A lot of people have been wondering how a country that votes more Democrat than Republican can have fallen entirely under Republican control — and what to do about it.
One man who’s been thinking about this more than most is David Brock, in his youth a right-wing hit man, who this past weekend convened in Miami a remarkable gathering of Democratic donors strategists, and elected officials.
It was called Democracy Matters 17.
Here’s how he kicked it off. Must-reading, in my view:
Good morning, and welcome to Democracy Matters 17.
How’s everyone feeling?
Actually, that’s the wrong question. One thing I’ve learned these last two months is to just say ‘good to see you.’ Because no one’s feeling particularly good these days, least of all today.
I’m certainly not.
I’m profoundly disappointed with the election result. After all, I’ve been a Hillary booster for 20 years – ever since I rejected the right wing lies about her. For those of you who don’t know the story, in the mid-1990s, a conservative publisher hired me to write a hit job on Hillary as First Lady. [He had previously written hit jobs that helped confirm Clarence Thomas and nearly derailed Bill Clinton. — A.T.] But, after months of research, I ended up concluding that Hillary is a fundamentally good person with strong values. Given that the book came out months before the 1996 presidential election, my Republican audience was none too pleased.
No, mine was an act of apostasy to the conservative movement, and I was quickly ex-communicated from what Hillary correctly called the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.’ After an intense period of self-reflection that culminated in my 2003 memoir, ‘Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative,’ I reengaged. And for the last 14 years, I’ve worked for progressive change in America.
So, like all progressives, I’m deeply disappointed. But I want you to know that I’m not disoriented about what happened in the election. And I’m not disoriented about how best to forge a path forward– for our country, for our party, and for our movement.
And for that, I have many of you in this room to thank. After a bad night, a few swigs of tequila, and more than a few tears, I bucked up and went to Hillary’s concession speech in New York. Some of you were there, and many of you came up to me and said things like: ‘we still have to fight’ and ‘what can we do.’
For the last two months, we’ve rethought and retooled our organizations for this unexpectedly awful moment. We’re already at work resisting Donald Trump at every turn and protecting and defending our shared values.
We certainly don’t have all the answers, but hopefully you’ll view this conference as a constructive, thoughtful, and politically savvy starting point.
In addition to all of you, I also want to thank the more than 250 mostly young people who work in our family of organizations and are busy holding down the fort in DC. Like you, they gave me the strength and focus to move forward. In fact, at our holiday party a few weeks ago, one Media Matters researcher told me that she had told her parents before the election that if Trump somehow won, she’d flee the country. But surveying the damage after the election, she decided that her work at Media Matters mattered more than ever –her work was too important to our country’s future to leave. She decided to stay at it—to keep fighting for what’s right.
We’ve spent a lot of time these last two months looking back, to develop a shared, data-driven understanding of what worked well and what didn’t, because understanding what happened is fundamental to effectively moving forward.
That’s why today’s program begins with a couple of panels featuring Democratic all-stars like my longtime friend and the original architect of the War Room, James Carville, who will examine the recent election. It’s a painful but essential process. While we’re absolutely going to move forward, we’re not going to forget what happened.
We’ll remember James Comey and the Clinton-hating traitors inside the FBI. Virtually every day, we’re confronted with more hard evidence that Hillary had an electoral majority on the day Comey issued his letter, and that he stole the election. Period. End of story.
We’ll remember the Russians. It’s a frightening world in which mixing the FBI’s abuse of power with the Kremlin’s criminal hacking and vicious propaganda efforts yield the election of Putin’s puppet, Donald Trump.
We’ll remember the union-busting in Michigan and Wisconsin that delivered those states to Trump, and the Republican voter suppression efforts in Wisconsin and North Carolina that did the same.
We’ll remember the purveyors of fake news. Tomorrow morning, we’ll hear from James Alefantis, the courageous owner of a local Washington, DC pizzeria, who fell victim to a deluded online conspiracy theory involving Hillary, John Podesta, me – and a fake child sex ring. You’re going to hear a lot of tough talk at this conference about taking on Trump, including from me, but I learned from Pizzagate that when cultural resentment and pure evil are countered with love and community, truth does win and good can triumph. Our progressive community is strong and it will endure.
