House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set off a firestorm among progressives this week when she appeared to take impeachment off the table, failing “something…compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”
But Pelosi was right. She went on to say that “It’s not about [Trump]. It’s about what we can do for the people to lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government.” That is necessary, but not sufficient. It is imperative that House Democrats focus not on Trump’s daily outrages but on the truly destructive and pervasive corruption of his administration. And they need to drag the media along with them.
This won’t be easy. Trump is a master at manipulating the press. The talking heads on CNN and MSNBC, and reporters from places like The New York Times and The Washington Post constantly take the bait, pursuing Trump’s unending scandals and disgraces. Last week, the front page of the Post featured a story about the effort to bury Trump’s high-school and college grades. Politicians get air time to talk about Trump’s various offenses, both real and potential.
Meanwhile, though they are conducting some useful hearings into various Trump administration assaults on consumers and working people, the new Democratic House chairs are launching another round of investigations into Trump’s personal corruptions: ties to Russia, foreign leverage over his businesses, potential obstruction of justice, and more. Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler recently issued subpoenas to a stunning 81 different Trump associates. All this continues to stoke the bloodlust of Democratic activists who expect Democrats to give them Trump’s head.
This largely misses the point. When Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen testified that Trump was a “racist” and a ”con man,” and “cheat,” Representative Jamie Raskin tweeted, “Sure, but we’re here to find out things we don’t already know.”
Virtually everyone—opponents and supporters alike—knows Trump is a scoundrel. Hillary Clinton spent nearly a billion dollars making that case in 2016. He had the highest unfavorables of any presidential candidate in history when he was elected. Today, voters by large margins agree Trump is dishonest (61 percent), hotheaded (66 percent) and embarrassing (52 percent).
The question isn’t whether Trump is a scoundrel. The question is: Whose scoundrel is he? Is he the macho outsider who is taking on the elites for his “people?” Or is he conning his voters and betraying the promises he made to them? House Democrats have a major responsibility over the coming months to expose the reality that Trump is betraying the very people he pretends to champion.
Trump has been careful to reward the core base of the Republican Party. Evangelical Christians made their deal with the devil, accepting Trump’s amorality in exchange for his packing the courts with right-wing, anti-choice judges. Country-club Republicans have looked past serial embarrassments while pocketing the tax cuts and cheering the deregulation and the good economy.
Trump’s stump speech, however, is designed to appeal to the white, working-class voters that gave him his crucial margins in the Midwest. He serves up race-baiting red meat with his libels on immigrants and the wall. He touts the economy, and the manufacturing jobs that are supposedly coming back. He inflates his trade deals—renegotiating NAFTA and the Korea deal, plus a trade war with China. “Promises made, promises kept” will be a central theme of his campaign, along with scurrilous attacks on ”socialist” Democrats who “hate Jews” and don’t “believe in borders.”
In reality, of course, the Trump administration has been, and will be, a predator’s ball for corporate interests. His first executive act was to initiate the effort to repeal the fiduciary rule, the Obama regulation that simply required financial investors to not cheat their customers when dealing with retirement accounts.
His biggest targets for budget cuts, not surprisingly, have been the Labor Department and the EPA—these are naked attempts to roll back corporate accountability for trampling worker rights and fouling our air and water.
Trump has appointed lobbyists and executives from the worst corporate offenders to run the departments designed to police their industry. From his notorious tax bill, to the selling off of public lands and resources on the cheap to the oil and gas lobby, to the incessant effort to gut Obamacare in the interests of the insurance companies, Trump has betrayed the very workers who voted for him.
And soon it will be clear that Trump’s trade war is a fraud. Trade deficits in general and with China in particular are at new heights. NAFTA 2.0 isn’t much better than the original, with scandalous benefits for Big Pharma. It even waives the Buy America provisions that Trump proclaimed would be the measure of his economic policy.
We hear about Trump’s daily outrages, his most recent insults, his personal corruptions and offenses. But the systematic corruption of government, the fixing the rules to benefit entrenched corporate interests and skewer working people are covered much more sporadically. Former House Speaker Republican Paul Ryan argued this week that Trump’s reelection is endangered if it becomes a race about Trump’s personality rather than his policies. This is exactly wrong: Trump loses if working people learn how he has betrayed them.
To elevate this may be next to impossible. House Democrats have held hearings on the rollback of the fiduciary rule, the attack on the CPFB, and the EPA’s disemboweling, among other issues. House committees will detail Trump’s perverse budget, which slashes funding for the EPA and food stamps, and renews the attack on health care, cutting everything from Medicare to Obamacare. But all this is too often swamped by the media fixation on Trump and his scandals.
Democrats would have to exercise unimaginable discipline—ignoring Trump’s provocations, and the media’s fixations—to focus attention on the true betrayals. Imagine the committees agreeing to spend two weeks or a month with all Trump investigations paused or pursued in secret, while holding non-stop dramatic hearings that detail how working Americans have been injured by the corrupt misrule of this administration. Granted, even if that were possible, Trump would pick a fight, issue an insult, embellish brazen lies each day simply to drive the news.
No matter how difficult it is, House Democrats have to put real energy in this mission. As Pelosi said, Trump is unfit to be president, but the real con is that he is governing like a right-wing Republican, serving the rich and corporations, while betraying the working people he claims to champion. He’s a scoundrel, but he’s not their scoundrel.