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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats Must Deal With Trump Fatigue

A 2024 dilemma for Democrats occurred to me this week so I wrote about how to deal with it at New York:

Joe Biden’s campaign is facing a strategic dilemma. Since the president’s job-approval ratings have been consistently low, his path to reelection depends on making 2024 a comparative choice between himself and Donald Trump, his scary, extremist predecessor. That task is becoming more urgent as evidence emerges that a sizable number of voters either don’t remember or misremember the four turbulent years of the Trump administration. But paradoxically, educating voters about the potential consequences of a Biden defeat could annoy and alienate them by pushing Trump fatigue to new heights.

This is clearly a risk Team Biden will have to take to some degree. A host of data shows that a crucial slice of the electorate has relatively sunny memories of the Trump years and a vague understanding of the extremist agenda his allies are putting together for a second term. And worse yet, as Russell Berman explains in The Atlantic, the youngest voters, on whom Democrats are relying for a big 2024 advantage, know little about Trump at all and view him mostly as an entertainer:

“In polling conducted by Blueprint, a Democratic data firm, fewer than half of registered voters under 30 said they had heard some of Trump’s most incendiary quotes, such as when he said there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, or when he told members of the Proud Boys, the far-right militia group, to ‘stand back and stand by’ during a 2020 debate. Just 42 percent of respondents were aware that, during his 2016 campaign, Trump called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’

“The youngest voters know Trump more as a ribald commentator than as a political leader. Santiago Mayer, the 22-year-old founder of the Gen Z group Voters of Tomorrow, which has endorsed Biden, told me that his 18-year-old brother and his friends see Trump as more funny than threatening. ‘They don’t know much about Donald Trump’s agenda, and Donald Trump is an entertaining character,’ Mayer said. ‘They are gravitating toward him not because of their political beliefs but out of sheer curiosity.’”

It is urgently important that Democrats find ways to depict this cartoon villain as more villainous than comic. But that will necessarily mean reciting the countless things Trump has said and done that other voters are abundantly tired of hearing about for the umpteenth time. Biden attacking Trump and then Trump hitting back over and over will feed Americans’ universal unhappiness with the 2024 rematch. Pervasive voter discontent inherently favors the challenger against the incumbent in any election.

Perhaps the way for Democrats to thread the needle is to make Trump appear not just scary but also predictably wedded to the worst aspects of his party. That includes hostility to cherished safety-net programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; a deep-seated attachment to the interests of the wealthiest Americans; an unsavory affection for uniformed violence at home and abroad; and a grim, relentless, half-century-long crusade to take away women’s rights, including the right to choose abortion and contraception. The basic idea is to change perceptions of Trump the amusing and irreverent outsider to Trump the salesman for deeply unpopular policies and practices. More subtly, the message to both persuadable undecideds and unenthusiastic Democrats would be that the only way to end the long-playing saga of Trump-dominated politics is to forcefully retire the former president and warn his party that they must move in a different direction. Conversely, putting him back in the White House will perpetuate Trump Fatigue indefinitely.

It’s counterintuitive, to be sure, for the party of a presidential incumbent to implicitly ask voters, Had enough? But in an election Biden can win only by making it about his opponent, he’s lucky that in Trump he faces a challenger who is so eager to become the center of attention.

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