We should not expect any different from the sleaze merchants of the alt-right, but we should expect more from the mainstream media. They obsessed over Trump’s every Tweet while sabotaging Hillary’s chances—all in the name of some perverted notion of “parity,” the virtuous-sounding news term for false equivalence. Tomorrow, we’ll have a group of esteemed journalists on hand —including Pulitzer Prize-winner David Cay Johnston— to talk about what went wrong in campaign coverage and the right way to cover Trump.
What we’ll remember most of all is the segment of the electorate that, in 2016, still won’t pull the lever for a woman in the top job … a woman who was one of the most qualified, dedicated, committed, forward-thinking and honorable people ever to seek the presidency of the United States.
Later this afternoon, we’ll discuss the impact of the election on women’s rights—and on future electoral prospects for female candidates in a culture still besieged by sexism and misogyny.
Looking in the mirror, I’ve been one of the few Democrats to publicly question our party’s strategies and tactics. Despite our loyalty and dedication, this is an election that we lost, not that Trump won.
Before I offer some insights from my vantage point, I want to share with you what one Republican strategist recently told me in private: It’s nearly impossible to run a successful campaign against crazy.
The reality is that we Democrats showed up for a boxing match, and Trump was wrestling the whole time. This election was a black swan event – random, with catastrophic consequences – and with as many and varied valid explanations as there are people in this room.
Before I turn this over to our veteran campaign strategists, I’d like to offer a few cautionary notes.
The widespread conventional wisdom is that Hillary was a bad candidate with no message. That’s just a lazy excuse for real analysis. We had a candidate, after all, who staged a fabulous convention, won all three debates, and won the popular vote by 3 million. Hillary’s progressive idealism was on full display in everything from her plans to reshape the economy in a deep and transformative way to her full-throated advocacy of abortion rights and gun safety to her ongoing dialogue with Black Lives Matter. Hillary went for it. And she still lost.
The media tells us that economic anxiety in white America propelled Trump’s candidacy. There’s some truth here, but the data tell a much more nuanced story.
Most people earning less than 50,000 a year voted for Hillary. The median income of a Trump voter was $70,000—well above the national average. Clinton won majorities among voters who said the economy was their top issue in nearly every swing state, including across the Rust Belt. There is no evidence that Trump supporters were disproportionately poor or working class.
Something else was happening. As Monica Potts has written in The Nation, this election was more about cultural identity than economic anguish. Pew research found that the most reliable predictor of voter behavior was not economic attainment but rather educational attainment. Call it the Abigail Fisher coalition: Trump rallied voters who feel that everyone else gets a leg up: women, African-Americans, immigrants—everyone, they think, but themselves.
Do the election results mean that Democrats must double-down in the old Rust Belt states of the Mid-West? Well, as Governor Granholm movingly said last night, these areas must not be neglected. But a renewed effort there should be in addition to a well-financed progressive push that strengthens our foothold in states of the future like: Arizona, Texas, and Georgia, all places where Hillary outperformed President Obama. Let’s not over-react and over-learn our lessons here.
What do you think the conversation in the media would be if some 70,000 votes had gone the other way, Hillary was President and Trump was sent skulking back to Trump Tower? We’d be reading about how the Democrats were the new majority party, while the Republican Party was in shambles.
Don’t be too quick to believe the reverse: We Democrats aren’t as broken as the media would have us believe.
Consider this: We need to flip 26 seats in 2018 to take back the House majority. Hillary won 25 House districts currently held by the GOP, many by wide margins.
The bottom line is this: I don’t believe Democrats are suffering from an identity crisis. The things we stand for are right, and they’re true. I’m not into apologizing for who we are.
