Democrats face a stark choice: Come together to beat Donald Trump — or surrender to authoritarianism

Democrats face a stark choice: Come together to beat Donald Trump — or surrender to authoritarianism
Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, images via Gage Skidmore / Flickr.

After 10 Democratic Party presidential primary debates and a series of small-state primary elections, Super Tuesday is almost here. It is a rich prize: in 14 states and one U.S. territory, 1,357 delegates for the Democratic convention — more than one-third of the total — will be decided. Despite Joe Biden's big win in South Carolina on Saturday, it's entirely possible that after the Super Tuesday votes are counted Sen. Bernie Sanders will be the de facto Democratic Party 2020 presidential nominee.


Campaign debates are supposed to help educate the public so that they can make well-informed decisions about a given race and various candidates. This complex decision is often reduced down to the basic question: "Who won?"

Over the course of these 10 debates, public opinion polls have shown Sanders, Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg have variously been perceived as "winners."

Other candidates — both those who remain in the race and who have dropped out — were auditioning for positions in a future Democratic presidential administration.

There were some fireworks during the 2020 Democratic primary debates. Of course, Warren's pummeling of billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg — which apparently destroyed his chances of victory — will feature in any highlight reel of the 2020 presidential season. These debates were also too long, often disorganized and confusing, with the candidates behaving like children competing for the teacher's attention, and featured too little sustained discussion of substantive political matters. Last Tuesday's debate in South Carolina was especially egregious in that respect.

But in the end who is the real winner of the Democrats' presidential primary marathon? Only one person: President Donald Trump.

As if on political autopilot, the Democratic candidates spent more time attacking each other than focusing on Donald Trump. Such behavior gives Trump a win by default.

What was Trump doing while his prospective opponents were attacking each other?

His regime continued its assault on human decency and democracy by threatening to take away heating assistance for the elderly and other needy Americans in order to finance a (weak and uncoordinated) response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump held more rallies and continued to nurture the adoration of his cult members. In one particularly transparent and obvious scripted moment, Trump's cultists even carried a 100-year-old World War II veteran down the stairs of a stadium in Phoenix where he was then feted by Donald Trump. The logical next step in Trump's right-wing hate revivals is that he, the healer president, lays hands on the faithful and cures them of all that ails them physically, emotionally and spiritually.

There were more "revelations" of his corruption. The Trump regime continued to cross names off its enemies' list. The goal of this purge is to hollow out the federal government by removing anyone who places loyalty to the Constitution above fealty to this president. The Trump regime is also removing as many experts and career professionals as possible, with the goal of crippling the government's ability to function in a responsive and effective way. This is yet another way of expanding and enforcing authoritarian rule. Trump has also taken the unprecedented step of publicly threatening Supreme Court justices who dare to rule against his policies by following the rule of law and the Constitution.

Trump has of course told more lies about the economy and Russia's interference in America's elections. He fired his own acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, for telling Congress the truth about Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election on Trump's behalf.

The Trump regime also established a "Denaturalization Office" at the Department of Justice. This is another cog in Trump and Stephen Miller's white supremacist campaign to create an American apartheid state by removing nonwhite people and other "undesirables" from the country.

In all, the post-civil rights era Republican Party and conservative movement function as a religion. No heretics are allowed. Dissent is forbiddn: The Republican Party is mother and father.

Right-wing Christian extremism is infused throughout the Republican Party. These extremists perceive Trump as the "chosen one" and see his cruelty and evil as the will of God. Ultimately, faith in "conservative values," not empirical reality, drives the Republican Party, the conservative movement and their followers.

The most diehard members of Trump's cult truly love their Great Leader. Some have even engaged in acts of political violence and terrorism against "the enemy" as a way of showing their love for Donald Trump.

Tim Alberta of Politico recently reported on his conversations with Iowa residents in the days before the Democratic caucuses. He encountered a 68-year-old man named Joseph Gay who drives an Uber in suburban Des Moines — and who is an almost ideal example of Trump's power over his followers:

Gay's own political evolution is recognizable: a Democrat until Ronald Reagan came along, then a conservative-leaning independent, and now, a full-fledged, no-turning-back MAGA enthusiast.

"You know, if it wasn't for Trump, I might not even be a Republican anymore. The Republicans stopped caring about me a long time ago," he said. "I wouldn't vote for Democrats either. Honestly, I would just stop voting altogether. I really wish Trump could serve three terms — or even longer. Let him serve as long as he wants. The guy, he's just — he's an amazing person."

Is there anything that Gay dislikes about the president?

"Oh, once in a while he says things that are goofy, and it's like, 'C'mon Donald, you didn't need to say that,'" Gay chuckled. "But I do like his sense of humor. The Pocahontas thing, that was funny. Childish, maybe. But still funny."

The thing is, Gay explained, he doesn't have time to waste being offended. There are more immediate problems. Having worked odd jobs most of his life — mostly involving construction and delivery — Gay has no pension, no savings, no nest egg for retirement. …

Gay's biggest concern for himself and his wife is getting sick. "We don't have a retirement thing, and medicine is expensive, so money would get pretty tight," he said. "I've got some things I could probably sell. But still."

