This is a long one. I first need to lay out what won’t work, but not wanting my first two posts to both be depressing I continue on to what I think will work.
Currently Trump’s approval rating is abysmal, but he has extremely high numbers among Republicans. He didn’t need a majority to like him to get elected, and he doesn’t need a majority now in order to govern. While researching for this post, I was surprised to learn that not only are Trump’s Republican numbers high, they are typical for a president’s own party at this point in his term; it’s just the opposition party numbers that are (extremely) low . Since the electorate is so polarized, this is all he needs to keep elected Republicans on his side. I again reference the American Revolution; the Patriots were originally in the minority, maybe 20% of the colonist population, yet they eventually triumphed . Luckily, Trump is demonstrating extreme incompetence at consolidating power . Other authoritarians like Hugo Chávez  and Juan Perón  had more initial support and were more experienced politicians who knew how to play a long game.
Going back to the polls, Trump’s “mandate” will tank if his approval ratings drop among Republicans, especially in less safe Congressional districts and the nine states with Republican Senate incumbents in 2018. That’s just numbers, though; how can the left possibly erode Trump’s loyalty among a constituency that hates them so much? This is the classic challenge of bringing down an authoritarian; it’s not easy, but there are some approaches to learn from in history.
The Slippery Authoritarian
This requires a shift in political emphasis. Liberals I talk to, along with many professionals in their fields, seem to be misdirected by the rampant authoritarianism (see the quotes in para. 4 of  about Perón). Let’s look past the emotional reactions. Authoritarians can only survive as long as they continue to have enemies, which they will manufacture as needed. Trump has a special take on this trait. He must always be winning, therefore he must always be fighting.
“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.”
I admit I laughed this off when he first said it. It now makes so much more sense! If the fighting ever stopped, his supporters might start asking “wait, what have you actually done for me lately?”
If you simply confront Trump’s authoritarianism head-on, you stake out your position as his enemy. You just gave him someone to fight (and win against)! Moreover, you start at a disadvantage because you probably attacked him for something his supporters don’t even think is that important. Seriously, how many Trump supporters will you convert with that overplayed tiny hands joke? If somehow you still manage to eke out a victory (say, in court, or with factual indisputable evidence of your claim like crowd photos) he can just declare that he has a new enemy. The lugenpresse! The “so-called” judges! And once he has an enemy, it’s made equivalent to America’s enemy. This even happened on the day I was drafting this post:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Aside: I am not suggesting that members of the press or judiciary should not be doing their jobs. Those jobs necessitate fighting an authoritarian if one is in power, and how to do that is a different matter. My advice is for those who are deciding how to act.
There may be tactical advantage to pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, but I think it’s limited to keeping the administration off balance and on defense. Trump has demonstrated that he has a fragile ego, so our culture peppering him with attacks on his prestige or legitimacy makes him more likely to lash out and make mistakes like attacking John Lewis. I simply contend that this in itself is not a winning strategy, since it obviously has not affected his popularity among the Republicans that we need to turn against him. Excessive use could backfire since someone like Lewis would have a hard time making an appeal to Trump’s supporters now.
Later posts will flesh this out in some more detail.
- Coalesce the opposition with nationalist pleas. See  for a great example from history. I’m reading it now.
- Craft a message that is inclusive of as many Americans as possible, including some Trump supporters on the fence. All belong in this movement regardless of petty disagreements. Issues that are targeted to special interests will be perceived, however incorrectly, of marginalizing some other group.
- Adopt the same issues being championed by the authoritarians, but at the same time adopt existing institutions that the opposition controls to address them (e.g. blue state governments). Show people why they should trust in those institutions and the opposition forces who lead them. The good news is there are local officials and campaigns who already think this way, but not always for the essential issues.
With this strategy implemented, the opposition (now no longer just the left) could make the following persuasive argument:
- They are on the side of the common American.
- They have the means and know-how to solve Americans’ problems with a proven track record.
- They can be trusted.
Now we can credibly challenge Trump as comparatively ineffective at delivering solutions for his supporters, an argument that would resonate. He could blame others for his failings all he wanted, but the fact would remain that there’s an alternative that can get “his” agenda done and isn’t burdened by his problems. He’s just a “low energy” “weak” “loser.” “Sad!”
It’s important to note that the goal here is not just to prop up another populist in Trump’s place. That could theoretically work, but by itself it’s not getting us anywhere with the divisions in the country. We must instead challenge Trump not with an individual champion, rather with a new American movement. Don’t expect Elizabeth Warren to unilaterally save the country in 2020. This is our fight, together.
This isn’t to say it’s going to be easy for the left to accomplish this. There would be significant internal resistance. Some aspects rely on moral foundations that are foreign to liberals. Some ideological principles may have to be set aside. We won’t have to abandon everything, though. Soon I’ll discuss the parts of the liberal ideology that we need to retain, as they provide a critical strategic advantage over Trump’s message if properly leveraged.
I’m afraid that first, though, I need to address the interesting developments that have been occurring as the Trump administration appears to be collapsing. This changes nothing, and my next post will explain why.
- In First Month, Views of Trump are Already Strongly Felt, Deeply Polarized (Pew Research)
- Loyalists, Fence-Sitters and Patriots (ushistory.org)
- Weak and Incompetent Leaders Act Like Strong Leaders (Tom Pepinsky, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University)
Even though the argument here is that Trump is not truly authoritarian, I posit that it makes no difference because his actions are what influence Americans and the rest of the world.
- Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy (Human Rights Watch)
- Perón and the People: Democracy and Authoritarianism in Juan Perón’s Argentina (Inquiries Journal)
- Common Sense (Thomas Paine)