I believe we Democrats are suffering from a crisis of competence. Progressive politics in America is an organizational disaster. We’re going to hear a lot over these next two days about the critical need to build up progressive power in states, including from former Attorney General Holder. We are in a very deep ditch here. Why? Our party leaders were asleep at the wheel for a decade as Republicans were on a Red March through the states. Trump was merely the unwitting beneficiary of years of conservative plotting: They made major investments, built impressive infrastructure, dominated local media and nurtured a talented farm team—and they made record gains.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee needs an overhaul, and our state parties are hurting, too. Over lunch tomorrow, we’ll hear from the candidates for DNC chair about their plans to right the ship.
But let’s not forget that Republicans are suffering several crises of their own making, beginning with Trump’s crisis of legitimacy.
There’s an opportunity to leverage these Republican crises — but we have to be canny and tenacious about it. Donald Trump very well could be the worst thing that ever happened to the GOP – if we work at it. As for conservative ideology, it’s in such dire straits that Trump campaigned and won the Presidency by abandoning its core tenets. That division in their ranks will be a gift that keeps on giving as Trump attempts to work with the GOP majorities in Congress.
Let me shift now to the meat and potatoes of what I want to talk to you about this morning. Progressive donors contributed 75 million dollars to our family of organizations in the 2016 cycle, and you deserve an honest explanation about what the heck happened with each effort, efforts that, collectively, failed to deliver the result we all wanted.
The day after the election, I moved swiftly to commission candid look-backs in both of our big organizations that were involved in the election, and I want to share the results with you today.
At American Bridge, our job was to run the opposition research effort on Trump for third party groups, unions and other SuperPACs operating independently of the campaign, and we did our job with hyper-competence and verve. American Bridge succeeded in defining Trump. According to exit polls, fewer than 4 in 10 voters had a favorable opinion of him.
Only 35 percent said he has “the temperament to serve effectively as President.” Fifty-eight percent of voters said they would be concerned or scared of a Trump presidency. And those negatives have stuck with Trump, plaguing him through his Presidential transition.
Some of you might be thinking: ‘So what? Trump won anyway.’ That’s obviously true, as strong undercurrents of resentment politics, a revolt against so-called Political Correctness, and an inchoate desire for change simply overwhelmed the negative portrait of Trump we successfully painted.
But there’s a rub. The Clinton campaign, the TV advertising fund Priorities USA and American Bridge were all operating from the same anti-Trump, poll-tested playbook. We wanted voters to understand three things about Trump.
One, that he is temperamentally unfit to serve and, thus, that a Trump Presidency is a mortal danger to the country. Two, that Trump is too divisive to lead America in the 21st century–he’s sexist, racist, xenophobic. Three, that Trump is a fraud and a con-man, only in it for himself. Put differently, Trump is not just a sexual predator, but also an economic predator. American Bridge did prodigious research proving all three points.
Top strategists, however, chose not to push the third, reasoning that Trump was already too well-branded as a successful businessman to be presented as Don the Con, I will remind you that Mitt Romney was also well-branded as a successful businessman — until he wasn’t.
Bridge amassed reams of evidence of Trump screwing over average Americans, but as we did no paid advertising, we were only able to shop these stories in the press. Much of the public never heard the devastating personal testimonials of Trump’s treachery and greed collected by Bridge, which, in retrospect, might well have moved some of the working class white voters we needed in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Did Hillary’s own campaign rob her of the only anti-Trump argument that would have opened up the all-important economic issue to her advantage? That’s the inescapable conclusion.
Media Matters, our media watchdog, had the toughest challenge this cycle of all our groups. We scored some wins and made measureable progress. There was our successful campaign to get TV news shows to ban the practice of allowing Trump to call in on a whim. We shamed the press into fact-checking Trump. And we were the first to expose the rise of the proto-fascist, alt-right media machine.
But the reality is that we were never going to overcome the powerful commercial interests of the press that drove it to wantonly and uncritically cover Trump’s reality TV shenanigans. As Les Moonves, the President of CBS said in a telling moment of candor, “Trump may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”
Unlike most everyone else, Media Matters didn’t miss the rise of fake news. We saw it happening, but by the time we determined who was behind it, it was too late to effectively counter.
We have spent countless hours since the election thinking about how to combat fake news, and you’ll be hearing tomorrow from Angelo Carusone, our digital media guru who we recently named the new president of Media Matters. He’ll tell you about the strategies and campaigns we’ve devised, and report to you on the solid progress we’ve already made, including the critical role Media Matters played in forcing Facebook to address the issue.
Media Matters matters more than at any time in its 13 year history. For the first time in American history, a Presidential administration has a minister of disinformation operating from the West Wing with ties to an alt-right media empire that is nothing more than a pro-Trump propaganda machine. Facts are now an endangered species in our public discourse, with half the country prepared to believe something is true just because the President says it’s true. And with a president who is a pathological liar, that’s an existential threat to democracy. It may be fashionable to say that facts don’t matter anymore, but I’m here to tell you that Media Matters won’t stand by and watch facts go extinct. Nor will we let Trump legitimize discrimination, destroy our environment, or roll back equality for gay and lesbian Americans.
Next up, American Bridge.
Despite his Twitter braggadocio, Trump has no mandate for his regressive plans. Trump has the legal authority but we, his opposition, have the moral authority—and the moral responsibility—to resist Trump’s dangerous policy ideas, his corrupt deals and his bad actor nominees—so far a governing team of right-wing zealots, predatory billionaires and unqualified wackos.
That’s why American Bridge has established a new War Room for Trump research, communications, rapid response and new technology tools. We’ve already begun an intensive effort to watchdog the Presidential transition, and we will soon be monitoring the personnel, policies and practices of the Trump Administration. You’ll hear much more about this at lunch from Jessica Mackler, Bridge’s president.
Our goal is to hold President-elect Trump to his post-election promise of unifying the country and being the President of all Americans. When he does, we’ll say so. Unfortunately, after running the most dishonest and divisive campaign in the history of American politics, his statements can’t be taken at face value.
Our Democratic values are the view of the majority of the country. This effort will focus on defending those values, fighting hard when they’re under assault and protecting them at all cost. American Bridge will ensure that Trump is accountable, transparent and held in check. At lunch today, you’ll also hear from former chief of staff to Vice President Biden Ron Klain, Chicago Mayor and former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Maya Harris, Hillary’s domestic policy adviser, on what to expect in Trump’s first 100 days.
American Bridge has already set up a world-class vetting operation, the largest in the Democratic Party, to investigate the records of some 1,200 potential Trump nominees to federal office. We do this with eyes wide open. Even if most of the nominees are eventually confirmed, by making the confirmation process as painful as possible, for every moment the Administration spends on defense, we’re educating Americans on what this administration is about. And we’re making it harder for them to enact their nefarious agenda.
We’re also analyzing Trump’s policy agenda to illustrate its impacts, especially on working families, women, immigrants and people of color.
American Bridge will communicate its findings to Congress, the news media, progressive allies and to the public directly, including, critically, a targeted campaign to reach Trump’s own supporters on social media and through paid advertising.
Our political strategy is straightforward. We aim to keep Trump unpopular through the 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 Presidential election. If Trump is unpopular, Democrats win. It’s as simple as that.
But the strategy of keeping Trump unpopular is more profound than partisan politics. A popular Trump is Trump unbound. We must keep Trump unpopular if we are to preserve the institutions of our democracy against a would-be autocrat. This is not partisan sour grapes. With Trump’s ascension, America faces, for the first time since 1860, a crisis of basic principles. Trump’s disgraceful attacks on our intelligence community, on civil rights hero John Lewis, and on the government ethics officer who dared to criticize him are surely just the beginning.
Let us be clear-eyed about what is happening to our country today. At the moment Trump takes the oath today, he is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution as he arrogantly refuses to divest himself of his business holdings. If Trump is allowed to violate this law, then there is no law. Trump is talking about expanding libel law to criminalize journalism. What is to stop Trump from suspending habeas corpus or ordering mass detentions next?
I’m so pleased that we will hear more on the subject of historical analogues later this morning in a presentation from Russian journalist Masha Gessen.
