No matter what Mueller may eventually reveal, Democrats are not primed to build a lasting advantage.
The investigation into Donald Trump's alleged dealings with Russia presents the Democrats with their best chance in a half-century to become the natural party of government. The unfolding story hands them a rare opportunity to erase the Republicans’ perceived edge on patriotism and national security. It empowers them to take back the flag on behalf of all Americans. It carves a channel to voters who treasure their country’s security, global standing, and democratic institutions but who do not find traditional liberal appeals compelling. It primes some centrists and traditional conservatives to desert the party of Trump for a generation -- if only the liberal party could speak their language.
But it cannot.
The Democrats eloquently speak the language of compassion, but they refrain from the patois of national interests and honor. If their foes’ actions are cowardly rather than callous, or disloyal rather than barbarous, liberals lack the vocabulary to assail them.
Idiom reflects political instincts, and threats to national institutions and interests do not evoke the gut loathing among liberals that social injustice does. Jonathan Haidt and colleagues provide insight. (See here, here, here, and here.) They outline five “moral foundations of politics.” While their labels have evolved, they may be summarized as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt and company find that only the first two (care and fairness) strongly resonate with contemporary liberals. Their moral foundations are more “human” and universal, while conservatives’ affinities for the other three categories (loyalty, authority, sanctity) incline them toward particularistic allegiances, including nationalism.
Trump/Russia is thus not a natural issue for liberals. Running on mercy and social justice while ceding national defense and the flag to the Republicans is ingrained in the Democrats’ post-LBJ muscle memory. When Democrats focus on foreign affairs, they usually aim to wind down wars rather than confront foreign foes. This approach appears consistently, from George McGovern’s 1972 pledge to bring our boys home from Vietnam to Barack Obama’s 2008 plan to withdraw from George W. Bush’s wars.
Since Vietnam, liberals have also lost their taste for running on love of country. The Republicans have wrapped themselves in the flag for so long that some progressives have come to identify it with imperial bullying, electoral blustering, and even ethnic bigotry.
Since Trump/Russia is less about care and fairness than it is about betrayal, subversion, and degradation, progressives are less likely to feel it than they are to feel tax-code rips-offs by the rich. Trump/Russia is also more of an assault on the country as a whole than on vulnerable groups in society. Liberals indeed detest Putin because they see him as supporting Trump, and some know that the Russian president espouses homophobia. But they hardly know how to talk about the penetration, subversion, and degradation of America’s institutions, national security, and honor by a foreign enemy and its domestic abettors.
Forceful truth-telling on Trump’s Russia ties comes hard to liberals, most of whom shrink from even calling Putin an enemy. Their discourse leaves them rhetorically unprepared to confront tyrants who beset American institutions, values, and security.
What Would JFK Say?
Liberals used to know how to speak this language. America’s mid-20th Century progressive patriotic patriarchs would take on Putin and Trump as a national security imperative as well as a political no-brainer. Associating nativism with national betrayal in rhetoric and in policy would come naturally to them. While FDR invented Social Security, he smashed fascism. While Harry Truman shored up New Deal reforms, he forged NATO. While JFK enforced desegregation, he stared down Nikita Khrushchev. While LBJ ensured voting rights and created Medicare, he fought the expansion of Soviet influence. These leaders treated the fight against tyranny and inequality as a unified liberal project. Their language conveyed a compelling narrative of progressive patriotism that current liberals lack -- one that would resonate in the time of Trump/Russia at least as strongly as it did in the mid-20th Century.
Kennedy habitually tied foreign and domestic threats together, often in the same breath. The parlance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity came as easily to him as the language of fairness and care. In his inaugural address he spoke of “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” as “the common enemy of man.” On the campaign trail he inveighed against “the spread of Communist influence, until it festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power, the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.”
Security and honor are tied in these words to compassion. Defeating the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of communism went hand-in-hand. In touting his program of aid for Latin America, the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy pledged “to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty” while warning “hostile powers” that the United States would “oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas.”
