In part two of my interview with a veteran Democratic operative, currently a consultant for one of the remaining presidential hopefuls, Mr. X discusses what the party has to do to energize the American people, the chances Trump won’t yield power, and whether the republic will still be standing in 2021. (See part one here if you missed it.)
WHAT IF THEY THREW A PARTY AND IT TURNED INTO A CULT?
THE KING’S NECKTIE: It’s become a truism, but it bears repeating: when it comes to Trump, what at first looked like a bug is really a feature. For me, it started long before he was the presumptive nominee, or even taken it seriously as a candidate, when he said, “I like guys who don’t get captured.” And I thought (wipes hands): “Done. Done!” I remember thinking it’s a shame he’s done, because his candidacy was entertaining, right?
It took me a long time to realize what we all understand now all too painfully now: that that kind of horrific behavior is precisely what his fans like about him.
MR. X: Yeah, when he was in the GOP primaries, I remember thinking to myself, I want Trump to stay in long enough to derail this person or that person. But he tapped into something that is beyond politics and goes into culture. These people who are turning out for him with their Trump flags and the like: as you well know, that swastika flag was not the flag of Germany at the time. That was the party flag. This is a cult of personality that’s all him.
He’s gotta be loving this. He literally is right about standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shooting someone.
TKN: He is absolutely right about that. And the Senate just told him he can do it.
MR. X: And they said “Go further, man.”
TKN: And he immediately began doing it. Everything that’s happened in the couple of weeks since the acquittal has born it out and it’s all been even worse than we predicted it would be. Comma, Susan Collins.
MR. X: Yes, she was going to rein him in with her vote to let him off. Jesus. I mean, the guy is shameless. And so is she.
TKN: And why shouldn’t he be? They be told him he can be!
MR. X: After the 2016 election and before his inauguration, I thought these powerful Republican leaders were going to walk into his office and say, “Clever. You’ve got yourself elected. Now here’s what you’re gonna do….” That has not happened. I mean, they’ve certainly gotten everything on the Republican wishlist from him because he has no values, but that’s not them running the show.
TKN: You often hear, and I say it myself all the time, “Oh, these cowardly Republicans! These supine Republicans!” Yeah, that’s true in a way, in that they sold out all their alleged values. But really it’s the opposite. I think Chauncey Devega in Salon was the first person I read who pointed that out. As you say, the Republicans have gotten everything they ever wanted. People say, “Why don’t the Republicans stand up to Trump?” It’s the wrong question. They don’t want to stand up to him! He is the best thing that ever happened to them!
MR. X: We’ve also been also horrible about election security—and we know why—and we’ve basically overturned the Civil Rights Act with Shelby County v. Holder, and been horrible with civil rights and voting rights, and lastly, we’ve been horrible with our education system.
TKN: A trifecta.
MR. X: A trifecta. Forty years of underfunding education leads to people who can’t get good jobs, who are uneducated about government and have no clue about civics, and who think that the president is the king for four years.
TKN: And do you know who else thinks that? The president does.
MR. X: He’s the chief law enforcement officer.
TKN: He loves the poorly educated.
MR. X: So the system that we’ve created and the choices that we’ve made over time have left us in this horrible lurch. If you were to plan it out, this would be exactly what you do if you wanted to destroy your democracy from within.
TKN: That is grim.
THE BLACK MAN’S BURDEN
TKN: This gets back to those low information voters you talked about last week, the people who just want a nihilist who will blow up the system, whether it’s Trump or Bernie or whoever.
And I don’t want to give the guy credit for anything, even accidentally, but It may end up that that has been accomplished. The system has been irretrievably altered. So if we survive, Trump’s success has opened up this new world of possibilities. It’s arguably opened up the possibility that a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn who’s not even a member of one of the two major parties might win the presidency. That’s a big deal.
MR. X: It is a big deal. People are talking about how Bernie’s winning these primary elections. But he’s winning these elections with a limited set of people, people who are self-selecting as left of center and, oh look, the most leftist person is winning those races! He’s not going to win the general election without building a coalition that’s much, much bigger and vaster than I’ve seen so far. I’m working with people who are trying to build these coalitions and he may be the beneficiary of them.
We’ve only seen four states, but given the opportunity to show up for him, it hasn’t been this incredible turnout. He’s won pluralities in places that are surprising, and got more of a wider range of Democrats, but in order to win in November, you’ve got to bring all the Democrats home—and Democrats typically come home when it comes to the general election, I’ll give you that. But then you also have to expand so you can win more than Hillary did. Hillary had three million more votes than Trump, it’s true. But those were on the West Coast, where she ran up numbers in places that she won anyway. Democrats do have a tendency to win “wasted votes,” as we call them. If you win New York by an extra 200,000 votes it doesn’t give you any more electoral votes than winning it by seven.
TKN: That’s where we get to my feeling that if we lose, we only have ourselves to blame. Because first of all, if we couldn’t get it together to nominate a slam dunk candidate…..I don’t know that there’s one out there, but this would be a good time for us to have a young Bill Clinton, or an Obama—some sort of transformational rock star nominee. This would be a good time for that.
MR. X: You’re right. We don’t have that. Elizabeth Warren could have been that.
TKN: To you and me and others, she is that, yes. But unfortunately, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this too, the level of irrational hatred toward Warren is astounding….and not just from Republicans and centrist Democrats, but even from smart people on the left who I know and respect.
MR. X: What do they hate about her? I’m just curious.
TKN: She “bugs” them. They think she’s shrill. They think she’s schoolmarmish. I’m like, “Shrill??? Bernie’s whole brand is ‘Angry Old Man!’ He has one gear!”
MR. X: Take note: shrill and schoolmarmish are labels only used for women. And that’s horrendous.
But if you’re looking for that rock star candidate, it’s amazing Cory Booker couldn’t get to a primary. Kamala Harris was supposed to be this political athlete of the highest order. Couldn’t make it to a primary. Julian Castro couldn’t make it to a primary.
TKN: But he did very well in the debates, Castro, and I know they say debates don’t matter, but every time I heard him open his mouth, except the one time when he attacked Biden, which was a cheap shot, I thought to myself, “That guy is pretty fucking smart.”
MR. X: Well, the only way to be a member of Congress or a Cabinet officer is to be fairly smart—
TKN: In the old days, yes, but now you could be Ben Carson. Or Rick Perry. Or Betsy DeVos. Or absolutely anyone else in this Cabinet.
MR. X: And this is the richest Cabinet in history….
TKN: Wilbur Ross. I could go on.
MR. X: Proving that really being rich and being smart are not necessarily the same thing. I do wish that we had a deeper bench. It was amazing that the black candidates fell out well before the first caucus. And those are US senators from two huge money-churning states, New Jersey and California. I couldn’t believe that Cory Booker couldn’t raise any money.
TKN: Why couldn’t they? Besides the obvious legacy-of-the-Confederacy reasons.
MR. X: Well, I think Kamala could. I think they were blowing through it, and her team was horrible, which is tragic because I really loved her. Just on a demographic level, I thought she would be the perfect candidate in 2020, and instead she was out of it before it even got started. Having said that, she picked that horrible team. And if you can’t manage the 3000 people in your campaign, you can’t manage the 300,000 people who are in the executive branch.
TKN: But why couldn’t Cory mount a stronger campaign?
MR. X: I think at one point there were 26 of them in the race, and when you have 26 candidates to choose from, or even if you have only eight, you get to pick and choose amongst them. I think people were like, “Oh, Joe’s in your lane.” But they weren’t giving to Joe Biden either.
TKN: And the result is, now we have a lilywhite field. What does it say that all the candidates of color were forced out of the race as early as they were?
MR. X: Well, every candidate isn’t just an amalgam of their traits or else Kamala Harris would be running at like 45% and everyone would be in her dust.
Yang went much farther than one would expect—another person of color we don’t usually talk about that way. Booker I think didn’t want to be embarrassed because he had no traction, and dropped out. Why did you have no traction? Was he talking about the right things? His “conspiracy of love” and bringing people together may not have been the argument to be making in 2020. Castro was coming from being Housing Secretary, which isn’t exactly where you jump right to the presidency or anything like that.
TKN: You mean like being Mayor of South Bend?
