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Democrats Make a Critical Mistake in Letting the GOP Distance Itself from Trump

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One of the key mistakes of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic establishment during the 2016 race was to attempt a divide and conquer strategy on the Republican base.

They pushed the narrative that Trump is somehow categorically different from the “standard” Republican (e.g. Jeb Bush), under the belief that they could shave off Republican votes in purple states. Obviously, this strategy was completely unsuccessful, but it appears that the Democrats have not learned their lesson and are attempting this strategy again.

During the campaign, Hillary touted support from establishment and elite Republicans (e.g. Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell) in order to bolster her case that Trump isn’t a “real” representative of right wing values. She made the entire race into a personality contest rather than one focused on policy (a recent study indicates that her TV advertisements had the lowest policy content in history) and invited Republicans to draw personality distinctions between themselves and Trump, without any regard to whether they agreed with him on policy.

This narrative that Trump is worse than the rest of the GOP is simply incorrect—he shares essentially all of the core policy positions of the GOP base, but simply lacks the intelligence or willpower to cloak his policies in more palatable rhetoric; he uses a megaphone and a fog-horn to declare his extremist policy agenda while the GOP establishment prefers to sell the same toxic agenda with a dog-whistle and a wink.

Trump is in absolute lockstep with the GOP on issues of taxation (cuts for the rich), austerity (bootstraps for the poor), war (massive increases in military spending), immigration (reactionary xenophobia), and privatization/profitization (every function of government that doesn’t involve bombing or arresting a person with a darker skin tone). The only appreciable issue where Trump breaks from the right wing orthodoxy is trade, and I have serious doubts that he will keep his word on this issue in the long term.  

Unfortunately, the Democratic establishment doesn’t appear to have learned its lesson from Hillary’s 2016 loss and has begun to utilize the same strategy against President Trump’s administration. They are inviting Republicans to break with Trump and declare him apart from the rest of the GOP, oftentimes using his lack of hostility with Russia as a wedge, no matter how reprehensible the Republicans in question are. Democrats are finding common ground with anti-Trump Republicans like Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and even George W. Bush, with no introspection or concern about who they are legitimizing.

Letting—even inviting—Republicans to declare their separation from Trump on rhetoric and delivery in order to marginalize him politically gives the rest of the Republican Party the perfect insulation from criticism for when they implement their longstanding agenda.

If this is allowed, Republicans can push their agenda through and slap Trump’s name on it, turning him into a scapegoat for the chaos and pain that ensues. Come election time, the Republicans who voted for Trump’s agenda, while distancing themselves from him rhetorically, will be able to call upon quotes from their Democratic opposition to bolster their case that Trump isn’t a “real” Republican and that they shouldn’t be tarred by his failures.

A secondary problem with this strategy is that it helps normalize any Republican who is able to speak even slightly less radically than Trump. The perfect example of this is Mike Pence, who is now considered by many Democratic leaders to be the more “moderate” person in the White House. This “moderate” title is completely unearned and not based upon policy.

In fact, I see no evidence which indicates that Pence would implement policies even slightly different than Trump, other than the fact that Pence would almost certainly have approved the TPP.

If a Republican wants to take a principled stand against Trump on policy grounds, Democrats should support them doing so (e.g. Republicans who don’t want the Medicaid expansion in the ACA scrapped), but they cannot let Republicans distance themselves from Trump rhetorically if they agree with him on policy. The Republicans must be forced to own their agenda rather than pawn it off on Trump and blame him for its inevitable failure.

Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird