The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s not enough for Democrats to oppose hasty reopening. We should offer a plan for rebuilding.

A road collapsed due to flood water is seen in this aerial photograph taken after dams failed in Midland, Mich., on May 20. (Emily Elconin/Bloomberg)
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Rahm Emanuel is a former mayor of Chicago, White House chief of staff and Democratic congressman from Illinois.

Donald Trump’s political identity depends on giving voice to grievances against the elites. His 2016 campaign was fueled by his sneering attitude toward the establishment. As president, he has tried incessantly to color himself as a crusader against the so-called “deep state.” His demands to reopen are just the latest iteration on the same theme — namely that the scientists, doctors, journalists and all the other experts have an agenda that dismisses ordinary people’s anguish.

He embodies this theme at all hours. He plays golf as the United States nears the 100,000-death mark. He refuses to wear a mask. He claims to be taking hydroxychloroquine. He tweets “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing guidelines to continue to isolate. He’s entirely focused on turning out his base, and it shouldn’t be lost on anybody that his base is more energized than ours at the moment.

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Trump wants to color this moment as one in which he is leading America forward and Democrats are dragging their feet. It is a narrative that falls nicely into his grievance-driven worldview. Each time we resist his efforts to reopen the economy, we come off as that much more effete and out of touch. He’s setting a trap for us.

And in politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. Rather than centering our agenda on resistance to the reopening he intends to trumpet, Democrats should respond by explaining how we intend to rebuild America.

To be clear, the issue here isn’t policy — or even economics. It’s culture. Democrats are so aligned with data, science and logic that we’ve lost sight of why so much of the country is skeptical of expertise. It was the elites who claimed we’d be welcomed as liberators to Iraq, where we would find weapons of mass destruction. It was the elites who talked up collateralized mortgages, and then bailed out Wall Street while Main Street suffered. In too many cases, the elites have gotten the big ones wrong and never paid any price.

Partly as a result, Trump’s insistence that the country reopen resonates. Set aside that he’s substantively responsible for the carnage: This is the first national crisis that hasn’t received a national response — and the consequences are obvious to everyone. Trump is keen to pose as the lone voice sticking it to the haughty, know-it-all institutional experts, but he doesn’t have any idea how to get us out of the current economic and medical morass.

Democrats need to move beyond resistance, reluctance and mere relief. Americans are hurting today — and many fear, quite understandably, that the millions of jobs and small businesses destroyed by the pandemic may never come back, even when the lights come back on. Reopening the economy isn’t going to bring back all the jobs lost at both the big chain outlets such as J.C. Penney and at all the neighborhood retail storefronts. Maybe most pointedly, reopening the economy won’t do anything to protect the Michiganders whose lives were destroyed when obsolete dams burst, flooding huge swaths of Midland County.

Let’s force Trump to fight on our turf — reality — rather than let his diversions define the campaign. What if, rather than sparring with Trump, Democrats presented a comprehensive plan to rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, school, hospitals and more — so we emerge from this crisis with a more vibrant economy? We will need millions of additional coders, cybersecurity analysts, nurses, construction workers, teachers, aides and more in the decades to come. How about offering these workers this bargain: As their hunt for work continues, Washington will give them another bonus if they pursue an online degree in coding, advanced manufacturing or nursing assistance, among other areas. We can turn crisis into opportunity, transforming our workforce into an army of American rebirth.

It is not enough for Democrats to say, “Let’s go slowly!” Besides, rebuilding is a better pitch than reopening. Democrats have never lost when promising to invest in America and Americans. And it will put the Republicans at a disadvantage. Faced with a proactive agenda that appeals to the whole of the electorate, Trump and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be the ones who appear reticent to move forward.

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To help Americans laid low by the pandemic rebuild their lives and communities, we need a real and affirmative agenda people can compare to Trump’s empty grievances.

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