Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Many Republicans are feeling optimistic about Trump’s reelection in 2020. The Mueller investigation, on which Democrats’ pinned their hopes for mortally wounding the president, has crumbled like a bride’s first pie crust. AG Barr, unlike the lollygagging Jeff Sessions, is vigorously investigating the corruption in the FBI and DOJ that led to government agencies’ interference in an election in favor of Hillary Clinton, and then their attempts to engineer a bloodless coup to remove a legally elected president. The economy is roaring, with numbers on growth, employment, and productivity not seen in decades. And international rivals like Iran and China are now being confronted rather than coddled.
Meanwhile, the Democrats appear to have lost their political minds. They have sunk deeper into the swamps of zombie socialism, illiberal identity politics, 1984-style censorship, legalized infanticide, climate-change apocalypse, and proposals to dismantle the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For Republicans, these excesses portend a variation on their party’s victories in 1972 or 1980. But Dems apparently believe they can reprise Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s triumphs in 1992 and 2008. Each of these elections recalls the circumstances and issues that so far are shaping 2020.
Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 over George McGovern, who won only one state and lost his home state, was a decisive rejection of the Sixties on behalf of the “Silent Majority” angered over this attempted fundamental transformation of America. The sneering assault on traditional religion, customs, mores, and morals, one abetted by the media, popular culture, and universities, aroused a sleeping electoral giant. Nixon’s deft handling of the Vietnam War during his first term, which lead to a draw-down of U.S. forces––from over half a million in 1968 to a mere 50 in 1973–– and the end of the draft, took the war off the table despite the antiwar media’s earlier attempts to spin North Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive, a disaster for the North, into an omen of American military defeat.
The left was revivified by the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. Weary of the war, gulled by the Nixon-hating media into believing that Watergate was an existential threat against the Republic, and disgusted with the D.C. establishment, voters turned to a Southern governor whose apparent piety and earnest moralizing made him the anti-Nixon.
But Jimmy Carter’s pious homilies and school-marmish scolding of Americans over their “inordinate fear of communism” and over-consumption of energy turned voters off. And his bunging of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis––which included a disastrous rescue mission that left eight U.S. service men dead and featured gruesome footage of mullahs gleefully poking their canes in their charred remains––in part led to Ronald Reagan’s massive victory, with Carter winning only six states and D.C. This victory paved the way for 12 years of Republican control of the presidency, a period marked by economic expansion at home, and the collapse of the Soviet Union abroad.
Could these nightmare scenarios for the Dems happen again? The excesses of today’s socialist Democrats seem a willful alienation of half the electorate. Proposals and policies like Medicare for all tagged at $30 trillion; “transgender” rights bestowed at the expense of the First Amendment’s protection of religion; social media oligarchs’ Soviet-like censoring of conservative opinion; calls for Draconian regulations and tax-rates on the businesses that create wealth and jobs; a radical egalitarianism masking identity-politics cartels that, like Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm, are “more equal than others”; a climate-change doomsday cult’s war against carbon that would destroy our economy; and an America-last foreign policy eager to hand over our national sovereignty and security to internationalist oligarchies––all are the logical culmination of the leftist ideas and excesses that drove voters to elect Richard Nixon in a landslide.
But there are two elections that give the Dems hope. Just as Carter’s election bespoke a weariness with the past, in 1992 Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush’s defeat by another Southern governor, baby-boomer Bill Clinton, reflected a younger, richer electorate’s yearning for a hipper, more contemporary, more forward-looking president. Not even Bush’s deft management of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, nor his leadership in assembling a multi-national coalition to eject the thuggish Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, could overcome videos of Bill playing the saxophone juxtaposed with “fake news” about President Bush being befuddled by a supermarket scanner. A vote for Bush was a vote for the past, a vote for Clinton was a vote for the hip, tech-savvy, multicultural future.
The icon of electoral success for the Democrats, of course, was Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. As running-mate Joe Biden described Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” America was ready for “hope and change,” especially the forlorn “hope” that the race-industry bludgeoning of white Americans for their endemic racism and responsibility for black people’s ills could be stopped by electing America’s first “black” president. Voters were also sick of seven years of war in the Middle East, and were bruised by the Great Recession. Looking “forward,” as Obama’s Comintern-like campaign slogan had it, voters were open to any change from the policies that brought on these disasters at home and abroad, with the added bonus of getting to feel virtuous about their enlightened, tolerant, “color-blind” sensibilities.
For Dems, these two victories offer hope for 2020. Trump has been successful so far, but Clinton defeated a successful president because he offered something new and hip, the future rather than the benighted past suggested by Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” More important, Clinton was one of the most brilliant politicians in recent history. He pointedly rejected divisive racial rhetoric when he publicly chastised black activist Sister Souljah, whose shtick was to call for killing white people. He promoted “Third Way” policies that bridged the partisan divide, even proclaiming that “the era of big government is over,” and signing legislation that reformed welfare, a Democrat sacred cow. He oozed empathy, with the knack of making whomever he was talking to the most important person in the room. His patina of good-ole-boy, small-town Southern charm negated his snooty Georgetown, Oxford, Yale establishment credentials of the sort that tormented George W. Bush. He was so likable that not even hijinks with an intern and a cigar in the White House, credible allegations of sexual assault, obstruction of justice, and perjury could get him kicked out of office.
But Obama is a unique case. Certainly he was likable as a candidate, with a beaming smile, a nice family, and skill at reading a teleprompter. But even Democrats like Geraldine Ferraro knew (and let slip) that if he were white, his paltry experience in the real world and his university-leftist ideas would have torpedoed his election. Also, Obama was gifted with a predecessor saddled with unpopular wars, one of which was allegedly started on flimsy intelligence about WMDs. It also helped that Obama’s primary challengers, unlike him, had voted in the Senate to authorize the war in Iraq.
More important, Obama’s opponent, John McCain, was yet another old, rich, white revenant from the past, an establishment Republican cursed with the preemptive cringe that kept him from pummeling Obama with his sketchy past and dubious associates like terrorist Bill Ayers, anti-American loon Jeremiah Wright, and Democrat fixer Tony Rezko. All Obama had to do was show up and not scare the white folks.
The differences, however, between the current crop of Democrat primary challengers and Clinton and Obama suggest that the Republicans may have the advantage in these historical comparisons. George H.W. Bush and John McCain were conventional Republican candidates, establishment pols who spoke the consultant-crafted, focus-group tested dialect used by those who played a political prevent defense instead of a winning offense. The same longing for the fresh and new that Clinton and Obama exploited has been gratified by Donald Trump, who has brought a bumptious energy and crude plain-talking into a stuffy, contrived, scripted political process that serially fails to deliver the goods. And he’s great entertainment, controlling the news cycle and manipulating a media whose corruption was obvious during the eight years of Obama, and is now completely unhinged since Trump took office.
Next, the novelty of the Democrats’ young Turks is that of carnival freaks. Their ticking of the “rainbow coalition” boxes is transparent camouflage for a uniform zombie ideology of wealth redistribution and identity politics grievance. The policies they are promoting add juvenile impracticality to the creepy, totalitarian odor that their predecessors in the Sixties gave off. Their hysteria over Trump’s victory bespeaks a childish tantrum over not getting their way, evoking another legacy of the Sixties that disgruntled the “Silent Majority”: the infantilizing of our culture, and its whining petulance of spoiled children. As for current front-runner, the gropy, faux-folksy Joe Biden, he has none of Clinton’s brains and political skills, nor Obama’s aura of historical racial reconciliation. He and Bernie Sanders are just two old white careerist pols of the sort who have plagued the Republic since de Tocqueville remarked that in America, “the ablest men . . . are rarely placed at the head of affairs.”
Finally, the impeachment hallucinations and socialist fantasies of the Democrat base, positions savvier pols like Nancy Pelosi know are electoral poison, suggest a scenario closer to 1972, when the New Left’s political and cultural excesses riled up normal Americans. And Trump knows this, which is why he takes every opportunity to brutally excoriate political correctness and mock its excesses. Right now the Dems simply don’t have a candidate close to possessing Bill Clinton’s political skills and personal affability, and the historical resonance of Barack Obama’s election will not be duplicated by another rich woman, an obscure gay mayor, or yet another light-skinned “black” privileged child of affluence like Kamala Harris or Corey Booker. Nor is there, so far, a progressive Donald Trump waiting in the wings, who has the outsized name recognition, ability to connect with ordinary people, rhetorical pizazz, and the media-manipulation skills that put The Donald in the White House.
So for now, 1972 and 1980 are more likely to be the electoral fate of the Democrats in 2020. But let’s not be hasty. A shooting war abroad with significant American casualties, a severe economic downturn, or an as yet uncovered Trump scandal could tilt the scales. We may even see a progressive as media savvy as Trump, as politically astute as Bill Clinton, and as charismatic as Barack Obama appear from nowhere, just as Trump did back in 2015. Throw in the media, education, and popular culture establishments inveterately hostile to conservatives, and the Dems just might win.
So get to work, Republicans, and keep dancing with the one who brung you.