Why Dems Should Ignore Trump and Focus on McConnell
Trump wants to stay the center of attention, but Democrats have every reason to ignore him
Donald Trump is a mediocre politician (received 11 million fewer votes combined in ‘16 and’20) and a worse President (look out the window), but he is a generational talent at getting attention (turn on the news). Long before he ever ran for President, Trump became one of the most famous people in the country despite being nothing more than a failed businessman with a talent for titillating the tabloids. He helped pioneer an entire industry of fame for fame’s sake that led to Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.
The end of the Trump Presidency will test Trump’s ability to get our attention and our ability to avert our eyes. This is not an idle discussion, because according to numerous reports Trump plans to enter the next election before he concedes the last one. Per a report by NBC:
President Donald Trump is discussing the possibility of announcing a campaign to retake the White House in 2024 on Inauguration Day and skipping the swearing-in of his successor, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
While I have no doubt Trump has discussed this possibility, I have no idea if it will happen. Trump rarely does what he says — remember the Axios report about Trump planning a tour of post-election rallies falsely claiming voter fraud? Probably not, because they didn’t happen.
Whether Trump announces for President or not in the coming weeks, there is no doubt he going to do everything in his power to get our attention. He needs the attention to pay his mounting legal bills and fill the insatiable maw of insecurity that dominates his life.
But just because Trump wants our attention, doesn’t mean we have to give it to him. In fact, I think there is a political argument for Democrats to ignore Trump and focus on Mitch McConnell for the next few years.
Our Attention is our Greatest Leverage
Before we get into the political calculus, I want to spend a moment on how the modern media works, how it shapes our politics, and the role we all inadvertently play in making it worse.
The Internet and social media has turned everything — business, entertainment, and especially politics — into part of an “attention economy.” The spoils often go to the person with the ability to attract the most eyeballs. Thanks to morally bankrupt social media algorithms, the incentives of the attention economy are pretty perverse. Outrageous and inflammatory content is rewarded and exposed to more people, which makes more people do outrageous and inflammatory things. The outrageous and inflammatory content is then inadvertently spread to a broader swath of the public by well meaning people who use their social media account to rant, complain, and dunk on said content.
No person in American life has better exploited this reality than Donald Trump. He won the Republican nomination by consuming so much media oxygen that his opponents were never able to get out of the starting blocks. Trump defeated Hillary
in part by dominating the four corners of the political conversation to the point that the issues that were at the top the agenda were the ones that fired up his base and depressed ours. And in the Presidency, Trump was able to avoid extended accountability for any specific misdeed by redirecting our collective attention to a new outrage.
But the the best way to deal with the merchants of the attention economy is not more clever Twitter dunks or making humiliating hashtags trend. It’s denying them the attention they crave. Few have written more thoughtfully about the intersection between the Internet and modern life than New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel. A passage from one of his recent columns has been stuck in my head for months:
What if we redirected our attention based solely on the consequences? Instead of constantly amplifying arguments we think are unworthy (simply because it feels good to mock them), what if we choose not to give them oxygen? Why not reframe the debate and set the terms of the conversation?
Just because Trump wants our attention doesn’t mean we have to give it to him. In the post-Presidency, he no longer has any real power. He is just another troll with a platform like James Woods or Bill Mitchell. We should treat him as such.
Why Democrats Should Focus on McConnell
There is — of course — a collective action problem. The Right Wing media will continue to promote Trump. Some in the mainstream media will want the ratings and clicks that come from Trump content. Some of the folks that gained Twitter fame in the Trump era will be unable to resist the temptation for RTs. But Democratic elected officials, party operatives, and progressive activists can choose to focus our attention elsewhere. I believe it may be in our political interest to do so.
While it’s possible that Trump will be on the ballot in 2024, he will not be on the ballot in 2021 and 2022. He will not be our opponent when we try to win governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, hold the House, and flip/hold the Senate. Trump is a historically unpopular President, but he is more popular than almost any other Republican and has a demonstrated ability to turn out Republican base voters in very large numbers. And that is key. The difference between the huge Democratic gains in the 2018 House races and the painful losses in those races in 2020 in increased Republican turnout because Trump was on the ballot.
To succeed in the 2022 election, Democrats need to win House races in districts that Trump won and win Senate seats in states that were very narrowly decided in 2020 (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida). What all of these places have in common is a disproportionate share of the white non-college voters that make up the Trump base. Therefore, one of most urgent priorities for Democrats is developing a strategy to drive a wedge between these voters and a Republican Party that shills for corporations and hedge funds while spouting faux-populist dreck.
These voters generally hate big business, Wall Street, and politicians. Trump was able to gain their support through nationalist rhetoric and an outsider persona. The fights that we thought were stupid and racist were by some voters as prima facie evidence that he wasn’t a typical politician. If Democrats want to separate these voters from the Republican Party, we need to make someone else the face of the Republican Party.
I nominate Mitch McConnell for the role. In addition to being a historic villain, McConnell embodies everything that everyone hates about politics. He is a millionaire corporatist political hack with the charisma of the Ebola virus. McConnell has become exponentially wealthier during his years in the Senate which is a parable for why people are very cynical about politics.
While the 2020 election proved that some voters love Trump, Americans are united in their hatred in McConnell. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted prior to the Republican Convention, McConnell’s approval rating was 24/45 with all voters and nearly a quarter of 2016 Trump voters disapproved of him.
Ultimately, Democrats need to brand the Republicans as plutocrats in populist clothing who do the dirty work of the special interests that all voters hate. This task is very doable, the Republican coalition exists in a state of constant tension between its working class base and its pro-Wall Street donor class. We can exploit that tension.
Even small gains among working class voters could deliver the Senate to the Democrats. We need to run against the Republican Party as a bunch of corrupt, typical politicians blocking progress in this country, opposes raising the minimum wage, and wants to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting Medicare.
Focusing on Trump is more than a distraction. It makes the work much harder.