Democrats have legitimate arguments against a Trump presidency. That isn’t to say those arguments are correct, or rooted in pure motives. It’s certainly not to say I agree with them, and it’s not an endorsement of impeachment either. Really, it’s the opposite.
We’ve had three years to digest Donald Trump’s victory, far from enough distance to fully understand “what happened,” but enough to agree his rise from primary underdog to leader of the free world was a symptom of serious pains in the electorate. I favor the Tim Carney explanation, advanced in “Alienated America,” that Trump’s win “was fueled by social decay and real suffering.” Whatever your preferred thesis, Trump’s opponents will enter the new year having spent the bulk of his presidency obsessing over the symptom without meaningfully addressing the cause.
Thus the year 2020 is set to open with an impeachment trial in the Senate. I understand that partisans are focused on partisan missions, namely the daily power struggles between red and blue that consume official Washington. In that respect, Democrats’ laser focus on impeachment makes some sense. But not a lot of it.
From Russia to the Mueller investigation to Ukraine to impeachment, Democrats and the media have spent three years consumed with melodrama, distracted from meaningfully dealing with the factors that precipitated this presidency. Democrats are in no better position to address those problems. The media is in no better position to cover them.
They will wake up on New Year’s Day, in an election year, to that reality. From 30,000 feet, their opposition in Trump’s first term amounts to a protracted battle over Russia and Ukraine. They’ve fixated on the symptom and neglected to treat the cause.
That’s not to say Democrats and the press entirely ignored everything else. But their top priorities have been clear enough. And that leaves Democrats less equipped to deal with Trump at the ballot box, and the press less equipped to understand why he’s still there.
How to explain this stagnation? Say a time traveler approached top Democrats or media members in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory—when they were busy issuing grand promises of reform—and conveyed the next three years would be spent in large part hammering allegations of Russian collusion and a quid pro quo with Ukraine. By all means, investigate what needs investigating. But would that have sounded like a wise allocation of time in the broader effort to mend some of the wounds that brought us here?
This brings us back to the beginning. There are legitimate arguments to be made against the Trump presidency. Democrats, and the president’s media opponents, still have not learned how to make them. That’s despite facing what they see as an existential threat, and the three years they’ve had to start addressing it. This was evident in Wednesday’s impeachment vote and will be evident in Thursday’s debate as well.
The daily fray is an alluring space, with the immediacy of Twitter and cable news, and the satisfaction of quick wins. But to the extent we’re able to separate ourselves from the moment and look from 30,000 feet, it really is remarkable to observe how the people most chastened by Trump’s victory have decided to spend their time in the years since it shocked them to their very core.