A Democratic Kick in Their Own Shins

A Democratic Kick in Their Own Shins
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
A Democratic Kick in Their Own Shins
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
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The attempt to paint Democrats as an “angry, left-wing mob” – at least when President Trump is doing the painting -- is deeply disingenuous. Donald Trump has done more to promote violence against his fellow Americans than any president or presidential candidate in modern U.S. history. While running for office in 2015 and 2016, he urged supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters, with the promise that he would “pay the legal fees.” It was Trump who suggested that the “Second Amendment people” could do something to a President Hillary Clinton if she ever got to make a Supreme Court appointment. As president, he told police officers, “Don’t be too nice” to suspects, while speaking approvingly of banging arrestee’s heads on squad car doors.

Trump’s pugnacious example has trickled down through his party. Last year, Republicans helped elect to the House Montana’s Greg Gianforte, sticking with him after he physically assaulted a journalist. Trump recently endorsed Gianforte for re-election by saying, “He is a fighter.” The Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania recently released a video in which he growls at the incumbent Democrat, “I'm going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.”

So Democrats are understandably irked to see Trump, of all people, call them an angry mob. But that raises another troubling question: Why are some prominent Democrats making it so easy for their critics to pin that label on them?

Ever since the early days of the Trump presidency, Republicans have been trying to link Democratic politicians with fringe “Antifa” and anarchist elements who engage in violent tactics, no matter how far they have to stretch. The hopelessly nerdy Atlanta-area congressional candidate Jon Ossoff was thwarted in his 2017 special election campaign partly by ads claiming he was in league with rioters.

Some of same riot footage was used in a June 2018 video by the RNC to paint Democratic Party leaders as “unhinged,” juxtaposed with clips of Sen. Bernie Sanders touting how his policy ideas have gone from “radical” to “mainstream,” and of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wishing for “uprisings” (leaving unsaid that she was reacting to the Trump administration policy of separating child refugees from their parents at the border).

Of course, the RNC’s effort to define the Democrats as mob instigators was greatly aided by Rep. Maxine Waters’ exhortation in June (at a rally opposing the child separation policy) to confront Trump Cabinet members “in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station.  You get out and you create a crowd. You push back on them. Tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!” Some people have taken her up on the suggestion—most recently, a handful of Antifa and Democratic socialist activists who chased Sen. Ted Cruz out of a restaurant.

Disrupting the lives of people in power is a tactic out of the playbook of legendary leftist organizer Saul Alinsky. In his book “Rules for Radicals,” he counseled activists to “go outside of the experience of the enemy” to “cause confusion, fear, and retreat.” Once, to pressure Chicago officials to follow through on commitments made to a low-income neighborhood, Alinsky threatened to occupy all the bathroom stalls in O’Hare Airport. Before he could follow through, the city contacted local activists and reassured them all commitments would be met.

But Waters and others seeking to follow in Alinsky’s footsteps are not absorbing all his lessons. One of Alinsky’s rules is that “the threat is often more effective than the tactic itself.” Alinsky’s bathroom ploy was a means to an end, not disruption for disruption’s sake.

Moreover, the point of disruption is to “cause confusion, fear and retreat” so your opponents will feel pressure to make concessions. But when Cruz is chased out of a restaurant, Republicans are not disoriented -- they giddily use the footage in their own ads to paint the left as “unhinged.” If there’s one thing the Machiavellian Alinsky would never do, it’s cling to a tactic that isn’t working.

Democratic leaders can’t control what fringe elements do, and they can’t regulate how Republican ad makers splice footage.  But they can avoid giving Republican quotes ready-made for splicing, such as when former Attorney General Eric Holder says, “When they go low, we kick them,” and when Hillary Clinton asserts, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.” Those comments made it into a new RNC video, calling the Democratic left, yes, an “unhinged mob.”

Neither Holder nor Clinton was actually calling for violence.  In fact, Holder followed up his comment with, “When I say we kick them, I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate, we don’t do anything illegal.” Clinton similarly caveated that “we don't want to model bad behavior” or “cross the line into lying.”

But if they felt the need to add those caveats, what exactly were they trying to convey in the first place? Holder said he only meant that “we have to be tough and we have to fight … for the ideals of the Democratic Party.” Clinton was a bit more specific, urging Democrats to drive a “message about what's really at stake with the presidency of someone who admires dictators, who clearly [has] authoritarian tendencies.” Both proposals could have been made without also saying Democrats should be uncivil and “kick” Republicans, giving Republicans easy fodder with which to whip up their own base.

Republicans are not squeamish about quoting Democrats out of context. For example, the “Unhinged Mob” RNC video quotes Sen. Cory Booker telling an audience to “get up in the face of some congresspeople.” But he wasn’t echoing Rep. Waters and egging people on to confront Republicans in restaurants and vent rage. The video cuts out Booker’s directive to “go to the Hill” and tell congresspeople “about common sense solutions” to reduce homelessness.

Neither Holder nor Clinton was proposing anything all that novel. It’s not hard to find Democrats who offer blistering criticisms of Trump, as well as of the Republican Party’s conservative agenda. The only ones going easy on Trump are the candidates running for Congress in districts Trump carried, and few Democrats are grousing about it. I didn’t hear any complaining when Alabama’s Doug Jones and western Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb poached Republican seats in special elections without laying into Trump. Considering that most data suggest Democrats are on the verge of claiming the House, I’m not hearing much second-guessing about how Democrats are running in red districts today.

Regardless, Holder may have been compelled to strike an uncivil note because he is eyeing a 2020 presidential run. Michael Avenatti has made hay among pugnacious elements in the Democratic rank-and-file by repeatedly declaring that “when they go low, we hit harder.” Holder had reason to appropriate Avenatti’s line. He’s viewed skeptically by some on the left for not prosecuting Wall Street bankers back when he was running the Justice Department. Attracting Republican ire may help Holder bolster his standing with progressives.

But if Democrats are going to say something provocative, it should have real, practical value. Loose talk about kicking and incivility doesn’t serve any purpose except rile up Republicans a few weeks before Election Day. That’s not fighting hard. That’s fighting dumb.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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