There may not be a more existential event for the United States and its democracy than the 2020 presidential election.
Donald Trump has damaged one core institution in the country after another and carelessly broken precedents and laws to further his greedy and emotional interests. The prospects of a fully unleashed Trump, empowered to do his worst by winning a second term is nearly unthinkable.
Now that America can see that Trump has been receiving cover and protection from his cronies in government (Bill Barr, Steve Mnuchin, Mitch McConnell, etc.), it seems he is indeed above the law and untouchable. Republicans in Congress have displayed that if Trump ordered the Statue of Liberty demolished, they would declare, “She had it coming, the socialist!”
So the majority of American voters coming together to defeat Trump in 2020 is of paramount importance. There are many qualified, bright and viable candidates already declared in the Democratic primary and whoever wins the nomination will have proven themselves as popular and competitive.
The question arises though, how will they run head to head against Trump? How will they deal with his vulgarities, his hateful bigotry, bald-faced (and headed) lies and fear mongering? How do they encourage voters to hold him accountable for his cruel and destructive actions in the White House while staying positive enough to inspire voters to enthusiastically support her/him?
And how the hell do you choose which of his endless list of horribles to focus on to remind voters of how truly awful a human being he is and undeserving of holding such power for four more years (or longer)?
There are many traps for conscientious candidates who run against a sociopathic demogogue who shows no hesitation to sabotage our society and abuse the powers of the presidency and its bully pulpit to win at any cost.
Considering this, what follows are some suggestions on how one might campaign against Trump without being tripped up.
How to Campaign Against Trump in 2020
What Not To Do:
1. Don’t try to mirror his crass insults and name calling (right Marco?)
No one can beat Trump at being horrible and obnoxious and losing at that game is like losing to a bigger pig in a rolling-in-muck contest…you’re covered in mess and ALSO a loser. And looking inauthentic at being a bully is doubly humiliating. Also, one can’t appear as an alternative to a hateful madman by mirroring him.
2. Don’t attack Trump voters but also don’t pander to them for their vote
Many of those supporting Trump are indeed bigots, ignorant, cult-like in their blind loyalty to him but making them the issue only pours gas on the fire of the eternal victimhood of Republicans and energizes them and the conflict-obsessed news media (even when Republicans controlled all power in DC, they still whined about being victimized by powerless Democrats). Let’s all just agree at the outset that there are more messed up people in the country than we imagined pre-2016 and instead of spending 2020 badmouthing them, we just need to beat them and take back the power from their irresponsible hands.
Additionally, don’t step on those who’ll gladly support the Dem Nominee as a way to pander to Trump voters. Don’t insult “coastal”, “socialist” or “big city” Democrats thinking it will bring Trump voters to your side. We already have a “divider” in power, we don’t need a Dem to be one too. You’ll lose far more in enthusiasm from core Dem voters than the very few Trump voters who might be able to deprogram themselves. If your stands on issues and your character aren’t enough to attract Trump voters, fragging your own voters is just fragging yourself.
3. Don’t avoid attacking Trump to appear “reasonable”
A vast majority of Americans already see Trump as a liar, as a bigot, as dividing America, as favoring the wealthy over the 99%, as a sexual abuser and adulterer, as an ally of Putin…most Americans already know that Trump is a terrible person. Hammering Trump for the reprehensible things he’s said and done is a potent and necessary aspect of running against Trump (more on this below). A presidential re-election campaign is essentially a referendum on the incumbent. Trump is the alternative to the Dem who’s running against him, painting the full picture of what Trump represents in office vs. the Dem nominee must include the contrast between both.
4. Don’t play Trump’s game of focusing on attacks, offer issues and hope
As mentioned in the paragraph above, the Dem nominee shouldn’t avoid painting Trump as the awful person he has been in office but should balance that with highlighting the policies that define how the Dem nominee will change the country for the better. As the old saying goes, never to get in the mud with a pig. You’ll get muddy, and the pig likes it.
5. Don’t take any states for granted
The 2018 election demonstrated a very important point. Democrat Beto O’Rourke almost won in Texas (considering their malfunctioning electronic voting machines and questionable vote counting, maybe he did better than we know). Democrat Stacey Abrams nearly won the office of Governor in Georgia (amid massive voter suppression). Democrat Andrew Gillum nearly won the office of Governor in Florida (more voter suppression here and legal votes weren’t even counted in the recount). Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Democrat Laura Kelly won the office of Governor in Kansas. Democrat Doug Jones won the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama.
The point is, Democrats can compete and beat Trump and Republicans in most states in the country, even some of the previously and ongoing reddest ones. A criticism of Hillary Clinton was that she took some swing states for granted and didn’t campaign in them…which turned out to barely hand Trump the electoral victory. Whatever did happen, the Dem nominee in 2020 should take nothing for granted whether it’s states that are assumed will fall in his/her column or red states that haven’t voted Dem for a while. Trump has repelled plenty of Republicans in red states and by 2020, that number could rise. Trump can’t compete in blue states but the Dem nominee could compete in red states and doing so will put increased pressure on Trump.
What To Do
1. Make a short list of Trump’s Worst Hits and repeat them
There are so many outrageous things that Trump has done in the past two yearsvand will do in the future, it may be tempting to address many of them but that plays into Trump’s hand, throwing so much madness at the public that they have no time to focus on any of them. Come up with a short list of Trump’s Worst Hits and hammer them over and over.
Trump’s defending Putin instead of America, tearing vulnerable families apart and putting toddlers in cages, calling Nazis “good people”, Trump’s lying to the American people documented in the many thousands, his lauding tyrants and dictators while insulting our allies, his conducting a criminal campaign and frequently breaking laws in office while many around him have been indicted and convicted. Trying to take health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans along with slashing Social Security, Medicare and most other social safety net programs. The tax cut for the wealthy Trump passed that plunged the nation into quickly increasing and record deficits while increasing taxes on many non-wealthy Americans.
