Only hours after President Trump’s agitated Twitter thumbs announced a new immigration policy that appears to be imaginary — he tweeted that migrants will now be dumped into Democratic strongholds, even though there are zero indications this will happen — Bernie Sanders went on Fox News and popped the right-wing bubble from the inside.
The independent senator from Vermont informed the Fox News audience on Monday night that Trump’s tax cut handed an enormous giveaway to the ultra-rich — and argued for progressive taxation, an expansion of Social Security, tuition-free college, and health care for all Americans as a right.
This juxtaposition foreshadows a big-picture contrast that we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of during the campaign — one that, if Democrats proceed correctly, could end up playing very much in their favor.
Already, Trump is unshakably certain that he and Republicans can win by making 2020 all about immigration. But this premise is questioned even by some Republicans.
A divide in Trump/GOP messaging
The Post reports on a telling divide that has opened up between Trump and GOP messaging. The White House and Republican committees are all pushing talking points about how Trump’s tax cut has been great for all Americans and is fueling a booming economy.
But at the same time, Trump is lurching off in a different direction. He is renewing the attacks on asylum seekers (they’re running a “big con job,” he told Minnesotans). He’s stepping up the demonization of a Muslim refugee member of Congress (Rep. Ilhan Omar is pushing “HATE,” he seethed). And he’s demanding legal changes on immigration with rage-tweets about the “Radical Left Democrats."
Trump believes this will not just win him reelection but also return the House to GOP control. “We can retake the House, I think, over this issue,” he claims.
But Republicans just lost the House in their biggest rout since Watergate over “this issue.” Don’t take my word for it. The communications director for the House GOP campaign operation says: “In swing districts in Texas, Florida and California, that debate hurt us.”
Trump doesn’t accept that his handling of immigration — the imagery of children in cages; the constant rants depicting desperate migrants as menacing invaders; the chaos created by his obsessive threats, real and imaginary — could possibly be a liability for him and his party.
But Republicans want Trump to be talking more about the economy instead. Yet Trump either doesn’t think the economy will energize his base — we wonder why — or thinks he can take the economic debate for granted and focus more on working his voters into a lather of anti-immigrant rage. Which could give Democrats an opening.
Bernie on Fox News
Sanders’s Fox appearance generated some Twitter angst claiming he got defensive when questioned about his tax returns, which place him in the top 1 percent but not in its stratosphere. True, but the questioning was so silly that it isn’t cause for concern.
Sanders was pressed on whether he’d personally volunteer the higher tax burden he’s proposing on top earners. This is a dopey conservative attack, and the answer is easy: The wealthy as a class must pay higher rates as an institutional matter, and by proposing this change, Sanders is of course including himself in the ranks of those who would pay more. There will be time to get this answer right.
This testiness aside, Sanders offered another good response, telling the Fox moderators: “Why don’t you get Donald Trump up here and ask him how much he paid in taxes?”
Trump’s own tax returns could figure into 2020. House Democrats are seeking them for their own legitimate legislative purposes, and Trump is resisting. Democrats will likely get them, but it’s not clear when or whether they will be released.
But Trump’s resistance will give Democrats a strong argument. Yes, Trump won in 2016 despite not releasing them. But now it’s different: Trump has since signed a tax bill that unmasked his 2016 economic populism as fraudulent, one that’s widely understood as a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, and did nothing for Republicans in 2018. We still don’t know how much Trump personally profited. His continued refusal to release the returns will provide an entry into indicting his first-term economic agenda as a scam. Trump’s “rigged economy” rhetoric gave him a fresh, outsider aura in 2016, but he can’t credibly make that argument now.
More broadly, Sanders’s appearance illustrated that progressive economic arguments can be marshaled powerfully against Trump’s economic record. Sanders argued that Trump misled the country by claiming his tax cut wasn’t a huge boon to top earners. He indicted our “absurd” tax code for its deep unfairness, as evidenced by many major corporations paying nothing, which Sanders rightly noted Trump made worse. He made a strong case for an expanded safety net and universal health care.
The Fox hosts appeared to believe that arguments about Sanders’s personal wealth somehow constituted pushback to all this, but I suspect this is symptomatic of the right-wing media bubble effect and that progressive arguments will have more resonance for swing voters. (For what it’s worth, the audience repeatedly cheered Sanders at unexpected moments.)
Obviously, Democrats have a bruising intra-party battle to get through, and some will argue that Sanders’s democratic socialism will make it harder to win this economic argument with Trump, while others will argue that a more centrist nominee will not be able to prosecute that argument successfully.
My point here is just that unadulterated progressive economic arguments made a strong showing in what was expected to be hostile political territory. Meanwhile, it’s not clear Trump even thinks he needs to seriously engage the economic argument, and may believe he can hate-tweet his way to reelection.
This will be a long, tough slog, and Trump has advantages that could very well deliver him a second term, but the latest events suggest that he can, indeed, be beaten.