Veteran courtroom lawyers know that to win over a jury, you need to tell a simple, vivid story shorn of troublesome details. The same approach may be necessary to win over the electorate that serves as judge, jury and executioner in the realm of politics.
If that’s the case, then Donald Trump will be a happy man this week. A vulgar, ignorant scoundrel he may be, yet he got himself elected and, judging from the noisy army of Democrats who “debated” last week on TV, he’s got a good chance of doing so again. A big reason — one that his detractors, in their blinding fury, tend to miss — is that he has a clear, simple story to tell about some of the issues most important to voters.
First, there’s the booming economy, goosed by cheap money and tax cuts. The stock market is forging record highs while unemployment is shockingly low, given the near absence of inflation, and practically anyone who can fog a mirror can get a job. Ever since Herbert Hoover, of course, presidents have accrued blame for a bad economy and credit for a good one, whether or not their policies were responsible. Why should Trump be any different?
The Democrats will not have an easy time against Trump, who will be a formidable opponent absent some catastrophe that reveals his unfitness in starker terms.
Second, there’s China. Ever since the gradual normalization of trade relations, the consensus across the political establishment has been that trade with China was a constructive way to constrain and influence a rising power, and good for Americans too. Then Donald Trump came along and said, in effect, fuhgeddaboutit. His approach is ham-handed and probably ineffective, but he tapped into the feelings of many ordinary Americans, who for years took a much dimmer view of the trade relationship than had their elites. Almost single-handedly, Trump has changed the narrative, leaving Democrats with the unhappy choice of calling for a return to the status quo ante, or agreeing with him.
Third, and perhaps most important, is immigration. A significant proportion of voters, for a long time now, has been unhappy about one aspect or another of the American immigration picture. Whatever those voters’ objections, they remind us that, in a democracy, leaders ignore important segments of the electorate at their peril. Democrats, meanwhile, have pivoted toward ever more welcoming policies, including healthcare for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Trump’s simple-minded emphasis on a wall and even his callous indifference to immigrant children have said loudly to the swing voters who will decide the election that, on this issue too, he has gotten the message.
Let’s be clear. Trump has focused on three areas of importance to voters, and mismanaged all three. On the economic front, soaring deficits in good times will make remediation much harder when things go bad, as they inevitably will. His record on trade is even worse: Despite the president’s sound and fury, which he manifested without bothering to recruit our economic and military allies, the United States’ trade gap with China reached a record $419.2 billion last year. As to immigrants, a tight job market and low birthrates will only increase our country’s allure — and its need for new workers from abroad.
But in all three cases, what many voters will notice is a president trying to tackle the issues that matter to them.
And what of the character issue? The Mueller investigation, however disturbing its revelations, didn’t amount to much if you are a voter who hasn’t made a career of parsing its details. Nor is the issue of Trump’s treatment of women likely to get much traction. Bill Clinton, once much beloved, has lost considerable luster in light of #MeToo, as have other prominent male Democrats, some of whom were well known for their pious public support of women’s causes. Perhaps many voters have concluded that all rich and powerful men act more or less like Donald Trump. Are there any Democrats prepared to say they are wrong?
The Democrats, in short, will not have an easy time against Trump, who will be a formidable opponent absent some catastrophe that reveals his unfitness in starker terms. He’s signaled clearly to the electorate that he’s on the case in the three main realms in which the political class has most egregiously failed them. His antagonists, meanwhile, whose great hope may be an emphasis on healthcare, are trapped in a tragic game of woke one-upmanship that will make it all the more difficult to oust him when the whole country wakes up to vote on Election Day 2020.
Daniel Akst, a former columnist and editor at The Times, is a writer in New York’s Hudson Valley.