Democrats can't afford to let former Republicans co-opt the party
It seems the awful, world-shaking reality of Donald Trump is starting to sink in. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll has disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic increasing from 58 percent in mid-June to 67 percent in early July — which matched disapproval of his handling of race relations.
The faction of so-called Never Trump Republicans has scented opportunity. Some such conservative exiles have formed a group called the Lincoln Project, which is running rude ads mocking Trump for his disastrous presidency. Many Democrats are celebrating the ads for contributing to Trump's downturn in the polls and welcoming these apostates into the party fold.
Yet should Biden win, it would be a great mistake to grant these conservatives much credit, and a greater mistake still to allow them to influence a Biden presidency. America needs better than former Republican operatives who learned about anti-racism last week.
Now, some of the Lincoln Project ads are decent enough, and they get an important truth about Trump that the Hillary Clinton campaign failed to grasp — namely, that he is an infantile narcissist who is completely incapable of handling criticism. As Alex Pareene wrote back in May 2016, Trump is "easily provoked into absurd and unpresidential tantrums when his insecurities are mocked[.]" Insofar as the Lincoln Project baits Trump into looking like a whiny toddler, it might help the Biden campaign a bit.
However, it simply must be the case that it is primarily Trump's own failures that are dragging down his poll numbers. He is presiding over a pandemic that has killed over 136,000 Americans at time of writing, and a resulting economic collapse that is worse than any since the Great Depression. Other rich countries are cautiously emerging from the pandemic, while the U.S. outbreak is only accelerating. Trump is utterly incapable of doing his job, and the result is a humiliating, world-historical catastrophe. A couple viral ads are not making much difference against this background.
Meanwhile, it seems Trump has completely misjudged the political valence of the George Floyd protests. By some counts this has been the largest protest movement in American history, but Trump has reacted as usual by digging in even further with inflammatory racist screeching. The result is a further backlash against racism and police brutality — support for Black Lives Matter has skyrocketed probably in part because Trump can't stop running his mouth.
That leads to an important side question about the political roots of Trump's original support. Jamelle Bouie at The New York Times argues that this polling reveals Trumpism is more of a luxury good — that white conservatives will indulge their racist impulses when times are good but find them unaffordable when times are bad.
But this leaves out the distinction that Trump is now an incumbent, not an outsider challenger. The great danger of a right-wing extremist movement is it will leverage economic failures to seize power, and then cement itself in place by either fixing the problems or stumbling into prosperity. That is precisely what Hitler did in Germany during the Great Depression. As I have previously argued in detail, in 2016 Trump really did rally much of the Rust Belt white working class by railing against slanted trade deals and scapegoating immigrants for their problems (and by taking advantage of the fact that wealthy Republicans are largely fine with gutter racism). But Trump has not delivered on any of his promises — on the contrary, the only significant legislation he and his party have passed is a massive tax cut for the rich, plus insufficient coronavirus rescue packages that can't obscure his failure to control the pandemic. Now that his inability to govern created an economic catastrophe, his racist ideology is being discredited rather than reinforced.
It follows that it will be critically important for a Biden administration — if it cares to keep the Democratic Party in power — to both address the growing concerns about bigotry and restore economic security. Attacking racism is plainly popular and necessary, and what's more, as Bouie rightly argues in another article, egalitarian economic policy is vital for fixing the problem of police brutality and mass incarceration. On the other hand, failing to fix the coronavirus depression (as President Obama failed to fix the Great Recession) leaves open the future possibility of a more skilled and competent demagogue following in Trump's footsteps. If unemployment and production are still in the toilet in November 2022, Biden and the Democrats will be blamed for it.
Figures in the Lincoln Project are suitable for neither of these tasks. Before their dislike of Trump got them crosswise with the conservative mainstream, they were committed Republicans who generally disliked if not hated Barack Obama, and pushed austerity and deregulation — precisely the opposite of what is needed to fix the economy. Indeed, Steve Schmidt, one of the groups co-founders, was John McCain's senior strategist for the 2008 campaign, and convinced him to pick Sarah Palin as a running mate — the most important forerunner for Trump's brand of emboldened stupidity. Stuart Stevens, an adviser for the organization, was similarly a senior strategist for Mitt Romney on the 2012 campaign, which eagerly sought and received Trump's endorsement. Others have done worse — Ben Howe, reportedly the project's video whiz, once boasted on Twitter that he would have shot Michael Brown of Ferguson himself if given the chance.
Howe now says he regrets those comments, as does Stevens, but these are still not particularly credible messengers for either economic populism or racial justice. It would be hard to produce a stronger impression of a bunch of conservative opportunists who expected Trump to lose and got routed out of their own party when he didn't, and are now rooting around for a place in the other party. If they simply want to help defeat Trump, that's fine, but if they want anything more than that, it should be earned with considerably more self-searching than has so far been in evidence.
In terms of electoral politics, Joe Biden has had the tremendous stroke of luck of his opponent turning in just about the worst presidential performance in American history. That will give him unusually wide latitude to pick who we wants aboard his political bandwagon. But if he takes power, he will have to clean up the worst mess since 1933. We have seen the horror of pre-Trump conservatism — and few more closely than Biden, because in 2009 he and Obama inherited the mess from the previous Republican disaster. A bunch of conservative washouts are far more likely to hinder than help Biden's attempts to put the country back on two legs.