Trump trumps hate.
That was the midterm message workshopped by RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel recently. “Democrats hate our President more than they love our country,” she tweeted. Four days later, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker jumped aboard the anti-hate bandwagon after an embarrassing loss in a state Supreme Court race.
“The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred,” he warned his followers, painting an ominous picture of a #BlueWave. The following weekend, he doubled down, urging supporters to “Counter the the anger and hatred of the Left.”
The intent seems clear: delegitimize not just your political opponents, but the voters who support them. It’s a particularly poisonous strategy. And it won’t work.
After all, has any politician ever benefited from speculating about the other side’s supporters? It’s not just a Republican problem. Then-candidate Obama’s comment about people clinging to guns and religion (and, less widely reported, to anti-trade and anti-immigrant sentiment) was in some ways prescient. But it wasn’t one of the finer moments of his campaign. Similarly, it’s hard to argue that Steve Bannon and Roger Stone are anything but deplorable—but Hillary Clinton’s decision to throw 50 percent of Trump supporters in the basket with them was almost certainly excessive and definitely unwise.
Ditto Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government programs who would vote for a Democrat no matter what. Or the epithets hurled at progressives so frequently they’re now barely even considered gaffes. (As someone who was proud to serve America’s first Marxist-Maoist-New-Black-Panther-secret-Muslim-terrorist-closeted-homosexual-born-in-Kenya president, I’ve heard them all)
Yet even in the swamp of the right-wing echo chamber, McDaniel and Walkers’ line of attack is newly noxious. The 47 percent were at least, in Romney’s telling, redeemable. A booster shot of trickle-down economics, a hearty does of deregulation, and the poor would be pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in no time. The Marxists and New Black Panthers were less easily saved, but they were damned by their choices rather their character traits. Clinton’s deplorables, meanwhile, included “some” who were “irredeemable” and “not America” — but this carried the surprisingly hopeful implication that much of the basket would see the light.
McDaniel and Walkers are not as sympathetic to the opposition. In the latest version of “Why doesn’t everyone vote Republican?,” Democrats (and plenty of independents) aren’t just misguided. They’re unfixable. Their anger stems not from policy or even philosophy, but from deep, unquenchable rage. Democrats are not just making bad choices. They’re bad apples. There’s no reasoning with them, and so they deserve to be ignored. To put it in terms less Orwellian and more Swiftian: haters gonna hate.
It’s no surprise that GOP leaders who have spent decades undermining the legitimacy of Democratic politicians would now try the same thing with the rest of us. After all, if approximately half the voters are temperamentally unfit to fulfill their duties as citizens, it’s only reasonable to gerrymander them into non-competitive districts or refuse to hold special elections they might win.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the dismissiveness as just another cynical political tactic. There’s no reason to believe the Republican elites of the Trump era have spent much time trying to empathize with voters who disagree with them. When they describe “The Left” as a political bogeyman— one out not just to win elections but to destroy America— it’s best to take their rhetoric both seriously and literally.
Because despite their misunderstanding of Democrats’ motivations, McDaniel and Walker are right about at least two things. First, irrational anger and hatred really are poisoning our politics. And second, fanning the flames should come with a political price.
Which is why progressives shouldn’t shy away from the argument the GOP suddenly seems eager to have. Want to claim a striker in Oklahoma is anti-American, just because she believes you shouldn’t have to work three jobs to afford to teach? Then go ahead and defend that position. Think David Hogg is more deplorable than David Duke? Let’s have that debate.
And as we do, Democrats – and conservatives who value our republic and want to keep it – should be honest about what’s at stake without demonizing the other side. We can call out hateful rhetoric from politicians without assigning motivations to broad swaths of their voters. We can unequivocally condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis without placing every Trump supporter in that group. Respecting voters, rather than dismissing them, is one of those happy strategies that is both morally right and politically sound.
It improves the odds of a #BlueWave in November. It drains some of the poison from our politics.
It might even be enough to trump Trump.