I imagine you got my email address from Bret? I need a little more notice on these things with you guys. You haven’t left me a lot of time to assess your column, but I’m skipping a smoke break to get you some quick notes.
In the leftward reaches of my Twitter feed the hour is late, the end of democracy nigh, the Senate and the Supreme Court illegitimate, and every Trump provocation a potential Reichstag fire. But on the campaign trail, with some exceptions and variations, Democrats are being upbeat and talking about health care and taxes and various ambitious policy ideas, as though this is still America and not Weimar, a normal time and not a terrifying one.
I know you spend a lot of time on Twitter, Ross, but most of us don’t. Most people are not on Twitter. Only 24 percent of Americans use it, and I’m pretty sure many of them live at the same subway stop. It’s safe to say most people only see Tweets when the President tweets something that is then displayed on TV news. Since you’re on Twitter a lot I’m assuming you have also seen these tweets. By and large, they are insane. No wonder people who follow politics online are in a panic.
As for whether Democrats are upbeat, I’m not sure. You’d have to ask Democrats. A lot of coverage suggests it depends who you talk to in particular. According to PSmag, some Democratic organizers and operatives have predicted that “the Democratic Party of 2019 will resemble the Republican Party of 2015—a huge field of well-funded presidential candidates, and a party lacking any mechanism to effectively cull the field prior to the caucuses and primaries.”
But most importantly, are you sure you aren’t underestimating the effects of a Trump Presidency? Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement? Openly threatening other nuclear powers? Putting children in cages? As you are not an immigrant, a North Korean, or a Parisian climate scientist, you might not be terrified. But are you sure it’s normal?
To understand this good fortune, consider two counterfactuals.
For one thing, it’s getting a bit ahead of yourself to claim “good fortune” on behalf of the Democrats. There is literally about to be an election. You wouldn’t want to have to eat your words, like you did in 2016. Remember that? When you said, “if I’m wrong, if Hillary manages to throw the debates and the election to Donald Trump, it will be the last such take I offer for many years to come.” Promises, promises.
For another, I would caution you about “counterfactuals.” They can make for great science fiction, to be sure. But they are not really accepted by scholars as a historiographical method. Or by anyone, as a reasonable method of conducting an intelligent conversation. Causal relationships are difficult to establish even when limiting ourselves to facts. Historians frequently disagree on them, which is why we have more than one history book on any given historical event. You may not be a historian, but you want to maintain some credibility. Concocting “baby Hitler” scenarios seems somewhat beneath the dignity of the Times.
Here’s your first “what if?!” asking the reader to imagine everything is “the same” as it is now:
[…] the strongest economy since the 1990s, full employment almost nigh, ISIS defeated, no new overseas wars or major terrorist attacks — except that Donald Trump let his staffers dictate his Twitter feed, avoided the press except to tout good economic news, eschewed cruelties and insults and weird behavior around Vladimir Putin, and found a way to make his White House a no-drama zone.
In this scenario it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s approval ratings wouldn’t have floated up into the high 40s; they float up into the mid-40s as it is whenever he manages to shut up. Even with their threadbare and unpopular policy agenda, Republicans would be favored to keep the House and maintain their state-legislature advantages. All the structural impediments to a Democratic recovery would loom much larger, Trump’s re-election would be more likely than not, and his opposition would be stuck waiting for a recession to have any chance of coming back.
I guess that list is a start. But have you factored in the disaster unfolding in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the failure to extricate the military from various quagmires in the Middle East at a cost to the United States of something like $6 trillion, ballooning deficits, the rise of the alt-right, the nearly weekly mass shootings that now include an attack on a yoga studio?
It’s fair to say that there are some in the center whose political positions overlap with Trump’s, but who are uncomfortable with his vulgarity. But you seem to have embedded another claim into that one: that the electorate will credit Trump with anything that happens to be going well.
But how do you suppose people measure this, Ross? Most of us aren’t tracking the stock market, we’re trying to get by. Wages are slumping. Many Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Is it the rich getting richer that makes the economy good? Is the average working person going to support Trump because Jeff Bezos gave himself another raise?
Then consider a second counterfactual. Imagine that instead of just containing himself and behaving like a generic Republican, Trump had actually followed through on the populism that he promised in 2016, dragging his party toward the economic center and ditching the G.O.P.’s most unpopular ideas. Imagine that he followed through on Steve Bannon’s boasts about a big infrastructure bill instead of trying for Obamacare repeal; imagine that he listened to Marco Rubio and his daughter and tilted his tax cut more toward middle-class families; imagine that he spent more time bullying Silicon Valley into inshoring factory jobs than whining about Fake News; imagine that he made lower Medicare drug prices a signature issue rather than a last-minute pre-election gambit.
Ross, you and I both know that Trump said all kinds of things in 2016, and we know that anything he said any year is and/or was out of self-interest or spite, and probably a lie.
If left-wing Twitter were running Democratic strategy while Donald Trump talked about infrastructure and drug prices, 2018 might seal a conservative-populist realignment.
More importantly, I wish you would listen to your colleague, Roger Cohen, and avoid resorting to the “populism” canard. As a history of the concept in Boston Review recounts, it has been used altogether too often, in reference to too many different things, to hold much water. One of the major historians of the idea, Richard Hofstadter, presented a paper in 1967 called “Everyone is talking about populism—but no one can define it.”
Instead, the Democrats who are talking about health care while the president closes with fearmongering may know the secret of this election cycle: The same environment that’s making liberals feel desperate is, for Democrats, one of the more fortunate of possible worlds.
Are these still counterfactuals, or are we back on earth? Let’s try a “factual” for a change. There is nothing fortunate about this moment for anyone, except (maybe!) members of the Trump family, Silicon Valley billionaires, and conservative op-ed columnists.
Department of Corrections