A stunt, not a joke: Donald Trump serves up some verbal abuse prior to shaving the head of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, 2007.
"When they go low, we go high." --Michelle Obama, July 26, 2016
Unfortunately, in a cage match, going high means exposing your soft underbelly.
We've all heard and read it so many times in the last six weeks it's getting tiresome: we're grief stricken, horrified, furious, depressed, terrified at what the next four years will do to our nation and our world. How did this happen? Are the American people really that stupid? Is there any way to reverse it? Whose fault is it? Why, why, why, why, why?
There are plenty of answers to that question. We can roll out tired tropes about voter suppression, the rural bias of the electoral college, FBI collusion, Russian influence, inadequate outreach to the working class and evangelicals, the cyclical longing of the American people for change, and on and on and on. But there's another, more sinister and fundamental answer that we of the left ignore at our own peril: we're too damn nice.
I've seen a couple of people talk about how Democrats tend to bring a knife to a gun fight, but that errs in suggesting that Democrats have any interest at all in fighting. Since the beginning of my voting life, Democratic candidates have stubbornly adhered to the principle, cited by Michelle Obama last July and repeatedly by Hillary Clinton for the remainder of the campaign, that no matter how low-down, dirty, unfair, and deceitful the Republican party plays, we will always go high, keeping it polite, fact-based, and as morally superior as a political campaign can hope to be. Jimmy Carter wonked it up while Ronald Reagan played to the crowd with cheesy applause lines. Walter Mondale made the same mistake, and lost even worse to the avuncular face of conservatism. And don't get me started on Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton had the advantage of running his smooth talking empathy against two awkward play-by-the-rules establishment Republicans, and Al Gore nearly managed to pull off a third term of Democratic governance, only to be shivved by dirty GOP tricks in the Florida recount. John Kerry's high-minded principles couldn't compete with the Bush campaign's smears. Barack Obama succeeded twice thanks to his gifts as a speaker and his excellent ground game--but also was, again, helped out by having establishment Republicans as opponents. Meanwhile, his hopes for remaking Washington as a place of reasonable discourse, where all politicians worked together for the greater good of the nation, foundered on the reality of increasingly partisan Republicans whose only interest was power.
I can back-date my political awareness to before I was old enough to vote, all the way back to the Watergate hearings (before that, I wasn't really paying attention). When I do, I come up with almost 45 years of Democrats being the party of niceness, the party that wants everyone to get along. Democrats reach across the aisle, looking for bipartisan support for their policies. They compromise pragmatically. They avoid slinging mud. In a debate, they talk policy rather than personality. In previous times, this worked: Republicans also believed in civility, and even though they might dirty themselves at times during campaigns, their primary interest in Washington was getting things done, a task achieved much more smoothly when Democrats can be enlisted to co-sponsor legislation, or at least, thanks to negotiated compromises, not to get in its way.
With the ascendence of Newt Gingrich as House minority leader, then Speaker, all that interest in effective, pragmatic leadership was discarded in the interests of ideological purity. Now the dirty tricks kicked in, and things got ugly. The philandering, hypocritical Speaker of the House pushed through an impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with an intern. That was followed by Republican intimidation of election officials and obstructionism in the 1980 Florida recount, ultimately leading the Supreme Court to put a stop to the GOP-generated chaos by stopping the process and effectively handing the election to George W. Bush. Al Gore, true to his Democratic roots, accepted the result for the good of the nation. The consequence of this decision to give in was a decade-long war in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
In 2004, Karl Rove stirred up anti-gay bigotry to turn out evangelical and Catholic voters for Bush, while engineering a smear campaign of "Swift Boat" ads against John Kerry, who took it like a Democrat and lost.
From the moment Barack Obama took office, the Republican minority was scheming to make a failure of his Presidency. Early on, they were handed a potent weapon in the Tea Party movement, a loose collection of angry Americans who weren't sure exactly what they were most angry about (they really didn't want to admit it was the President's race), and who managed to almost derail health care reform. Obama's efforts to build legislation on Republican blueprints resulted in a needlessly complex system that still received no Republican votes, and became a prime target for Republican opposition throughout the rest of his Presidency. Bolstered by gerrymandered success in Congressional elections, GOP obstructionism has become increasingly audacious in the years since, culminating in their refusal to even consider Obama's nomination of a moderate jurist with impeccable Republican credentials to replace Antonin Scalia.
Which brings us, finally, to the grudge match of 2016.
