Just last month, Democrats were talking about how they needed to rebrand their party around a positive message. They wanted to move beyond simple anti-Trumpism and identity politics, and craft an economic appeal to the white working-class voters who deserted them in 2016.
Now here we are with Democrats going all in to refight the Civil War. Well done.
A glance at the electoral map shows how foolish this is. Donald Trump triumphed in 2016 by increasing Republican margins in a swath of northern counties stretching from western Pennsylvania across the Great Lakes, netting him Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and the presidency. Voters there are more likely to see this issue as a radical temper tantrum than anything affecting their daily lives.
Polling gives reason for skepticism. An NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll last week found that 62% of respondents thought statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should “remain as a historical symbol.” Only 27% of those polled wanted the statues removed, and presumably they vote Democratic anyway. Perhaps party leaders see this issue as a way to motivate the minority base that failed to energize for Hillary Clinton, but even among African Americans, a 44% plurality said let the statues stay. So it’s just bad politics.
It gets worse. Once the issue was uncorked, it ballooned out of control. Last week, Trump wondered aloud where the iconoclastic movement would end, asking rhetorically, “Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Right on cue, a Chicago pastor wants Washington’s name removed from a park, and Al Sharpton comes out against the Jefferson memorial.
This after protesters in New York City suggested last fall taking down a statue of Theodore Roosevelt. Last week, a bust of Abraham Lincoln — really? Lincoln? — was set ablaze. Demolish Mount Rushmore and radicals can smite all four of these presidents at once.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe showed how difficult the climate has become for Democrats. During his statement condemning the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, he innocently invoked “patriots … Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together.” This brought a stinging rebuke from CNN Vice President Johnita P. Due, who wrote that “our national healing cannot move forward if even well-meaning leaders don’t recognize the role our Founding Fathers played in seeding white supremacy.”
Maybe Democrats can put that gem in their national platform. Clearly, the Democratic tradition of the Jefferson-Jackson dinner is a thing of the past.
The liberal heroes of the hour are not dead white slave-owning presidents but the angry young street activists. For example, the radicals who pulled down the Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., who are affiliated with the socialist revolutionaryWorkers World Party. Also the thuggish “antifa” (anti-facist) movement, which helped organize demonstrations in Boston last weekend.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, praised the Boston demonstrators in general, saying “the Democratic Party, like those protesters, needs to step up into the patriotic moment.” Ellison sees an advantage in making common cause with the activists and harnessing their energy.
Yet denouncing America’s Founders, defacing the Lincoln Memorial and taking a knee for the Star-Spangled Banner are not the kinds of behavior most Americans would consider patriotic. Democrats rush to embrace this movement at their political peril. All that soul searching about rebranding the party to bring back white working-class voters goes right out the window.
Meanwhile, Trump is free to talk about infrastructure programs, border control, tax cuts, the war on terrorism and other policy issues that voters care about. And if it looks like Democrats aren’t bursting with enough toxic anger, he can send radical left-wing mobs into the streets with a well-timed tweet.
And they say Trump is becoming irrelevant? Irrelevant like a fox.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins