Washington (AFP) – America’s Democrats — still reeling from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump — have yet to find the formula to combat the mercurial president.
His political choices, his provocative statements, his insults, his over-the-top campaign-style rallies have left them flummoxed. And Trump is revelling in it.
For some, Trump has demeaned the presidency, purposefully divided American society and has struck an at-times authoritarian tone, and thus cannot be countered with politics as usual.
That side of the party — represented by outspoken Representative Maxine Waters, among others — wants tougher talk, more action and a take-no-prisoners attitude. They want to fight fire with fire.
Others say that such a strategy plays right into Trump’s hands.
The debate within the American left is not new but the visceral, palpable anger is. The controversy over the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border seemed to mark a turning point — perhaps even a point of no return.
Last week, a restaurant owner in Virginia refused to serve White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, citing her work for an “inhumane and unethical” administration.
That owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, has become something of a folk hero for hard-core Democrats.
“If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them,” Waters told supporters at the weekend.
“You tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
But could that approach backfire?
Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, says yes.
“The opposition to Trump can become his greatest foil, helping the GOP to look beyond whatever they might not like about him,” Zelizer said.
– Knee-jerk ‘anti-Trumpism’ –
Experts and some Democrats say the Pavlovian response to Trump, no matter what he says — criticism, mockery, outrage — may only serve to perpetuate the notion that the left is elitist and out of touch with middle America.
It also could fuel concern that political Washington is simply unable to accept a real estate mogul turned commander-in-chief who did not climb through the party ranks as tradition would dictate.
“No question about it. His base feeds off anger, and Trump can energize his followers by pointing to over-the-top rhetoric and actions by Democrats. Maxine Waters is exhibit A,” veteran political analyst Larry Sabato told AFP.
Some even fear that if Democrats do not make a quick course correction, they will end up losing mid-term elections in November that could see them regain control of Congress — and then the presidency once again in 2020.
Undecided voters and moderate Republicans may simply back Trump out of spite.
– ‘Greatest base’ in political history –
The 72-year-old Trump, who loves to whip up his supporters at campaign-style rallies, smelled blood in the water on Tuesday — and pounced.
“The face of the Democrats is now Maxine Waters who, together with Nancy Pelosi, have established a fine leadership team,” he said mockingly on Twitter.
“They should always stay together and lead the Democrats, who want Open Borders and Unlimited Crime, well into the future… and pick Crooked Hillary for Pres.”
At a rally for South Carolina’s incumbent republican Governor Henry McMaster on Monday night, Trump played on the “us versus them” mentality.
“We have the greatest base in the history of politics!” he thundered to wild applause and cheers.
Several Democratic heavyweights are afraid of falling into an expertly set trap, just a few months before Election Day, when they hope to send a blue wave cascading across the country.
“Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable,” Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said after Waters’s statements.
“As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.”
One party heavyweight chose his strategy a long time ago.
Since ceding the White House to Trump, Barack Obama has been largely quiet about his successor’s policies, even as Trump has sought to undo many of his crowning achievements, from climate to the Iran nuclear deal.
Some Democrats say Obama should speak up, arguing that Trump’s brash style means the presidential tradition of not muddying the waters for those who follow no longer applies.
But 44 is holding firm, and hardly ever mentions 45 by name.