Khrushchev drew Kennedy’s admonitions by merely threatening to subvert the election of free governments in Latin America. Putin has already attacked the election of free governments in the United States and its closest allies in Europe. Many analysts believe that Russia’s intervention may have tilted the election to Trump. Yet too many Democrats stop short of calling it subversion or sabotage. They use the insipid term “meddling.”
Kennedy of course rejected Khrushchev’s denials of involvement in Latin America. Trump and Congressional backers such as Rep. Devin Nunes parrot Putin’s repudiations and show no inclination to prevent further attacks. Kennedy would call that collusion, or much worse. But Trump intones “no collusion” and Democrats wait for Mueller to cue them when it is safe to use the term.
Trump/Russia and Progressive Politics
America’s mid-20th Century Democratic leaders would have little trouble leveraging Trump/Russia to discredit Trumpism as well as Trump. Confronted with formidable external threats, they held fast to the flag while leveraging Americans’ national pride and loathing of foreign tyrants to bolster progressive agendas. Today’s Democrats lack such an overarching progressive-patriotic narrative within which to frame core issues like voter suppression, corruption, and immigration.
To hard-edged, security-minded liberals like JFK and LBJ, the actions of politicians like Trump and Rep. Jim Jordan would make discrediting ethno-national populism almost embarrassingly easy. Jordan does not just ally closely with Trump on restricting immigration and purging voters; he also spearheads House Republicans’ efforts to shut down the Mueller investigation.
In his defense of House Republicans’ successful effort to vote down funding to protect elections from Russian sabotage, which occurred as the Director of National intelligence warned that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack” by Putin’s agents, Jordan proclaimed: “I know what we need for safe and secure elections, and that’s voter ID.”
Not safeguards against Russian interference, said Jordan. Instead, “voter ID” -- which in practice reduces voting among nonwhite citizens. The ongoing menace of Russian attacks on American elections (an established fact) merited no special pushback, while the mere possibility of illegal immigrants voting en masse (a Trumpian chimera) required drastic legal action.
Trumpian populism speaks: American sovereignty, security, and greatness in the world can wait, at least until native-born whites recover their supposedly lost greatness at home. Today’s Democrats, lacking the language of loyalty/betrayal and patriotic devotion, do not effectively connect the dots for voters.
Kennedy tied every progressive cause to a jaunty vision of national mission and interests. His bold addresses on civil rights appealed to national pride as well as compassion. Lyndon Johnson attacked color-coded immigration policy as “un-American in the highest sense” as he abolished it with the 1965 Immigration Act.
Current-day Democrats’ mentality and manner of speaking prevents them from spelling out a compelling patriotic logic for liberal immigration policy. Instead, they focus on how it expresses benevolence and promotes diversity.
Consequently, the foreign-born Americans and aspiring citizens who power the nation’s economy and sustain its security from their cubicles at Google and the Pentagon figure far less prominently in the Democrats’ immigration imagery than do undocumented migrant laborers who meet with rough treatment at the hands of ICE. Articulate in critiquing cruelty but tongue-tied in the face of threats to national power and prestige, the liberals struggle to articulate a xenophilic patriotism that exposes how Trump’s commitments to Putin, “voter ID,” and religion-based travel bans disgrace the American nation and compromise its competitiveness.
Responding effectively to Trump/Russia and color-coded nativism does not require that liberals abandon a discourse of compassion and inclusion. It does demand that they articulate a narrative of progressive patriotism that marries the language of care to the harder argot of national interest. Doing so could enable them to effect a deeper blue realignment that would place affordable healthcare and voting rights beyond the next biennial partisan swing. It could also help them discredit rather than merely bemoan white nationalism by casting it as part of a tapestry of Trump’s betrayals.
The fathers of Social Security, NATO, the race to space, civil rights, and Medicare -- victors in eight of 10 presidential elections between 1932 and 1968 -- provide inspiring clues on how to do it.