Democratic leaders recently rolled out a new theme they hope will prove successful this November: President Donald Trump’s "culture of corruption." As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer put it when announcing the new strategy in May, “The swamp has never been more foul or more feted than under this president.” Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, added: “Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp."
It’s a pretty good strategy. With Democrats hoping to take the House back and maybe even the Senate, a progressive national platform in 2018 that champions things like Medicare for all and free college may not play as well in the more centrist or red-leaning states and congressional districts Democrats need to win. And hammering Trump’s “culture of corruption” could be an effective way to remind the public of the many, many scandals that have broken this year — from alleged Russian collusion to Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen reportedly selling access to Trump for big bucks to congressional Democrats’ claims that Trump is personally profiting from being president.
But while corruption is part of the picture, it’s not the whole picture. Rather than campaigning on Trump’s culture of corruption, I think there is a strong case to be made for campaigning on Trump’s culture of hate.
Rather than campaigning on Trump’s culture of corruption, I think there is a strong case to be made for campaigning on Trump’s culture of hate.
Last week, NBC and Survey Monkey released a poll that found 64 percent of Americans believe racism remains a “major” problem. This suggests bigotry is truly an issue that could resonate with a wide swath of Americans of all backgrounds. While not entirely bipartisan, it resonates across a wider swathe of the country — a clear majority, in fact — which is more than can be said for many other mainstream issues, not to mention candidates.
I’m far from the only progressive to hold this view. While discussing the Democrats’ “culture of corruption” campaign on my SiriusXM radio show last week, the response from progressive callers across the nation was decidedly unenthused.
No one was opposed to highlighting Trump’s corruption. But as caller after caller noted, the issue of corruption doesn’t touch people personally. On the other hand, hate does. And many of those who oppose it — whether they have been personally targeted or are simply allies — have proven themselves willing to stand up to it, especially in the past 18 months. Just look at the massive turnout of the Women’s March or the protests in the wake of Trump’s first attempt to impose a so-called Muslim ban in January 2017.
Trump campaigned on hate, and as president has continued to enable and embolden hatred among members of his base. For example, Trump refused to condemn Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet that led to the cancellation of her television show. Trump’s non-reaction called to mind his response last August to the deadly protests in Charlottesville. Although he condemned the violence, Trump also seemed to equate those spewing hate with those who opposed it by saying there was “some very fine people” on both sides.
Trump’s statements on sexual abuse, meanwhile, have done little to undermine the community of men who hate and abuse women. His entire attitude, in fact, runs counter to the #MeToo movement’s defining idea that female victims need to be believed. This past February, Trump refused to condemn then-White House aide Rob Porter following allegations of domestic violence. Instead, Trump told the press that Porter had been doing a “very good job,” adding, “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.” (Days later after a media firestorm, Trump finally stated that he was “totally opposed to domestic violence.”)
Trump’s statements on sexual abuse, meanwhile, have done little to undermine the community of men who hate women.
This perhaps helps explain why recent polls, including this Economist/YouGov poll released at the end of May, show women are much more likely to disapprove of Trump than approve of him.
But Trump’s statements, while concerning, are far less concerning than his actions.
Although he claims to be a friend of the LGBT community, Trump's administration has tried to sanction discrimination against it on several occasions. His continued efforts to ban transgender Americans from joining the U.S. military — despite the fact that trans soldiers already serve in the armed forces — is as unpatriotic as it is intolerant. And the Trump administration has argued that the Civil Rights Act should not be extended to protect LGBT Americans from discrimination in the workplace.
Similarly, on the campaign trail Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims coming into the country. And sure enough, as president he has tried multiple times to enact policies that block Muslim immigration.
But for every action, there is a reaction. Being Muslim myself, I can attest firsthand to the way Trump’s Muslim ban and his “Islam hates us” comments have sparked unprecedented political activism in my community. Opposition to Trump has also inspired a record number of Muslims to run for office in 2018.
If the majority of Americans believe hatred is a real and pressing problem, rhetoric that appeals to this belief could resonate across partisan borders.
Keep in mind that midterm elections are won based on turnout. The 2014 midterm election recorded the lowest turnout in 70 years, with only 36.4 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. In contrast, 60.2 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2016 presidential elections. In other words, Democrats must find a way to inspire voters who don’t usually vote. If the majority of Americans believe hatred is a real and pressing problem, rhetoric that appeals to this belief could resonate across partisan borders.
Framing the November election as a referendum on Trump’s corruption isn’t a bad strategy necessarily, but it does seem to be a missed opportunity. Making this election about something as personal as combatting hate is better politics, and it’s ultimately better for America.
Dean Obeidallah, a lawyer, hosts "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on SiriusXM radio's Progress channel and is a columnist for The Daily Beast.