Presidential candidates are supposed to be standing at the foot of a mountain called Aspiration, their hands gesturing affirmingly as they express their soaring ideas and respective visions for our country. They passionately implore us, explaining how, if we follow the path on which they are embarking, if we work together and lift each other up, we as a nation can reach the highest ground.
Whether there are four contenders or twenty-four, those are the kinds of political arguments we have gotten used to hearing from our potential leaders, even before Herbert Hoover made his “a chicken in every pot” promise in 1928. They try to engage us, ask us to follow them, and make sure that their message is touching every voter. Think about Obama’s “Yes, we can,” and the iconic “Hope” poster. It’s enlightening. It’s inspiring. Sometimes, it’s even fun. We’re fired up and ready to go.
Meanwhile, on the plateau from whence our preferred candidate’s aspirational ascent begins, the incumbent works his own angles, gathering supporters, shoring up his donors and keeping the party faithful in line. Normally, that plateau is the place to which he has been able to raise us as a nation, a measure of how far we have come under his leadership. He usually even has a road started to his own goals, the one begun four years earlier, which he can build on for his reelection. That is the typical quadrennial scenario.
This time, however, we have an administration voraciously disengaged from any achievement that might lift our entire nation, a president who demonstrates daily that the only thing to which he is committed is protecting his own fragile ego and overseeing the destruction of the best works of his predecessors. He seems to have made it his mission to hunt down any opportunity to further our republic’s founding principles, push that opportunity into a dark corner, grab it by its privates and choke the life out of it.
We now find ourselves starting a presidential election season from a level of structural disruption far below where the incumbent’s five predecessors left us, and far away from the “more perfect union” the Founding Fathers envisioned.
There lies the difficulty for the Democratic field. The incumbent president’s dark and divisive rhetoric is a black hole, sucking in all light and making it nearly impossible for any of the Democrats running to establish a coherent, aspirational message. It’s like the 2016 GOP field all over again. They are so busy reacting to every uncivil, socially devastating bomb he sets off that they can no longer mount a proactive campaign. They can’t even get to the foot of the mountain to begin an uplifting conversation because of the field of constantly renewed, smoking cow-pie landmines he has laid their way to distract the candidates and the working press (who run into the stink so they can confront the candidates about it).
During the debates, last month, many of the candidates complained that the questions from the moderators were based on “Republican talking points.” At first, I thought that was a weak complaint, because they will certainly have to face “Republican talking points” during the general election and especially once they are elected. Then I realized the phrase is a euphemism for the bullshit thrown up by Trump and his cohorts to dominate the 2020 cycle and make the election solely about him. His outrageous statements and Tweets are the elephants and 800 lb. gorillas the news media and debate moderators trot out before the candidates, asking questions like, “What do you think about the president’s statement? Are you a socialist? Does the president destroy everything he touches? Is the president a racist?”
The candidates were complaining because the only opportunities they had to get any traction with an uplifting message were the measly thirty second opening and closing statements that most voters ignored because they prefer the unscripted exchanges.
Part of the issue is the format. Having ten people on a stage makes it hard for anyone to fully explain the value of a policy position in sixty seconds or less, especially when they are mired in the wonky weeds of distinguishing minor differences. Most of them are better when they are making speeches and doing one-on-one interviews. Still, they must keep trying to work their vision into the debate “conversation.”
It can be done. This is not an endorsement, but the one person who is really good at that is Marianne Williamson, likely because encouraging a strong faith in human potential is what she does with her life. She is not a politician. She believes what she is saying and – esoteric or not – her words come across as thoughtful and considered.
That is the best way I can see right now for pulling away from the black hole that is Trump’s mouth, flying over his minefield of BS and delivering an inspiring message for people to follow. With every answer, be uplifting. Express how your ideas can create more cohesive communities, support suffering families and make life better for all Americans. Avoid the Trump trap, i.e., stating the obvious about his creepy character. All you’ll be doing is wasting your campaign’s time and energy. Your supporters are already against him and most of his supporters know what kind of person he is and will vote for him anyway.
That does not absolve the news media, though, from calling out Trump’s loud, racist, egotistical comments. As a journalist, I understand the paradox of having to report Trump’s outrageous, sensational statements as the attacks on civility and reason that they certainly are, versus the need for journalistic objectivity. But we can look at a baby chick and say that it’s downy and cute, we can look at the plane crash and say it’s a sad, awful, tragic mess, we can report on the white supremacy movement and call their followers racists. So what rule does it violate to describe the president of the United States as a delusional narcissist who asserts that the angry people with guns who support him are winners and the rest of us will lose the battle for the American conscience?
Kudos to presidential candidates Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Beto O’Rourke for speaking to the media frankly and passionately about racism and the horrific mass shootings that plague our nation.
Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) also had some uplifting words for us in the face of the most recent attacks. Booker spoke to an audience at Emanuel A.M.E. Zion Church in Charleston, SC, Wednesday, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine people during Bible study in 2015. “We are not called to tolerate each other; we are called to love one another,” he said, “As much as white supremacy manifests itself in dangerous and deadly acts of terror, it is perpetuated by what is too often a willful ignorance or dangerous tolerance of its presence in our society.”
Beto, especially, laid the gauntlet at the feet of journalists during a press gaggle in El Paso, Monday. “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Members of the press, what the fuck?” he said, explaining, “I mean, connect the dots about what [Trump’s] been doing in this country: He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country.”
Yes, his explanation is about Trump, again, but what he is saying is, “I shouldn’t have to say this. You all should be as outraged as I am. You should be saying this.”
That’s excitement. That’s passion. That’s believing in what former Vice President Joe Biden calls, “the soul of America.” At the next set of debates, let’s pare down the wonk and get back to inspiring people. Let’s give Americans a vision for our nation that we can agree will lift us all make life better for everyone. Do that, and the incumbent will have no power over us at all.
Fired up. Ready to go.