MR. X: Right. They all had issues. They all needed to run good races and Kamala did not run a good race. Obama had a team that was like him; David Axelrod is really smart and Dave Plouffe can make the trains run on time. They were terrific. When I was working for Hillary, she had people who screamed a lot because that’s where she comes from. It wasn’t fun.
It’s obviously easier to raise money as a white guy… certainly as someone who has run for president before, as both Biden and Bernie have, Bernie much more successfully for what it’s worth. If you’re a billionaire you don’t have to worry about it, and billionaires tend to be white guys more often than not, unless you’re Oprah, who bowed out of this race.
But it is a problem, because the engine for this party is African-American women. They’re the most reliable base for the Democratic Party. So to not have someone who represents that huge swath of the demographic is an issue. By the way, also very important are Jews who vote about 70/30 for Democrats, and there are three of them still up there, until recently. Well, two and a half—Steyer is half Jewish.
TKN: Somebody said to me that you don’t have to worry about African-American women voting. They vote. You gotta get African-American men to the polls. So who on this slate does that?
MR. X: You’ve got to give people something that they care about. If people are not turning out, it’s because they feel like what you’re offering them is bullshit. You’ve got to offer people something that’s real.
The truth is that there are huge swaths of this country that are totally, totally underserved. It doesn’t matter what party’s in power, nobody’s serving them and haven’t for a long time. The tragedy perhaps of the Obama years is that we could have had a War on Poverty slash New Deal coming out of the economic crisis of ’08-’09 and re-thought what it means to be connected to your government and how we can rebuild. Instead of saving the banks.
There’s been poverty and no route out for a long time in huge chunks of America, and that’s what politics was supposed to do to some degree—to address that. And if the Democratic Party is not doing that, because Bill Clinton said we’re all about the middle class and we’re not going to be the party of the poor anymore, then those people aren’t gonna turn out for you. They don’t owe the party anything. The party, and the country, owe them something—to pull them out of this morass that we’ve forced them into through 400 years of slavery, racism, economic injustice, environmental injustice, and educational disparity. So how do you make folks who’ve suffered through that turn out to vote? In a world where they don’t matter, don’t ask them to pull white folk out of the fire. Create a world where they matter.
TKN: Very good answer.
BATTLE OF THE BERNIE BROS
TKN: I had this argument last week online with some Bernie supporters when somebody posted something about superdelegates, and I said, “Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the issue, criticizing the party’s process is a weak battlefield for Bernie to fight on because he ain’t a member of the party.”
MR. X: And also, he wrote those rules! The Bernie people wrote these rules in 2016. They were like, we got screwed, and the party said, “Anything you want, Bernie,” and these rules are his rules, so he can shut up.
TKN: Well, that’s really why I bring up this issue, not to argue about superdelegates, which I didn’t want to argue about with the people on the web either. All I’m saying, and it’s a fact, is that Bernie is not a member of the party whose nomination he is trying to win and whose rules he is complaining about. It’d be like me complaining to the Vatican that it won’t make me Pope, even though I’m not Catholic. And in response to that very simple point I got that crazy Bernie bro assault.
MR. X: It’s ridiculous. This is where they’re like Trump people. They’re victims of everything.
They were lamenting Hillary and her angles to shut them out in ways and in places where she got shut out in 2008, first of all. That’s called politics. You use your strength to knock people out of the race or cut them off or beat them in whatever way you can, and you should give her a lot of credit for that kind of power politics, for packing the DNC with people who were supportive of her, and also for being a party member for 40 years, for being a First Lady, being a Senator, being Secretary of State, etc., paying her dues, doing everything she possibly could. That benefit is what comes to you from doing the legwork of being part of this political game. It’s the soft primary that’s attached to the hard primary. You can get as many people as you can to vote for you, but then there’s also this DC circuit that you also have to win over.
There are people who just don’t understand that, while idealism is great, politics is the art of the possible. And Bernie Sanders is not operating in the realm of what’s possible because no one is attacking him at all. He gets to operate in the incense and peppermints zone.
TKN: For now.
THE PRE-2016 MINDSET
TKN: So we’ve been talking very inside baseball here. And when we do that, I always have this fear that we’re in a pre-2016 mindset where we’re discussing electability and vote-counting and that sort of thing, while the other side has told us very clearly they’re not even going to pretend to conduct a fair election, and they have no intention of surrendering power.
MR. X: Yes. So what is your question? (laughs)
TKN: Do you think that fear is justified? Or is it alarmist?
MR. X: I do think that it’s justified, and I think that this is when the rule of law, hopefully, has some power.
I will say this about the Republicans, although I have no insight into them whatsoever, but to be de-yoked from Trump would actually be of value to them because right now they have to speak out of two sides of their face, often changing their line every 25 minutes. Lindsey Graham has basically eaten his own testicles a way that can’t be pleasant for Lindsey Graham.
TKN: I don’t think those are the first testicles he’s had in his mouth. Not there’s not anything wrong with it.
MR. X: (laughs) It’s fine, unless you’re a self-hater.
We have a military that has been shamed and insulted by this president, and while some of them may be wackos like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove who want to ride a nuclear bomb straight to Moscow, I think that they love this country and have a feeling that, before and after Trump, there is some value to living by the rule of law. And so I have to believe that things will work out. I’m an optimist. That’s why I work in politics. (laughter)
Yes, there is every expectation that the GOP will run the most ratfucking, gloves-off, ass-ripping, face-biting race of all time. But should the votes be counted and they not have a majority in the Electoral College, I do think they’ll leave, because of those pressures.
TKN: What about a situation like you’ve just described, but where the result is not so definitive and where Donald Trump—who we can count on to do this—will call the legitimacy of the vote into question. What does Mitch McConnell do then?
MR. X: We’ve already seen that in 2000. They will have another Brooks Brothers riot and that’s when we will become a banana republic and there’ll be different factions marching in the street.
TKN: That’s what really worries me. I’m not worried about a fair election where Trump’s soundly beaten and then the Secret Service and US Marshals have to pull him off a door jamb in the West Wing by his fingernails. I agree with you about the unlikeliness of that. But I am worried about a more sophisticated way of stealing the election where it’s close enough, and they try to ratfuck it and change votes and do whatever they have to do, or just sow doubt as a pretext for nullifying the whole thing.
Because I think the election is going to be close no matter who we run. And if it’s close, there is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump is going to say either “I won,” regardless of what the vote count says, or “It wasn’t a fair election—I’m not leaving,” or some variation on that. And I don’t think Mitch McConnell will march into the Oval Office and tell him, “You’ve got to go.”
MR. X: It’s a place that I hope never to be in. It’s so scary. Being Democrats, we bring a petition to a gun fight. We have these guardrails that have allowed us to be a democracy for 240 years. This would no longer be a democracy and it wouldn’t be the America as we know it. And that’s unfathomable.
TKN: But so is having a guy in the Oval Office who’s a demonstrable asset of a foreign power. And yet he’s there.
MR. X: Totally true. It keeps me up at night. I have no answers for what that would mean. And who does? Even marching in the streets, what would that bring us?
TKN: This country doesn’t have the stomach for that. I mean, last week you had the President of the United States shutting down the intelligence community for saying—correctly—that a foreign power is assisting him and trying to keep him in office. If the American people don’t get out in the streets over that, they’re not going to get in the streets over anything. If “American Idol” gets canceled again, then they’ll be out in the streets.
MR. X: Maybe it could move to CBS this time, which would be fitting….
TKN: (laughs) Yes: the graveyard of all television.
MR. X: But when the economy craters, then they’ll be out.
TKN: Well, that’s true. And we see the economy doing scary things right now, over the coronavirus, and fears that this administration is botching the response, which is no shock. So it could happen. Not that I’m wishing for it, of course, but it could change the game.
Plus you’ve got, whatever the number is, 65 million Americans who actively like this nightmare. Who think it’s great.
MR. X: And they have guns.
HOW TO KEEP A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY FROM SELF-FULFILLING
TKN: As we talk about the pitfalls of Bernie in the baggage department, I’m a little worried about a self-fulfilling prophecy. We just got done saying that if he’s going to be the nominee, we’re going to get behind him. So how do we speak truthfully about Bernie without creating the very problem that we’re worried about?
MR. X: Well, you know, we’re Democrats, so we are a big tent, right? Unlike the Republicans, who are an old white people’s party for white people, our party is one of dozens of interests that have come together because working together we can achieve something that benefits us all. The thing about Bernie is that his most strident supporters don’t see it that way. But it is true.
So this is about work. It’s about the blocking and tackling that will be politics. It’s about showing college students what he’s offering and the value there. It’s about showing environmentalists what he’s offering and the value there. It’s about showing young people who are looking for jobs how the Green New Deal does that, and showing people in unions how his pan-unionism will be beneficial to them, and showing people how they’ll save money on healthcare, or have better care. And then it’s also him having that weird charisma that I guess he has, to get people to believe in him.
TKN: The problem is, apart from the charisma piece, you’re describing a campaign of ideas and facts up against one of lies and libel.
What are the odds of a Corbynesque wipeout happening here?
MR. X: I think there’s a strong chance, unfortunately. You could go back to other times in American history, not that long ago. You look at Mondale in ‘84, or McGovern in ‘72, and in both cases they were running against incumbents, which is hard anyway. So you’re asking for it if you nominate a socialist in an otherwise winnable election.
I don’t think Bernie’s democratic socialist parlance really speaks to people, or that there’s a class consciousness in America the way that Bernie thinks there is. His view is all about the “working class.” But nobody in America sees themselves like that. They all see themselves as middle class, so you’re not even talking to anybody. That said, if you’re working from paycheck to paycheck, it doesn’t matter what it’s calling you if his message speaks to you. Maybe it works. Will it be enough? I mean, if we could have Bill Clinton’s connectivity and Bernie’s politics, it’d be one thing.
It’s just a hard lift to be like, “Yeah, I’m a socialist— everything you’ve hated.”
Look at Lloyd Blankfein, who just recently said, “I don’t like Trump, but given the choice between Bernie and Trump, Trump’s gonna look awful good.” I don’t really care what people like Lloyd Blankfein believe, but those are votes. We do have this thing in America, this sort of Horatio Alger idea where we all believe that there’s this mobility and we shouldn’t demonize the rich, because I could be rich someday too. That kind of mobility has been proven to be a total lie, but the story still exists. There are these sort of like quasi-lotteries that we’ve set up to make it seem like there’s this mobility, which doesn’t exist in America anymore, sadly, but they make excoriating the rich problematic, politically speaking.
TKN: Without that democratic socialist label, I feel like you could peel off some of those Trump voters from 2016: those disaffected, nihilistic white people who just want to burn the system down. But with it, as you say, you’re fighting generations of knee-jerk conditioning, regardless of the facts.
MR. X: I mean, Bernie’s not Jeremy Corbyn. He doesn’t have this anti-Semitism problem that’s current in leftist politics in Britain and Europe, and which I think was a small part of what allowed people to not vote for Labour. But he unfortunately has this other thing, which is “Semitism,” which makes a large number of Americans not want to vote for him.
TKN: But we’re never going to get those people anyway. Aren’t they already baked into the other side? I don’t think we’re going to get the Nazi vote.
MR. X: (laughs) True. But you want to put your opponents on the defensive so they have to shore up their side. It’s all this game of states. If we’re like scraping by trying to get to that 270th electoral vote, we’re gonna be in trouble because they’re gonna have a lot of money and do a lot of ratfucking. But if we’re feeling comfortable about 300 electoral votes and are pushing them on 15 more—or they think we are—then they have to pour money into those states and we sort of bleed them that way.
That’s why it’s so scary. When you’re thinking we’re gonna be fighting in just three states, you know it’s a concern. You want to expand the map so that it makes them unsure where and how it all plays out. But the guy who is against fracking is going to be a tough sell in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin may be gone and we’re worried about other states. On the other hand, Arizona and Colorado, may be bluer now, and with a 1.8 million former felons voting in Florida, maybe that shades more purple. That’s enough to move an election. But just like we were saying about turnout, are they all gonna vote Democratic?
TKN: Some of them could be white supremacist neo-Nazis…..
MR. X: (laughs) Coming out of Florida prisons, I would assume a good chunk are. But then Georgia said they registered 225,000 new voters or something like that….
TKN: Georgia? With Brian Kemp? Come on! That’s the poster state for voter suppression!
MR. X: Well, North Carolina is up there, too. And, frankly, Wisconsin is pretty good at it….
