A number of experts and pundits have sought to explain how Donald Trump played an unconventional game to win the General Election. Most of these experts agree that he positioned himself as the “un-candidate” who wore his political incorrectness as a badge of honor (see, for example, this Harvard Business Review post. We have a good idea why Trump won the election, but I have seen very little thinking on what the Democrats should do to win back the Senate and the White House.
It is good to know what happened, but it is even better to know so what and now what the Democrats are supposed to do.
I put my thinking turban on and came up with a few ideas. The overall theme is simple: Beat Trump at his own game by using progressive populism to combat Trump’s economic populism. Here are some steps in working towards this outcome:
1. Convert Marches to a Movement: The groundswell of emotion and passion on display at the Women’s Marches all over the United States and the world is awe-inspiring. Passion and energy are great in the moment, but they tend to dissipate unless they are channeled into a structured movement. Just as the “Tea Party” became a movement, the organizers and participants of the Marches need to create an umbrella movement that represents progressives and liberals around the country who as passionate about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights – a movement that stands for equality of gender, race and sexual orientation. This “Progressive Movement” movement needs a brand name that is simple and inspiring. Just as Trump created a new coalition of the economically disaffected that transcended party lines, there is an opportunity to create a counter-coalition of the socially and morally disaffected that also cuts across party affiliations.
2. Find Fresh Faces for the Movement: The old Democratic leadership has failed its constituents. People like Nancy Pelosi and even Chuck Schumer are out of touch with the grassroots. Bernie Sanders came closest to connecting with the Zeitgeist. The progressive movement needs a leadership with fresh faces – people seen as outsiders. A key failing of Hillary Clinton was that she was the consummate insider in Washington. The progressive movement needs young, progressive leaders who can energize the millennials and women and minorities. No experience in politics needed – in fact, no experience in politics is a plus! Wild ideas – Kamala Harris, Tom Hanks, Elon Musk, Michelle Obama, Michael Bloomberg…
3. Hold Trump Accountable: Donald Trump won the election because he won three key swing states – Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Swing state voters supported Trump because they believed he would bring back jobs and make their lives better. His message resonated with Rust Belt middle-class families who have seen their prospects dwindle and their towns crumble. It is very likely that President Trump’s policies and actions will hurt the very people who voted for him. Their health insurance may disappear or become even more expensive. They may pay more for mortgage insurance. They may pay more for everything from groceries to cars if President Trump sets off a trade war. Democrats need to monitor Trump’s performance against his promises on a very simple measure – did he improve the economic prospects of the economically disaffected? If he fails to deliver, the message must get out to those who voted for him in the swing states.
4. Win the Twitter War: The most powerful weapon in Donald Trump’s war chest is Twitter. He revels in his ability to move markets, make companies quake in their boots and make foreign heads of state panic with one Tweet. He loves the fact that he can speak “directly to his 45 million social media followers” (never mind the double counting across social media platforms!). The only way to fight against Trump’s Twittering is to use Twitter against him. The Progressive movement must activate millions of Twitter users to respond in kind to every Tweet that Trump puts out. They must create handles and hashtags that focus attention on lies, misstatements, disparagements or bullying that comes out from @RealDonaldTrump or @POTUS. You need to fight fire with fire.
5. Give Strategically to Nonprofits: Donald Trump plans to attack Planned Parenthood. He has made statements that send chills down the spines of immigrants, LGBTQs, Muslims and other minorities. He has vowed to ramp up fossil fuel production. Federal Funding for charities and non-profits that cater to women, immigrants and environmental causes is likely to be cut. To fight this, the people who believe in these causes need to vote with their wallets by donating to nonprofit organizations that champion the causes of women, minorities and the environment. Give strategically so that private donations more than make up for the loss in Federal Funding.
6. Focus on Taking the Senate Back in 2018: The Democrats have very little hope of winning back the House, with all the gerrymandering over the years to protect Republicans in Congressional districts. However, the Senate is within their reach. Democrats need to chart a course for a Senate majority in 2018. They need to identify key seats that they need to win and the key seats that they need to defend. If the Senate reverts to the Democrats, much of Trump’s unpalatable agenda will stall, just as the Republicans pushed back on President Obama for 8 years.
We are in for a turbulent period in the United States as we eagerly await the metamorphosis of Candidate Trump into President Trump. For the sake of the country and the people who voted for him, I hope that President Trump keeps his impulsiveness and his ego in check and tries to become a President for all Americans. However, the chances of this happening are slim. If the worst happens, the Progressive Movement needs to rise to take America back. The ideas I have shared are admittedly half-baked – a lot of thinking is required to convert these ideas into action. While the actions may take time, the debate needs to start now.