Near the very end of this strange, trying workweek, when I was craving a couple of days absorbed with college football and church and everything other than politics, along came this final provocation from an unexpected source, The New Republic, with a headline that felt like hot bullets of friendly fire: “Democrats Should Lie Like Donald Trump.”
The actual piece, by Jeet Heer, doesn’t really go quite that far. It doesn’t suggest progressives should get into the habit of constant, habitual lies about actual facts, the way Trump so often did about climate change, crime statistics, events in the Middle East, what Hillary Clinton was saying and doing, what New Jersey Muslims did on 9/11, and what he his own self was saying on many topics a week or a month or a year ago. But it does suggest Democrats stop worrying about being so earnest and honest against their interests, and offer voters the stuff they want whether it’s realistic or not.
To fight Trump-style politics, Democrats will have to steal at least a page or two from Trump’s playbook by making more audacious promises, as Sanders did with his call for free college education for all and a $15 minimum wage—both of which Clinton balked at. While her plan might have been more fiscally responsible, Sanders better understood the power of raising expectations, especially during a populist wave and change year in American politics. To go the full Trump would be nihilistic, but Democrats need to stop worrying about the fine print and start forging their own unrealistic utopia.
Perhaps Heer was just kidding in calling on progressives to compete in a cynical game of “promising the moon.” Maybe the whole piece was a big joke. Maybe my irony-detection faculties have been burned out by recent events. But for many of us on the left and center-left, our connection to what we used to call “the reality-based community” is pretty important. And once you get into ignoring reality because unreality polls at 70 percent, it’s a damn slippery slope that ultimately leads to the systemic mendacity of those for whom tall tales displace empirical truth altogether.
Now, I understand the importance of articulating broad, bold, easy-to-understand policy goals. That is particularly true for Democrats, who have a lovable but counterproductive tendency to to scratch around in the pine straw of programs and proposals so much that they don’t see the trees, much less the forest. But it’s one thing to boil your proposals down into big goals or talking points without stopping neurotically to note their exact level of feasibility. It is another thing altogether to deliberately promote yourself as aiming at goals you know you can never reach.
One of the things that bugged me about Trump supporters during the campaign was the suggestion that his entertainment style of politics meant it was okay if you couldn’t believe half of what he said. Selena Zito fondly said of Trump fans that they “took him seriously but not literally,” as though he’s some sort of a bard or prophet rather than a politician. If progressives decide they admire that trait of his and begin to emulate it, conservative complaints that liberal elites are playing the folks for suckers may ring a little less hollow.