The dilemma for Democrats

The dilemma for Democrats
© Greg Nash

Forty years ago, in my early teens in Georgia, I thought I heard for the last time the racial slur, “Go back to Africa where you belong.” If it is not a hate crime coming from the president of the United States, it must constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But with new affronts coming with every tweet, this too shall pass. This is where the dilemma lies for Democrats.

First, as any seasoned political consultant knows, whoever controls the narrative controls the election. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE is a master of controlling the narrative. All he needs to do is fire off an offensive tweet to set off a news cycle filled with outraged talking heads properly denouncing his latest desecration of decency and democracy. But that not only gives him precisely what he wants politically, which is to suck up all the oxygen on the political stage, but also what he craves psychologically, which is to be the center of attention with the entire world hanging on his every word.

As a clinical psychologist, I have never seen anything like this level of narcissism in any patient I have treated or studied in three decades as a personality disorders researcher. I have also never seen such a skillful narcissist fulfilling his every fantasy, focusing all eyes on him all the time, and convincing himself that he is as grand as he fears he is not. The twin dilemma for Democrats is how to deal with his overtly racist comments, which would cost ordinary Americans their jobs if they uttered them.


Forty years ago, Republicans had to hide behind dog whistles. But since Charlottesville, that has changed. For all of the talk about Trump as the village idiot in the White House, he has proven himself a genius at tying the hands of his opponents. If they answer him, Trump controls the narrative. If they do not, his words and deeds become acceptable to increasingly broader swaths of the electorate. What can Democrats do?

First, they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot. Trump wants nothing more than to make 2020 a contest of us versus them, and he is branding Democrats as the party of the other, increasing his chances in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Why Democrats thought a debate on reparations would be a good way to kick off the campaign is a mystery. Democrats must explain why immigration is so central to their agenda. To most voters, immigration is irrelevant to their struggle to get health insurance and keep food on the table, and some have come close to embracing the Republican tirades against dangerous open borders.

That does not mean giving up on immigrants. It means focusing on what most Americans share across the political spectrum and with immigrants themselves, which is horror at the sights and screams of children ripped from their parents in detention centers, and call it what it is, which is a crime against humanity. It means showing voters this time around that if they give Democrats the keys to Washington, as they did back in 2008, they will prove that government can do its job and fix a broken system.

It means distinguishing people who are fleeing from torture or death, who we are bound by international laws that we spearheaded to welcome, and stop calling them asylum seekers. Voters do not know what that means, and it turns real people with real trauma into nameless abstractions, while confusing them with people who are seeking better lives. Immigration serves these people a different purpose and requires different solutions.

Democrats need to dial back the identity politics and dial up their values. They need to bring back working class and white suburban men, not just to beat Trump, but to be the party of working Americans again. That leads to the best message against Trump and Republicans and finally to return to the populist roots of the New Deal and the modern Democratic Party, which is that government should work for people who work for a living, regardless of their color or place of origin, and that opportunity should knock on every door, no matter how humble the home in this country.

Drew Westen is a psychology professor at Emory University and author of “Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”