There are so many horrible things about Trump that are left out in this list but the Dem nominee should pick the top ones they want to focus on and never let up or stray too much from that list.
2. Express a genuine vision for a post-Trump America
So much damage has been done by Trump, so much needs to be repaired by the incoming Dem President in 2020. One way to both express a positive outlook and through subtext, shine the light on Trump for his destructiveness, is for the Dem nominee to be very clear and detailed about how she/he will make things better for the country. On healthcare, building a fairer economy, being inclusive and bringing the country back together, etc. Trump will no doubt spew out plenty of vague lies about improving healthcare, building walls, making everyone millionaires, etc., the Dem nominee can best counter that blizzard of redundant lies with specific plans he/she has on the most important issues.
3. Have a positive theme/motto for your campaign that connects emotionally
Donald Trump stole Ronald Reagan’s motto, “Make America Great Again”. Hillary ran against him in 2016 on “Stronger Together”. Trump’s theme was, unfortunately, very effective because it evoked the strong emotions of the white and bigoted voters who were upset at the loss of white domination (exacerbated by seeing a black man as president) and shared the fantasy “MAGA” represented as a return to those racist times.
Hillary’s motto did not have that kind of emotional connection and was oddly aimed more at Republicans and conservative Independents. President Obama was currently in office and it was Republicans who were passionate about opposing everything he tried to do for the American people (they even opposed his use of mustard on hamburgers, wearing beige suits and inviting Common to the White House…if only he had invited Kanye!). Obama tried to work with Repubs who refused. “Stronger Together” seemed an inoffensive but generic choice that was not very resonant with Dem voters and lacked any subtext as “Make America Great Again” had successfully incorporated.
So what should the Dem nominee’s motto be in the Trump Era and running against Trump? It might be best to have inspiring words that also connect emotionally to those feeling under siege by Trump’s cruelty and spite for America’s cornerstones. As a fun example of an effective type of motto that uses more potent subtext (though this one’s not actually viable due to its source and copyright issues), is something in the vein of, “Truth, Justice and the American Way”.
Again, this may not be ideal for a non-fictional candidate who isn’t from Krypton but construction of this motto is what’s being illustrated. The quote is of course Superman’s motto, thus using subtext to associate the candidate with being a hero. It brims with optimism and determination while suggesting that the opposite is true of Trump, that he’s a liar, exhibits criminal behavior and shows loyalty to America’s adversaries instead of America and its allies. For the majority of Americans who feel under siege by Trump’s hatred and dishonesty, a resonant motto would be one that uses optimism and calls us to our higher selves…while also connecting emotionally with voters who are sick of the Trump madness.
4. Use compassion to confront Trump’s viciousness
Clearly, Trump is a one-trick pony who will once again try to exploit fear and bigotry by harping on immigration as he did in 2016 to success and 2018 to failure. The 2018 elections seemed to illustrate that voters recognize Trump is a con man, they didn’t buy into his fear mongering of “The Brown Menace”.
This provides an even better environment for the Dem nominee to respond to Trump’s demagoguery with compassion. Trump will shriek about the killers, rapists, terrorists and pod people flowing over the border to attack Americans. The Dem nom could respond instead with compassion for those children escaping horrific violence in South America, only to find themselves abruptly torn away from their parents by Trump’s intentionally cruel policies. The Dem nom could affirm that immigration needs to be fixed, that it needs to recognize both the fairness and the humanity of the situation. Protecting America from the tiny percentage of those immigrants who could pose a danger while expressing compassion for Dreamers, asylum seekers and those seeking a better life as every American’s relatives (aside from Native Americans!) did. We have everything in common with them and more in common with their children and grandchildren…who will be Americans exactly as we are. Let Trump spew his hatred, voters who already see him as a fraud will have that or a brighter picture to vote for.
5. Be a leader and stay on track
There are a variety of flavors in the Democratic Party, Progressives, Moderates, Conservatives and many variations of all of those. There are Never Bernies and Justice Democrats, there are those who demand that the candidate make Climate Change, healthcare, gun control, immigration reform and protections, infrastructure funding, racism and bigotry, wealth inequity and corruption the central and primary issue that a candidate runs on.
All of these and more are urgent and do need to be addressed. However, as with limiting the spotlight on Trump’s horribles to keep from overloading people and dispersing focus on any of them, the Dem nominee should pick the top issues that are central to her/his candidacy. The Dem could then use that focus to build a deep public discussion on those issues that in all cases, would also put Trump on the defensive and as an opponent to the views of the majority of Americans.
Political advisers, polls and the media can pull at a candidate to veer off the path they’re successfully establishing and of course, Trump’s daily media rampages are intended to let him dominate what people are talking about. That includes his political opponents. Reflecting true leadership, the Dem nominee can stick to his/her guns on what he/she sees as the imperative in the election and tag Trump’s frequent media fits as just more evidence that he is emotionally unfit to continue occupying the White House. The Dem nominee should try their best to stay above the obscene level of discourse Trump will try to pull them into.
There’s so much at stake in the upcoming 2020 elections and the playing field has changed. The Dem nominee can’t run an old school campaign against all the forces arrayed against them, especially the mercenary and anything-goes desperation that will be coming from the Trump campaign (remember, if he loses re-election, he also loses immunity from being prosecuted for crimes and imprisoned…he’s motivated to win at any cost).
Whoever the 2020 Democratic nominee for President ends up being, they need to run the smartest and most thought out campaign we’ve seen in our lifetimes. We’re counting on her/him to navigate this treacherous journey with success and anyone who wants to stand up for preserving truth, justice and the American Way in this nation, should do all they can to support that mission.