State of the Union Should Put Dems on Notice

Nancy Pelosi rips apart Trump's State of the Union address

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping apart Trump’s State of the Union speech provided some mild catharsis for Democrats and much of the county. However, Democrats and progressives should take little comfort from last night’s speech. If anything, it should sound the warning that defeating Trump in this year’s presidential election is not going to be a cakewalk.

The good people at MSNBC and other media outlets made much of Trump’s warnings of a “socialist takeover of our health care system,” clearly aimed at Bernie Sanders the other “132 lawmakers in this room who endorsed legislation” for Medicare for All. That breathed new life into the likes of MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews who just two days earlier said that socialism will never catch on in America because it “takes too many meetings.” But, he warned, that the Iowa Caucuses are essentially meetings and since socialists love meetings, Bernie will do well in Iowa. Matthew’s fanciful analysis about socialists and meetings secured his seat on MSNBC’s post-State of the Union panel. 

As reported in The Daily Beast, Matthew’s “gushed” over Trump’s speech:

“I think people will like the speech tonight,” Matthews added. “I think regular people, they’ll see the schmaltz, the corniness, they’ll see it—but they’ll like it! It’s all good stuff, whatever purpose it had.”

From Matthew’s perspective, Trump was setting his sites on Bernie Sanders and Matthews wanted to warn all Democrats to steer clear of Sanders if they wanted to win. 

“I’m telling you, Trump set up the fight and he laid down the gauntlet tonight about him and Bernie,” the veteran MSNBC personality declared. “It’s as if he was following Bernie won the popular vote in Iowa yesterday.”

“There he is going after Guaidó, going after socialism, tying all socialism to the kind we really don’t like, the tyrannical socialism of the Latin Americans like Castro,” he continued. “I thought that was interesting. Pelosi stood up and applauded that. She knew where this country stands. We don’t like those leaders. And Bernie does. And that’s a problem for him.”

Matthews is so stuck in the historical and ideological framework of the Cold War that I was expecting him to jump out of his seat and yell, “Wolverines!” 

The problem with Matthews’s critique is that it entirely misses the real threat contained in Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump’s red-baiting is, indeed, bait. But it’s bait for the likes of Matthews and other establishment Democrats. There was Trump scaring the already scared establishment Democrats that they will lose the election if Bernie (or, without having to say it, Warren) gets the nomination. And, like good little critters, they took the bait. 

For that to be one of your main takeaways from Trump’s speech, you have to be primed to overreact exponentially to any politics left of Rahm Emanuel. Yes, Trump attacked Bernie and progressives. Surprised? But the primary target of Trump’s speech was establishment Democrats. Trump’s campaign is still operating on the assumption that they will be running against a standard centrist Democrat like Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or, if the pundits get their way, Mike Bloomberg. 

Trump’s State of the Union showed us that his campaign is dusting off its strategy from 2016. But this time around, the campaign is more organized. It’s basically a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, the campaign leads with racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and militaristic patriotism. That’s all the stuff that turns the stomachs of liberals and most Americans. However, it is the red meat that keeps his White, right-wing base fired up. 

On the other hand, that campaign tacks rhetorically to the left of centrist Democrats when it comes to economics and trade. Let me underscore rhetorically here. It’s hard to argue that anything that Trump has done since he’s been in office as been for the benefit of the working class or the middle class. And the fact that he was completely silent last night on climate change only underscores how his administration has literally stepped on the gas pedal toward climate disaster. 

Nonetheless, thanks in part to Nancy Pelosi and AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, Trump is able to say, honestly, that he made good one of his main campaign promises – the renegotiation of NAFTA. As he said at the signing ceremony for the USMCA (the new NAFTA)

“America’s great USMCA Trade Bill is looking good. It will be the best and most important trade deal ever made by the USA. Good for everybody – Farmers, Manufacturers, Energy, Unions – tremendous support,” Trump tweeted. “Importantly, we will finally end our Country’s worst Trade Deal, NAFTA!”

It wasn’t that long ago that journalists from across the country were flocking to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania trying to decipher how it was possible that Trump won the 2016 election. We should remember that Bernie Sanders won both the 2016 Democratic primaries in both Michigan and Wisconsin in large part because of his anti-NAFTA, pro-union, working-class politics. The fact is, centrist, corporate Democrats have been the primary proponents of global trade deals which have had disastrous effects on many working-class communities. Centrist, corporate Dems have also been the faction that beats up its base – especially unions, young people, feminists, and African-Americans – in order to look “strong” and “independent” to moderate, right-leaning voters. That has left a gaping hole – at least rhetorically – for someone like Trump to give just enough lip service to the concerns of traditional Democratic Party constituencies to impact an election. 

No, I am not suggesting that Trump will convince Democrats and independents to the left of someone like Biden to vote for him. Rather, I believe that the second prong of the Trump campaign strategy is designed to suppress the vote of traditional Democratic party constituents by injecting the poison of cynicism. 

You might recall some of the reporting about a group of people that may have helped Trump win in key states because they didn’t come out and vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. No, I am not talking about the “Bernie Bros.” I’m talking about African-Americans and poor and working-class urban residents. In a rather devastating report in the New York Times about two weeks after the 2016 election, reporters found that a significant number of people in traditional Democratic Party strongholds simply didn’t show up to vote. Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise spoke to many residents in poor and working-class communities in Milwaukee and found “Obama’s elections infused many here with a feeling of connection to national politics they had never before experienced. But their lives have not gotten appreciably better, and sourness has set in.” That anecdotal evidence was born out in the numbers. As Tavernise reported,

Wisconsin, a state that Hillary Clinton had assumed she would win, historically boasts one of the nation’s highest rates of voter participation; this year’s 68.3 percent turnout was the fifth best among the 50 states. But by local standards, it was a disappointment, the lowest turnout in 16 years. And those no-shows were important. Mr. Trump won the state by just 27,000 voters.

Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods offer one explanation for the turnout figures. Of the city’s 15 council districts, the decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 in the five poorest was consistently much greater than the drop seen in more prosperous areas — accounting for half of the overall decline in turnout citywide.

The biggest drop was here in District 15, a stretch of fading wooden homes, sandwich shops and fast-food restaurants that is 84 percent black. In this district, voter turnout declined by 19.5 percent from 2012 figures, according to Neil Albrecht, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission. It is home to some of Milwaukee’s poorest residents and, according to a 2016 documentary, “Milwaukee 53206,” has one of the nation’s highest per-capita incarceration rates.

 
The point is a simple one. Last night’s State of the Union address was a classic Trump move. He’s showing us all exactly how he’s going to play his campaign. When I say “he’s showing us,” I’m really talking about the people behind the scenes like Stephen Miller who are the only strategists Trump keeps around (I mean, clearly, Trump didn’t write his speech). But, make no mistakes about it, Trump revealed for all to see that is he going to run a campaign that doubles down on what his base love about him – his racism, his mob persona, his hatred of immigrants…we all know the list by now. But he also showed us that he’s going to make a rhetorical play to speak to the sourness of those who have felt taken for granted by the Democratic Party as it became more corporate-friendly and cozied up to the professional class over the past three decades. The goal of Trump’s nod to those taken for granted is not to try to win their vote. The goal is to deepen that sourness so that enough of them check out. 
 
Writing in Politico earlier today, John Harris also noted this aspect of Trump’s State of the Union. Yes, “Steak tartare a la right wing was on the menu,” with “pledges to defend gun rights and fight abortion rights with a national ban on late-term abortions, repeated denunciations of ‘illegal aliens,’ vows to ‘never let socialism destroy American health care’.” But that second prong was right there. Harris wrote, 
the speech was also replete with rhetorical outreaches designed to expand the coalition of Trump voters in this reelection year. He talked about what he has done to reduce poverty and unemployment for African-Americans and women. He sounded like any Democrat when he said, “We will always protect your Social Security and we will always protect your Medicare. Always.” He talked of increased funding for Alzheimer’s care. The denunciation of abortion was preceded by an appeal for $50 billion for neonatal research. 
Again, I think Trump could care less about “expand[ing] the coalition of Trump voters.” The goal is to convince potential Democratic voters that it’s not worth it – that they might as well stay home because it won’t make a difference.
 
Trump’s strategy can only work, however, if the Democratic establishment bites hard on Trump’s red-baiting of Bernie Sanders, Medicare for All, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and the surging progressive wing of the Democratic party. If the Democratic Party reacts to Trump by tacking further to the Right, Trump wins. It’s the same play he made in 2016, but now he’s got an organization and a load of money behind him.
 
After the debacle in Iowa and the very public courtship of Mike Bloomberg, I can’t say that I am all that confident that the Democratic establishment is capable of not repeating the same mistakes they made in 2016. Democratic Party leaders should have had the words of W. B. Yeats echoing in their heads, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Instead, they seem to be contemplating a remake of Groundhog Day. 
 
The good news, of course, is that Trump’s election mobilized millions of people – especially progressive people – to get involved with politics for the first time. We’re heading to the 2020 election riding on the waves made by the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, DSA, and the truly inspirational organizing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. But if the Democratic Party leadership sees these massive grassroots organizing efforts as a threatening Red Wave instead of the organic power of a massive Blue Wave, I fear that we have to live the last three years all over again.
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About Editor, Raging Chicken Press 477 Articles
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.