We Don't Need to Become Donald Trump to Defeat Him

The newest top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination will finally take the debate stage tonight in Las Vegas. That means all of his newfound supporters nationwide, won over by his barrage of broadcast advertising and monied ground game, may finally hear their candidate utter more than these words: “I’m Mike Bloomberg, and I approve this message.”

That presumes that Bloomberg’s backers, those who don’t have their hands full of his cash, manage to uncover their ears in time for the telecast. There has been a surfeit of recent revelations concerning Bloomberg’s racist policy and statements, alleged misogynistic and predatory behavior, and transphobic remarks, including some from last year that evoked memories of disproportionate policing and criminalization of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers during his mayoralty. However, he hasn’t bled virtually any of his high-profile endorsements nor paid any significant price to date for these revelations.

To be fair, Joe Biden hasn’t paid much of a price for writing the disastrous 1994 crime bill. Nor has Bernie Sanders, who says he now regrets voting for that bill but has seen a 1994 video surface of him vocally supporting some of its facets. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have had low black support throughout, but has that been due to their issues with local policing and faulty prosecution, respectively? It’s difficult to say, but neither of those stories seems to have made things noticeably worse for them with the overall electorate. 

We are clearly in a primary campaign in which a candidate’s record of bigotry remains permissible, so long as the Democratic electorate gets a candidate that it is sure will defeat President Trump in November. How we got here is another story altogether.

The trauma Trump has inflicted upon the nation hasn’t gifted voters some kind of clairvoyance that helps them see precisely which candidate is best poised to make him a one-term president. No, this is more of a feel, and as such, relies upon old, flawed assumptions about what wins in America: white, older, traditionally “male.” It also stems from an emerging and justified fear among voters that may be unprecedented in modern politics.

Trump should inspire terror, especially of late. The president’s impeachment acquittal has emboldened him to behave like the boy-king he clearly believes himself to be. There are the openly retributive firings, as well as the pardons of white-collar criminals and scandalous politicians to numb the American public before he inevitably does the same in the future for his coterie of criminal friends. Add in the occasional lunatic speech and his open disregard for law and order, and you have a president who rightly worries Democrats about him winning a second term.

Democrats can flash all the polls showing that their candidates defeat Trump, even the one that omitted Elizabeth Warren, the candidate with the third-most delegates. It doesn’t resonate with a public frightened by a president openly embracing his dream of being authoritarian-adjacent.

This is a challenge that no Democratic candidate or primary came up against prior to this contest against Trump, and it is an opportunity that Bloomberg, with his billions, is trying to seize. Publishing ads likening Trump to the Back to the Future villain Biff Tannen, as he himself spits out macho rhetoric against the president (and recently, against Sanders as well), the former mayor seemingly wants us to believe that the way to beat a bully is to punch a bully. When feeling threatened, hire the best security money can buy.

Bloomberg’s assurance presents a fairly thin promise. His economic-justice agenda for black Americans, as presented on his campaign website, is bare-boned compared with candidates like Warren. The “Greenwood Initiative,” so named for the Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood victimized in 1921 by an infamous white-terrorist massacre, calls for “increas[ing] black home ownership by 1 million, doubl[ing] the number of black-owned businesses and tripl[ing] black household wealth,” goals which he refused to dismiss as “pie-in-the-sky.” But though Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” is also a glorified wish list, it at least has ambition; Bloomberg’s plan seems lazy by comparison.

It’s also impossible to reconcile a black housing plan coming from this Bloomberg with the 2008 Bloomberg who spoke about the housing crisis. At the height of the calamity, the mayor said the abolishment of discriminatory “redlining” caused that crisis. The same guy who would have us now believe he’ll deliver black people generational wealth once blamed the greatest economic meltdown of our lifetimes on black homeowners trying to create it. And naturally, he was incorrect.

Whether African Americans truly buy what Bloomberg is shoveling may be somewhat less significant, however. Once upon a time, Kamala Harris was supposedly a cop, but now a billionaire with a history of bigotry is getting a pass and surging with black voters. The purity tests have been done away with.

Bloomberg and his billions were savvy to seize on this moment, advertising in Super Tuesday states with higher black populations, places where other campaigns weren’t yet pouring in heavy resources. Yet the reason why the former mayor suddenly has appeal among audiences key to a Democratic nomination may have more to do with Trump and this moment than it does him. 

One of Trump’s most effective tricks is his ability to exhaust. It may surprise some to learn that the president probably has made just as many folks tired as he does angry, wearing them out with his constant criminality, churlishness, and corruption. But of late, the urgency has picked up and folks are scared. Something has tipped black voters, in particular, over the edge of pragmatism and into a new kind of urgency that wasn’t present earlier in this primary. 

Trump behaving like a rabid dog, more than usual, may very well have opened the door for Bloomberg. It is a good thing that there is a long primary ahead, continuing with Saturday’s Nevada caucus. While Bloomberg has been speaking directly to black voters, the others will soon get a better opportunity to do so. Bloomberg is ascending to the top of the polls before even contending for a single primary vote, and that helped him qualify for his first Democratic debate tonight. But I would agree with Julia Craven, who wrote that the billionaire insurgent has purchased more name recognition than genuine support. Perhaps that starts tonight.

One thing is clear right now: Whoever Democrats elect must not only defeat Trump, but also actually replace him. There must be good policy and character to back up the bravado — and frankly, to win, we may need the very opposite of the kind of diseased masculinity that Trump presents, not a facsimile of it. I don’t know who can win in November. What I am certain of is that with the choices still available, it shouldn’t be necessary to forfeit one’s moral standing nor four years of good policy to win this election.

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