But if you think abortion is killing babies, and women are secondary to men, then you’re probably not gonna vote Democrat anyway, right? If you feel that you’ve had a personal relationship with Jesus, you’re probably not to vote Democratic either. That’s probably 40% of America, unfortunately.
TKN: Which is a shame because Jesus is definitely a Democrat.
MR. X: Oh, a socialist.
TKN: God is a Republican.
MR. X: The great thing about Bernie frankly, is that he stays on message. That’s key. And Trump stays on message. His message, weirdly, always changes, but it all comes down to “You’re going to be so sick of winning.”
TKN: McLuhanesque, Trump is the message in his campaign.
MR. X: He is McLuhanesque…. from being created on television, to being a caricature of himself. He’s like, “I’m a billboard for myself, even though myself doesn’t exist.” He is the postmodern candidate.
My dream in ’16, and it remains this, is that someone will break their nondisclosure agreement and talk about the abortions that Trump paid for.
TKN: Right. Because you know he’s paid for—or as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for—a bunch of them. There is no way he has not. Surely there’s some private eye out there, trying to find these people.
But do you think that would do it? I think his cult is so deep in the Kool Aid that even if five women came out and said, “I got pregnant by Donald Trump and he paid for the abortion, or he encouraged me to have one, or knew I had one and he was relieved about it,” I don’t think would change things.
MR. X: I think that abortion is the Republicans’ Kryptonite, or their third rail, or whatever. They may not turn, but they would certainly stay home, and he needs an army of those people to do what he’s doing. It’s not about the South. He’ll win the South. It’s about the 100,000 of those voters in Wisconsin, and the 200,000 of them in Michigan, and the half a million of them in Pennsylvania.
TKN: Maybe. But I think they’d say, as they’ve said about all the terrible shit in his past, “Oh, he’s repented and God loves a penitent sinner.”
MR. X: Abortion, I believe, is unique. I think it would be a bridge too far for those people.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
TKN: So notwithstanding Trump trying to steal the election and install a dictatorship….or more correctly, within the context of that, how do we proceed? How do we win with Bernie? I know his supporters are confident, and I hope they’re right, but for the rest of us who are concerned about it, regardless of how much we might personally like Bernie and/or his policies: How do we win?
MR. X: For Bernie to win, you have to build out those places where those non-voters are. July or whenever the convention is is too late to do that. My assumption is that over the last four years plus people have been doing this work. If they haven’t, I’d be surprised and that would be a disservice to the people they say they’re representing. I’m not talking about elected officials, although hopefully they play a part in it. I’m talking about groups that do this voter turnout stuff and engagement and mobilizing people and policy work and racial justice to get people involved in and caring about their electoral future. Those are people that should be actively involved in their future, and feel that they have agency in it, just as much as you and I do. Those people’s futures depend on this, as all of ours do, and if they feel like it’s all just the same and there’s no benefit in voting Democratic, then the party has not done its job.
There’s always been oppression in America. The question is, where the line? Thus far the line has been at the underclass: they are suppressed and the middle class isn’t. But then the line moved up and there were people who voted for Trump—even though it was against their interest—because they suddenly felt outside of the protected group. They were like, “Forget this, I’m not getting anywhere, not getting ahead. I’m going to go for someone who’s going to shake this up.”
Now with Trump, the line comes at the middle class people and intelligentsia. Are we going to say, “That’s a problem” and throw off the yoke? Or are we gonna be like, “Oh forget it. The system just doesn’t work for us. Goodbye. Good night.” If we do, then we don’t deserve a democracy, because a democracy demands people who are involved in a polis.
The other side of that is that our institutions have been denuded and stripped and proven themselves not worth our support. That is a huge problem. It’s what turns people off to civics. And it may be a political party, or the Boy Scouts, or the church, or your local Kiwanis Club or whatever, but that interconnectivity that we used to feel is missing from America today. And those people are isolated and the proof is, first, that they voted for Trump, and second, that they’re turning to opioids, and three, that the suicide and death rate for white Americans is skyrocketing. These people have no future.
(Beat. Funereal silence.)
Sorry, is that an analysis you haven’t heard before?
TKN: No. It’s just well put and completely accurate. That’s kind of the end of that story right there.
Photos: Bernie—Sean Rayford/Getty Images; Biden— Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters