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Democrats need more than histrionics to beat Trump in November

Democrats need more than histrionics to beat Trump in November
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House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrat says he won't introduce resolution to censure Greene after her apology Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe 21 Republicans vote against awarding medals to police who defended Capitol on Jan. 6 MORE’s decimation of President Trump's speech on Tuesday made for great television and may have even been justified, considering the innumerable lies that Trump told the American public that evening. Trump’s never-ending vulgar, almost pornographic, display of emotions was more of an Orwellian “Reality TV” drama than a serious speech about the state of the union. But beating Trump in the race for cheap publicity is a dangerous gambit and most certainly the wrong strategy for winning back the White House in November. One could go even one step further and argue that it is a tragic admission by mainstream Democratic politicians that they still don’t know how to deal with populism.

Trump is a mastermind of storytelling. He built his private enterprise by selling “truthful hyperboles," ran his campaign by spreading lies and governs the country by purveying questionable narratives. Staying true to his nature, the president’s State of the Union address was not only filled with exaggerations and disinformation, but also set up multiple traps for his political opponents, many of which snapped shut in a somewhat tragic manner, especially for Pelosi. Right wing media outlets and other MAGA supporters were quick to spin the story so that the speaker’s paper-ripping was not seen as opposition to Trump and his policies, but rather as an insult to the people and accomplishments he praised.

Trump applauding Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process on Wednesday | Four states emerge as test case for cutting off jobless benefits GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' McConnell presses for 'actual consequences' in disclosure of tax data MORE (R-Ky.) for ensuring the confirmation of numerous conservative judges as well as awarding Rush Limbaugh, a controversial, ultra-conservative radio host, the Presidential Medal of Freedom live on television was further proof that the president’s impertinent display of self-confidence continues to have only one goal: To spur outrage on the left, rally his base and keep the populist anger alive. It's a political combination that he believes is paving his way to reelection later this year.

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The way such a strategy is countered by Trump’s opponents shows that many still don’t understand the power he wields. The president remains popular in large swaths of the American public, because irrespective of his personal misconduct, he has delivered on the original promise of his election — namely, heaping abuse on Washington insiders, embracing political chaos, antagonizing political opponents and caring little about norms, expertise and legalities. It’s a populist playbook that few know better than Trump. And it is particularly successful when combined with low trust in the problem-solving capacity of democratic institutions.

The failed impeachment process is a very good example of such political spectacles and an indication that many in the establishment continue to repeat the same mistakes that already cost Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Hillary Clinton backs Manhattan DA candidate in first endorsement of year NSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison MORE the election in 2016. Democrats’ effort to strip the president of his powers through constitutional means, instead of defeating him at the ballot box, bolstered his ability to distract attention from unfulfilled promises and reinvigorated the outsider status he relishes. Already before the acquittal by a Republican-dominated Senate, Trump’s approval ratings were rising to his all-out best.

In a country so divided, Americans have started to live in different realities and a populist narrative continues to thrive within large sectors of the public, particularly in the Heartland. Continuing attempts to delegitimize Trump’s presidency have backfired and may well end in tears for the Democrats in November. Instead of exposing the president’s nepotistic, overstrained administration, many in Washington focused on Russian election interference, the Mueller investigation and his quit pro quo with Ukraine. Of course, none of these allegations are fairy-tales as the morally collapsing Republican Party wants us to believe. But it’s a political strategy that antagonizes the very Trump voters who Democrats are trying to win over.

With regard to the public, it’s the bread-and-butter issues on which the president has laid himself open to attack and not his dubious relationship with the law. Trump loses only when his empty promises are exposed and when it becomes evident that he hasn’t delivered on creating a better life for his supporters.

For clarity, let’s take a look at the numbers. Even though the economy is thriving, and the stock market repeatedly hits all-time highs, health care and prescription costs remain unbearable for ordinary voters. Recent graduates continue to stagger under unprecedented levels of college debt. While wage growth has picked up, inequality has not diminished, at the same time U.S. infrastructure continues to crumble. Median-priced homes are now considered unaffordable for average wage earners in three-quarters of the country. Even more important, recent FT-Peterson polls show the extent to which Trump’s argument that everyone is doing better does not jive with reality. Blacks and Hispanics are particularly hurting. White women less so, but only 33 percent believe that they are “better off.”

It is only white males that come close, but even there it was only 48 percent who feel “much better off” or “somewhat better off.” With this level of middle-class angst, Democrats should be able to take Trump to the cleaners, debunking his claim of a better life for everyone, while avoiding to scare off moderates and independents with budget-busting solutions. But for that they need more than histrionics.

Mathew Burrows, PhD, is director of the Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council and served as counselor and director of the analysis and productions staff at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) before retirement. Julian Mueller-Kaler is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s newly established GeoTech Center, a Fulbright Schuman Scholar, and a non-resident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS). Follow them on Twitter @matburrows & @JMuellerKaler