The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democrats’ circular firing squad is playing into Trump’s hands

Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders after their debate Friday in Manchester, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)

A few years ago, I was on a research trip to Belarus, a country known as “the last dictatorship in Europe.” The government is led by Alexander Lukashenko, an autocrat who rules by fear, repression and violence. Minsk — the capital and a living urban museum for the Soviet Union — is still crawling with secret police.

In the shadow of brutalist Soviet-era buildings, I met with several major figures from the Belarusan opposition. From presidential candidates to activists, they had all correctly identified the problem: Change was impossible until Lukashenko was toppled. So long as he was in charge, all was lost. Nevertheless, every time I mentioned one opposition candidate to another opposition figure, the response was similar: “She’s not part of the real opposition” or “He’s basically the same as Lukashenko.” Several times, one opposition figure accused another of being co-opted and paid by the KGB, the Belarusan intelligence service. (In some cases, the claims may have been true.) When election day rolled around, they would stay home rather than vote for their tarnished second or third choice.

Authoritarian regimes teach a crucial lesson: So long as the opposition attacks itself, the ruler survives. Divide and conquer is an effective strategy for incumbents to remain in power — but it works best if the opposition devours itself first. Either way, Lukashenko always wins.

The United States is obviously not Belarus. We’re still a democracy. But we are facing an unprecedented challenge to our long-standing institutions.

If Democrats don’t learn the right lesson, President Trump will win, too.

Yes, it’s important to get the right candidate — and that candidate needs to be battle-tested in a competitive primary. And in ordinary elections, you should vote for any plausible candidate that most matches your ideological and policy preferences. But the 2020 election is no ordinary contest. It’s an emergency. If you’re being driven off a cliff, you don’t need to find your favorite Formula-1 driver. You just need someone to take the wheel and stop the impending carnage.

Trump’s reelection would constitute an existential threat to our republic. He has already tried — repeatedly — to subvert our free and fair elections. He will do so again. When democracy itself is on the ballot, pro-democracy forces don’t have the luxury of just winning the argument. They have to win the election.

But like many authoritarian-style leaders, Trump also projects strength while understanding that he is weak. Even in his delusional boasts with cherry-picked polls, he acknowledges that, at best, he can count on the support of half the country. That’s where his divide-and-conquer instincts kick in.

In 2016, Trump took a scorched-earth path to the White House. He understood that he could never win over much of the country. But he could try to torch his opponent so much that millions of voters would see him as the lesser evil, vote third party or stay home. It worked — just barely.

In early 2020, Trump’s approval ratings are underwater in eight crucial swing states: Michigan (minus 12 percent), Pennsylvania (minus 6), Wisconsin (minus 6), Arizona (minus 4), Florida (minus 4), Georgia (minus 5), Iowa (minus 5) and North Carolina (minus 7). He’s barely afloat in Texas. Trump will lose to a highly motivated and unified opposition that nominates a candidate who can win in those crucial states. If Democrats let Trump divide and discourage them — or Democratic voters refuse to be ruthlessly pragmatic in picking a candidate — he will stay in power.

To win, Trump needs Democrats to be complicit. They have to turn on each other. They have to administer endless purity tests. And they have to stay mired in petty spats rather than reminding voters of the felonies, the vulgarities, the racism, the sexism, the endless scandals, and the high crimes and misdemeanors of a wannabe despot. Heading into New Hampshire’s potentially decisive primary, Trump has so far found quite a few willing accomplices.

When the Iowa caucuses' counting debacle delayed results, conspiracy theories blew up on social media. As usual, they were amplified by trolls and bots. But two bedfellows made common cause: Democrats who falsely believed that the Democratic National Committee had “rigged” the process and pro-Trump acolytes who wanted Democrats to tear themselves apart. One false conspiracy theory even claimed that Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager had been behind the botched caucus (he wasn’t). There are echoes of Minsk in Mason City and Manchester.

And in a recent Emerson poll, just 53 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters and 50 percent of Andrew Yang supporters said that they would vote for a Democratic nominee who wasn’t their favored choice, compared to 90 percent of Warren supporters, 87 percent of Biden supporters, and 86 percent of Buttigieg supporters. I understand that frustration. But if you don’t like the eventual Democrat at the top of the ticket, at least vote for democracy.

We have to keep laser-focused on the big picture: Donald Trump is an unprecedented threat to the republic. Democrats need to lay out a strong and positive vision that contrasts with Trump’s divisiveness and chaos. In the meantime, they cannot afford to blow up their opponents’ blemishes into disqualifying disasters. Democratic voters need to pick someone who can win and then unify behind that person. Unless that happens, we all lose.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Pete Buttigieg is playing with fire — and playing right into Republicans’ hands

Jennifer Rubin: Bloomberg has no delegates, but he might be far ahead

James Warren: The Democrats are no Brad Pitt. Here’s what performance pros had to say about the New Hampshire debate.

David Byler: The Democratic primary has been a mess. At least New Hampshire is acting normal.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The two battles that will define the New Hampshire primary