In his Washington Post opinion piece of December 26, “To beat Donald Trump, you have to learn to think like his supporters,” Andrés Miguel Rondón calls on Americans under Donald Trump to fight him effectively and avoid the mistakes of Venezuelans under Hugo Chávez.
Rondón grew up in Venezuela, so he knows something about populism under Chávez. Some of his arguments are valid, even if they’re hard to swallow. But he’s missing key parts of the big picture in America.
He’s right about his most obvious point: that Trump is the same person in power as he was as a candidate.
He’s right that pundits have focused a lot on the quest for Trump's impeachment. But as many in America have known since Jon Stewart graced The Daily Show host’s chair, punditry, especially cable news punditry, has long been broken, and pundits appear incapable of learning the lessons about foolish predictions from the 2016 election. So that’s a pointless shot.
But he's right to say that Trump and his supporters view anyone who doesn’t support him as his enemy. This enemy status doesn’t just apply to people who didn't vote for him, though: as Jon Favreau of Pod Save America said recently, the mainstream media would do well to remember that they’re the enemy, too, and thus an ongoing part of the story of the Trump era.
Rondón moves into trickier territory when he says that Americans shouldn’t castigate Trump voters because it doesn’t do America any good. Not that it does no good at winning them back as voters of progressive candidates, which many have argued, but that it does no good at eliminating polarization, which Rondón says is the basis of populism. It’s true that shaming or lashing out at Trump voters won’t bring a divided country closer together. But simply ignoring them or acting as if what they did had no consequence doesn’t help America, either. Meanwhile, Rondón just pointed out that Trump and his voters view everyone else as an enemy. The polarization is deep, and it cuts both ways.
Rondón says: Forget the fact that Trump supporters are racist, or that they believe fake news, or that their arguments make no logical sense and therefore they’re a bunch of idiots. Don’t waste your moral outrage. Focus instead on Trump’s message and study how it resonates with his base: We are the victims of a rigged system that’s been stacked against us, your (our) enemies are the people to blame for your problems, and I will be the one to save you by fighting to destroy them. With a message like this, no scandal can destroy Trump. In fact, like Chávez, he profits from it. Why? Because scandal sustains populism, it doesn’t diminish it.
Putting aside for the moment the difficulty of forgetting that Trump is racist and misogynistic, or the fact that grievance is what sustains populism, not scandal, Rondón omits four massive points. First, even more than “normal” politicians, Trump showed himself for nearly a year to be lazy and unfulfilling of his promises. He provided no victory for his supporters. Yes, his base argued that his defeat on the Muslim travel ban was because of a(n imaginary) “deep state” coup, but they were not thinking that way on health care. And if Trump’s coal mining jobs don’t materialize soon, they won’t be thinking that way about that issue, either. If Trump voters aren’t stupid, then they won’t be too stupid to notice when the tangible promises Trump made do not materialize.
Second, Rondón glosses over the decline of Trump’s overall approval rating to below 40%. While it’s a mistake to ignore the fact that his base is still with him, it’s equally a mistake to ignore that his approval rating has dropped at least eight points since his inauguration. To ignore this is to ignore the change in the air, the same change that has deflated Trump's base and helped elect the first Democratic candidate from Alabama to the Senate in 25 years.
Third, Rondón seems to forget that Trump isn’t doing this alone. He has some pretty significant GOP enablers. I’m not referring to the GOP’s silence on Trump’s many despicable comments, which Rondón would argue is beside the point. I’m referring to the GOP’s legislative enabling. The only reason why Trump managed to obtain his single legislative achievement this year is because the GOP – shoutout to Paul Ryan – has a love affair with tax cuts. Of course, they also have a deep fear of Trump’s base, which is borne out of their own ignorance about how his voters think.
Finally, Rondón doesn’t even mention the most important change since Trump was elected: the Resistance movement. It embodies everything the author calls for: a focus on policy to help all voters, not wishful dreams of Trump’s impeachment; a widespread drive for citizen activism, coupled with extreme efficiency; citizen efforts large and small to bring people across the political spectrum together to heal divides; and an intense goal to obtain progressive victories in the voting booth, up and down the ballot, and across the country. All of this is underpinned not only by a love for America and what it means to so many. It’s also underpinned by a tremendous moral outrage, which is the imperative for all successful resistances in history, including the Allied victory of World War II and the defeat of Adolf Hitler.
There are many reasons for Trump’s rise. Populism is just one of them. Apathy is another. It would be one thing if today’s moral outrage were not accompanied by action, or if Trump were subtle and underhanded and able to fool not only his base but the majority of Americans into thinking that he could fix all their problems. If there were no moral outrage at all, that's when I'd get worried.
It would also be another thing if Americans were the kind to take moral outrages lying down. While Rondón is right that polarization is a deep problem, and that we should not be condescending to or judgmental of others, online or off, no matter how much we are furious at them, his view of the moment is altogether and unrealistically cynical. Beating Trump may mean thinking like his supporters, but it also means getting angry and focusing on fighting back. Thankfully, America is not Venezuela. The Doug Jones victory was just the beginning. Happy New Year, and bring on the fights of 2018.