The 2020 Primary’s Getting Ugly Even Before It Really Begins
Trump should be eminently beatable—so long as Democrats don’t beat themselves. I’m worried.
Oh God, here we go again. Another Democratic primary. And this one’s going to last 18 months.
I hate them. I hate everyone involved in them. I hate myself for being tangentially involved in them.
We have a madman president. Every day, a new screw comes loose. He’s at 40 percent in the polls and is probably going lower. Most of the country thinks he’s a disaster. He ought to be eminently beatable in 2020.
But I can’t shake the feeling that the Democrats are going to fuck it up. People are already going a little nuts.
Remember the wake of the 2016 battle? I do. I think. I seem to remember everyone agreeing that the one thing Democrats can’t afford is a repeat of the 2016 bitterness. And I’m pretty sure I recall being reassured, in columns and on social media and what not, that I shouldn’t worry, Democrats won’t let that happen again.
Right. It’s already happening. Have you followed the process over the last couple months by which Beto O’Rourke has suddenly become a centrist hack stooge of capital? Lord, that was fast! Just two months ago, David Sirota, the Bernie Sanders partisan, was tweeting that O’Rourke should be the next speaker of the House. But more recently, Sirota has torn into O’Rourke, and others have followed suit, and O’Rourke’s defenders took to Twitter, and that feud has already convinced a lot of us that our worst nightmare is all but inevitable.
If it’s like this already, can you imagine what it’s going to be like this fall? I don’t even mean chiefly among the candidates, although that can get plenty ugly. I mean among their backers in opinion journalism and on social media. There is where we’ll see the real trench warfare, the Verduns, the mustard-gas attacks over rhetorical and policy differences that are in the scheme of things comparatively small. We’re headed for disaster.
In 2016, I took sides. I was with Hillary. Why? I thought she’d be a good president. I also thought she was electable. About that, obviously, I was wrong. In addition, there were things about Bernie’s approach I didn’t like. There were times I went overboard. I am aware of this.
This time around, in the interest of comity, I will try hard not to take sides in that way. Now I should confess to you that I have already written, in my last New York Review of Books piece (here, but paywalled), that on paper I liked the looks of Sherrod Brown. He’s from a swing state, where he just won reelection by a lot even as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket was getting drummed. He can win over those Obama-to-Trump voters in the Great Lakes states. And I know him, not well, but I know him, and he seems like a decent person.
But here’s the thing. Just because I said those nice things about Brown doesn’t mean I want to hire weasels to rip the other candidates’ flesh. It doesn’t mean I’m going to identify the person I think poses the gravest threat to Brown’s chances and start calumniating him or her to the heavens without telling readers what my real agenda is. If I like Candidate A, or even candidates A and B, it doesn’t have to follow that I’m going to write about candidates C, D, and E as if they were the hellspawns of Robert Rubin and Joe Crowley.
There are going to be a lot of candidates. All of them are admirable in some way or another. All of them are flawed in some way or another. I have my thoughts about all that, and we’ll get to those over time. I’m nervous that the leftists think the country has moved further in their direction than it has. I’m also nervous that the centrists are afraid of, and may subtly thwart, base mobilization. I’m nervous that they’re all overconfident about how beatable Trump is. But I’ll try to lodge these criticisms as un-acrimoniously as I possibly can. I’ll try—really—to be constructive.
I wish to God that everyone would play by these rules, but they won’t of course. It’s just going to be an inferno of vitriol and hidden agendas. But maybe a little pundit self-policing is possible? I don’t know. If not that, I hope the candidates will caution their fiercest loyalists against calling other candidates satanic because they support a $1 lower increase in the minimum wage. And if not that, maybe some generally respected Democrats can perform some kind of similar function, just to remind candidates and their surrogates of the larger stakes.
Those stakes, I don’t need to tell you, are huge. If Trump gets reelected, turn out the lights.
Again, he shouldn’t. He should be beaten handily. But if the Democrats do to each other what was done in 2016—and right now, it looks like they will—then Trump will probably win.
Trump and Fox News and all his other supporters are going to run the slimiest, lyingest campaign of all time. If the Democrats spend 18 months handing him ammunition to use against their nominee in the general election, they’ll have given his campaign an incalculable lift. I say this not as a whack at Sanders, but just as a statement of fact: He made a number of criticisms of Clinton that Trump and the GOP picked up on, and he signaled to some voters on the left that they needn’t bother voting for her.
There’s a way for Democrats to go after one another with weapons that would be of little use to a Republican in a general election. Critiques of others’ policy proposals as falling short from a shared liberal presumption is fine. Attacking other candidates’ character and fitness for office is not.
The concern is not just that we’re going to repeat 2016. It’s that, with 25 candidates instead of two, we’re going to repeat it times 10. For God’s sake, let’s not do this.
It’s the Republicans who are supposed to be falling apart because of Trump, not the Democrats.