And the biggest concern he has for America? "The Democratic Party. The socialism," he said. "I can't tell you a single one I'd vote for anymore. They're all socialists now. It's dangerous."

In another recent Politico article, Colin Woodard highlighted new research on non-voters and their impact on American politics. He explains how Trump has been able to bring in and win over new voters who were previously disengaged from American politics:

"Donald Trump has grabbed a hold of so many people in the state and brought them into the process," says Charlie O'Neill, deputy executive director of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. "We had record turnout in 2016 and, anecdotally, we heard stories all the time about folks saying, 'I wasn't really involved in the process and then this Donald Trump guy came along and he speaks to me, and I'm going to vote for him.'" …

Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "What benefit you see is probably because once you are on the rolls you are visible to canvassers and campaigns, making it possible for them to reach out to you," he says. "Registering people to vote is not a silver bullet."

Woodard interviewed a documentary photographer named Chris Arnade, who has spent the last decade driving around America in his minivan, meeting and photographing people in downscale neighborhoods or depressed suburbs. "You could see that Trump had gotten all these people who had never voted before and made them really feel like part of the process," Arnade told Woodard. "If you're the only person you know who's voting, you're not going to do it, but at the Trump rallies there was this forum where they were welcomed in and he didn't sneer at them or ask anything of them, and they felt like a member of something."

These are profiles of the devoted core of Trumpism opposition which awaits the Democratic nominee on Election Day.

By contrast the Democratic Party is, as always, a loose coalition of various groups. Its politics are overlapping and somewhat inconsistent, and Democrats are nowhere near as ideologically rigid as Republicans. That was true before the rise of Trump and his authoritarian assault on democracy, the rule of law, truth and reality itself, and remains true now.

To defeat a right-wing authoritarian movement, the Democratic Party's fractious coalition will have to put aside its internal differences and unite around one candidate. Unfortunately, public opinion and other research shows that Democrats may not be capable of the level of unity and loyalty which is necessary to defeat Trump and his movement.

To this point, a recent survey from Gallup:

For their part, Democrats continue to prefer a nominee who can defeat Trump over a candidate closer to them on the issues. Fifty-six percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents want the party to nominate a candidate who has the best chance of beating Trump, even if the candidate does not agree with them on the issues they care most about, while 42% want a nominee who agrees with them on the issues but does not have the best chance of beating Trump. The current 14-point margin in favor of electability is smaller than the 24-point gap measured in November, suggesting Democrats may have a harder time settling for the eventual nominee if it's someone they don't agree with.

A recent Emerson College/7 News poll suggested that barely half of Bernie Sanders' supporters would commit to supporting the Democratic nominee, regardless of who it was. (Close to one-third said it would "depend" on who was actually nominated.)

There have certainly been more hopeful results: A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 52 percent of likely Democratic voters care more about supporting a candidate who can defeat Trump rather than picking one most aligned with their personal preferences.

Democrats face a difficult practical challenge that Republicans do not: They must choose a candidate who is able to defeat Donald Trump and is also broadly acceptable to various elements of the Democratic coalition.

Democrats face other challenges as well in terms of unifying the party around one presidential candidate. Buoyed by victories in Nevada and New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders has apparently become the preferred candidate among Democratic Party voters as a group, and is now running about even with Biden among African-Americans, one of the party's most important voting blocs. On the other hand, Biden's big win in South Carolina — where the Democratic electorate is disproportionately black and disproportionately moderate to conservative — complicates that picture considerably.

Leaders of the Democratic Party, including the much-discussed "superdelegates," are clearly afraid of a Sanders nomination and may try to sabotage it. Their concerns are not entirely irrational. New research from political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla shows that while Sanders benefits from the obvious enthusiasm of his supporters, they tend to be younger people, and as such are less likely to vote.

Sanders would also face a significant challenge in the general election, where many voters may perceive him as too extreme or as a dangerous "socialist." Such voters may reluctantly vote for Trump, or not vote at all. Writing at Vox, Kalla and Broockman explain that approximately 2 percent of Republican voters "choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg," and that "Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated." Such "swing voters" are a very small group — but as we saw in the northern Midwest in 2016, they can decide elections.

Still, the overall picture of a Sanders candidacy is complicated, as the authors explain:

Despite losing these voters to Trump, Sanders appears in our survey data to be similarly electable to the moderates, at least at first blush. Why? Mainly because 11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated….

But for Sanders to do as well as a moderate Democrat against Trump in November by stimulating youth turnout, his nomination would need to boost turnout of young left-leaning voters enormously — according to our data, one in six left-leaning young people who otherwise wouldn't vote would need to turn out because Sanders was nominated. There are good reasons to doubt that Sanders's nomination would produce a youth turnout surge this large….

After Super Tuesday the Democratic Party, its leaders and voters will in all likelihood face a stark, binary choice. They must unite behind one presidential candidate — perhaps not immediately, but soon — or be defeated yet again by Donald Trump. "Divide and conquer" wins on the military battlefield, and also in presidential elections. Democrats must therefore decide whether to win by being united and strong or to tear themselves apart in the face of Trump's authoritarian regime.

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