taxes or government surveillance or Obamacare is a sufficient threat to liberty to justify getting out the shooting irons and killing the police officers and armed-services members assigned the responsibility of enforcing the “tyrannical” laws in question. And conservative politicians have often made it clear they understand and are okay with that incredible risk, as when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle referred cheerfully to “Second-Amendment remedies” for the liberal policies supported by her opponent, Harry Reid. Angle was hardly alone: During the Republican presidential primaries this cycle, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz both endorsed the idea of gun rights being a safeguard against too much Big Government liberalism. During her successful Senate campaign in 2014, rising GOP star Joni Ernst of Iowa used to happily talk about the “beautiful little Smith & Wesson” she carried with every intention of using it to defend herself and her family from “government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

The most common use of this “right to revolution” argument, however, is to threaten anyone who doesn’t bend the knee to the Second Amendment itself. So it makes even the blandest support for gun-safety legislation self-evident proof of “tyranny” justifying even more stockpiling of lethal weapons to be used against “government.”

In Hillary Clinton’s case, the “tyrannical” threat is apparently that she doesn’t approve of a 5–4 decision reached by the Supreme Court in 2008 (D.C. v. Heller) that first made the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” a personal instead of collective (i.e., in the sense of authorizing a “well-regulated militia”) constitutional right. I guess that means the four dissenting Justices were tyrants, too, and that Ronald Reagan presided over an era of government tyranny since Heller had not at that point been handed down.

Credit Donald Trump for doing us the service of taking a dubious dog-whistle argument for violence, always discussed abstractly (it’s the “government,” not cops and soldiers, much less presidents, who will become bullet-riddled when “patriots” revolt), and with his characteristic crudeness making it a joke about rubbing out his opponent. Maybe next time some conservative pol makes a similar argument for turning to the gun if politics fails, we’ll all recognize it for the thinly veiled sedition it is.

And we’ll scorn the “super-patriots” who only love the America of the distant past–or their imaginations.