How did Hillary Clinton really lose the election? Take a good look at the picture at the top of this page: that's Donald Trump in 2007, indulging himself in a stunt at a WWE event in which he humiliated the head of the WWE by having him held down while Trump shaved his head. Like all pro wrestling stunts, this was staged--as, I am beginning to suspect, was the entire Trump campaign. The world of pro wrestling always turns my stomach, yet it attracts a huge, rabid following of fans eager to see bodybuilders and their sponsors verbally abusing each other before engaging in violent physical stunts that, were it a genuine competitive wrestling match, would instantly disqualify them. It's all stagecraft: winners and losers are decided ahead of time, as are the arguments that frame the matches. At the same time, there's plenty of improvisation, lending the whole spectacle an air of spontaneity. Which, I'm coming to believe, is exactly how Trump ran his campaign, concealing the artifice of reality TV beneath a thin veneer of outlandish, improvisational speeches and tweets, much of them dedicated to casting aspersions on his opponents.
And Hillary Clinton took it like a Democrat. Which is to say, she just let him have at her, maintaining the brave, civil exterior that made us so proud during the debates, but did nothing to convince Trump's base that she was a better choice to lead the Free World. He never took back any of his lies, just kept piling them on. His own peccadilloes--molestations, broken contracts, slurs against every conceivable segment of the population except under-educated white men--did nothing to blunt his followers' passion for him, nor their belief that, as Trump hyperbolically insisted, the far less significant moral fuzziness of Hillary Clinton constituted treason. To them, Trump was their wrestling hero, Clinton the villain he must defeat in pursuit of the championship.
And that's how Hillary Clinton really lost the election--the same way Jimmy Carter, Walter Monday, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry lost all those other elections; and how Barack Obama gave up his mandate so easily that he was never able to accomplish his true agenda of remaking Washington: by being the adult in a room filled with juvenile delinquents, by going so high that the leader of those delinquents was able to stick a knife in her ribs.
So where is the hope? Are Democrats just going to go on taking it, letting the Trumps of this world break chairs over their heads while they futilely try to reason with the insanity that Republicanism has become?
There was a time when this was not the case, a time when Democrats represented the working class, and were allied with organizations who knew how to fight dirty, who did it because they had to if they were to survive, let alone succeed: labor unions.
Labor unions work on the principle of organization: get enough bodies on the line, resisting the power of the management, and change has to happen. Strikes were the most visible tool of the unions, but they employed many other tactics, some of them morally questionable if not outright illegal, to further the interests of the workers they represented. Making common cause with labor unions was the move that broke the Democratic party from its rural, racist roots and transformed it into the progressive institution it is today.
Unfortunately, labor unions have been in decline ever since the election of Ronald Reagan. Today, only 1/16 of privately employed workers belong to unions, and breaking the power of public employee unions (my own, the National Education Association, is the largest and most powerful) is high on the agenda of every Republican elected to state and national office. Perhaps it is the weakness of unions that has caused the Democratic party to relax its relationship with them, and to seek support from progressive-minded elites instead.
In doing so, Democrats are losing a significant part of their base. Less than 100,000 labor votes, spread across four Rust Belt states, would have handed the election to Hillary Clinton. Those votes belong to workers who have lost their union power, and are now subject to the whims of the market.
Ironically, Barack Obama's rise to power came in large part thanks to his experience as a community organizer, employing the tactics that Saul Alinsky, community organizer par excellence, modified from labor union practices. Progressives have no monopoly on those tactics, either: the Tea Party Movement adopted them and rode them to power, with many of their standard-bearers now being nominated by Donald Trump to positions in his Cabinet.
Community organizing succeeds when politicians realize they cannot further their agendas without the assistance of their constituents--especially if those constituents are willing to put up a fight to block those agendas. It doesn't always have to be a protest--in fact, Alinsky liked to say that the best victories came when the politician acted to avoid a public demonstration--but they have to genuinely believe the only way to avoid a protest is by changing policy.
Democrats know this. Our soon-to-be former President, Barack Obama, came out of this world. But we've been so distracted by the deplorables, wound up by the lies, that we've forgotten who we are: the party of the common American, the party that knows not just how to get Americans working, but how to guarantee they'll do so for a living wage and with reasonable benefits. We need to put our energy into organizing these people who voted for the candidate least likely to promote their interests, solely because he gave (false) voice to their frustration.
Once we've done that, we can step back into the ring with the crowd on our side, and we won't have to go low: our opponent will see he's lost them, and he'll be the one offering a handshake rather than a kick in the 'nads.