By now we know how the story will end before it begins. Donald Trump says something vile. The outrage machine cranks up. This time he’s gone too far!, opine the pundits, optimistically. Can impeachment proceedings be far behind? This will bring even Republicans to their senses!
It never turns out that way. Mr. Trump inevitably records another triumph, confounding his enemies yet again. That’s the story with the Squad, the much-admired group of four young congresswomen of colour who have been celebrated as the fresh faces of the Democratic party. Last weekend, he trashed them by suggesting that they “go back” to wherever they came from. (Three of them come from the United States.) “President Trump may finally have met his match,” crowed one commentator in an opinion piece for CNN. Everyone on CNN’s side of the aisle denounced his tweets as racist. His approval ratings didn’t budge.
The controversy over the Squad isn’t about the trouble that Mr. Trump’s in. It’s about the trouble the Democrats are in. While Republicans are coming out against his comments, the base is solidly behind Mr. Trump as their leader. The Democrats are deeply split between the “moderates” and the ardent supporters of the Squad, whose attractive front woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is widely celebrated as the shiny face of party renewal.
In order to avoid appearing regressive, party politicians have shifted so far to the left that they scarcely resemble the party they were only 10 years ago. On major issues from immigration to health care and reparations, their policies have become extremist. This means that the moderates now look like reactionaries, and that anyone who wants to get ahead dare not deny the wisdom of the Squad.
Here’s an example. Let’s see if you can guess which leading politician delivered this warning to Central American families: “Do not send your children to the borders. ... If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.” It wasn’t Donald Trump. It was Barack Obama, in 2014, and it’s unimaginable that any party contender would endorse that position today. The Democratic line on immigration has become barely distinguishable from the idea that the U.S. should open its borders to anyone, from anywhere. That’s what worries Kevin Drum, a writer for Mother Jones (hardly a conservative media outlet). He wants to know what practical difference there is between Elizabeth Warren’s maximal position on immigration – decriminalizing unauthorized immigration, giving those who cross the border full health coverage and a path to citizenship – and an open border. The answer is that there isn’t one.
This starkly polarized tribal battle has wiped out the possibility of any halfway nuanced discussion of these issues. You’re on either one side or the other, period. But it’s not just the Republicans who’ve been demonizing the other side – not when Democrats refer to detention centres as “concentration camps.” In fact, it’s become fashionable in progressive discourse to argue that an open-border policy would only be just, because it would serve as a form of reparations for people and nations that have been abused and plundered by their colonial masters.
The Democrats have opened the door on other issues to which most Americans are indifferent or hostile. Fully state-supported medicare? Bring it on! Never mind that most people like their health-care plans, and are not inclined to give them up in favour of something that might cost them trillions (which it would). Or take the case of reparations – the idea that the U.S. should pay out trillions of dollars to the descendants of slaves to compensate for its legacy. Only half a dozen years ago, reparations was a marginal proposition that nobody took seriously, for reasons that are easy enough to understand. Now, if you want to be the Democratic presidential candidate, you have to take the idea seriously – or at least pretend to.
The Squad is not concerned about any of this. They are not interested in compromise or brokerage politics. They’re interested in opposition. They are under the illusion that the white vote is increasingly unnecessary because the Democratic Party can be sustained by a coalition of minorities, all of whom presumably think alike. Many of their ideas are so far from the mainstream that they might as well have come from Mars. And the more influence they wield, the more likely it is that the next election will be the most stunning defeat for Democrats since George McGovern went down in 1972.
Mr. Trump’s strategy for 2020 is simple. All he has to do is keep reminding people that the Democratic Party is increasingly made up of people who don’t think the way that most Americans do. Of course he’ll play the race card if it helps. But I don’t think he needs that much help. The Democrats are happy to deal him the cards he needs all by themselves.