Now, some will say our plans to resist Trump sound like obstructionism. Indeed, I predict the coming divide in the Democratic Party won’t be ideological so much as it will be between those who resist and oppose and those who accommodate and appease.
For example, there’s talk among Democrats of cooperating with Trump on an infrastructure bill. [I strongly agree, if we can get a real one. — A.T.] Let’s again be clear: Trump’s infrastructure proposal is a fraud! As fraudulent as Trump University. Besides, we can’t pass an infrastructure bill without seeing Trump’s tax returns, because we don’t know how he’d benefit financially.
Tomorrow morning you’ll be hearing from Senator Jeff Merkely of Oregon for an inside view f what we can expect from Democratic Senate Caucus efforts to oppose Trump.
Our message is simple: Trump’s Administration amounts to one broken promise after another, not just on draining the swamp, but about standing up for the little guy. This is not just about blocking and tackling. There is great opportunity for Democrats to foment backlash among some Trump supporters and win back their votes in 2018 and 2020. The early indications are that the GOP and Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take Trump decisively down the road of a very conventional, very conservative agenda rather than the more populist, anti-Establishment one that contributed to Trump’s GOP nomination and election.
This agenda is not remotely responsive to the needs of working-class families who, in this election, not entirely wrongly, saw a corrupt Republican-Democratic duopoly and sought the change that comes from throwing the bums out. Played right, in 2018 and 2020 we can flip the script. Now let me say a few words about tactics. I believe Trump is owed the same deference from us that he paid to President Obama in the birtherism smear.
Donald Trump famously threw out the political rulebook. If we are to succeed in this period, Democrats must suspend the normal rules of politics as well.
I’m sick and tired of the Republicans taking advantage of our fundamental decency. That ends today. These times require that Democrats go at the other side with both barrels. Democrats must learn to fight an unconventional war. We need to both box and wrestle. [But, I would add and David would presumably agree, always stick to the truth as best we know it. The truth is distinctly on our side. — A.T.]
Democrats must also quickly learn to be an opposition party. We won the most votes in this election, and we should act like it. If you ask me to name Trump’s biggest vulnerability, I would point to the issue of ethics in government. Trump dusted off Nixon’s twisted logic that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
Trump seems to think he gets to decide what’s right and wrong. But he doesn’t. The American people get to decide. It is our goal to persuade voters, including Trump’s own supporters, that his administration is shaping up to be the most corrupt since the days of Teapot Dome. From his new hotel in the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue to his massive overseas financial interests that can flourish or fail depending on U.S. government policy, he is laying the groundwork for a kleptocracy that would make Boss Tweed blush.
With so many opportunities for foreign governments and corporations to gain influence over Trump, we are ready to hold Trump and his administration accountable to the Constitution, to federal law and to bipartisan traditions using every tool we have.
That’s where the non-partisan ethics watchdog, CREW, founded over 13 years ago by Norm Eisen, comes in. CREW uses litigation and ethics rules and regulations to go after corrupt politicians. For example, under the leadership of Executive Director Noah Bookbinder, last year CREW filed the IRS complaint against the Trump Foundation that triggered the penalty that led to overdue press scrutiny of his sham philanthropy.
Last month, Norm, who served as ethics counsel to President Obama, returned as chair of CREW’s board, and was joined by Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, as vice chair. You’ll have the pleasure of hearing from Ambassador Eisen about CREW’s plans to increase its organizational capacity and budget immediately to meet the Trump challenge.
Tomorrow you’ll hear about our plans for our independent news site and social media platform ShareBlue, which we launched last spring and which, during the election season quickly garnered more than a million Facebook followers. Presenting ShareBlue is award-winning investigative journalist David Sirota, who just signed on to be our new CEO. David comes to the job after years of reporting on elected officials. His investigative series have resulted in governmental probes, legislative initiatives and even resignations. With outlets like NPR and even MSNBC under increasing pressure to normalize Donald Trump, we believe now is the time to produce original and aggressive reporting that scrutinizes political power in Washington, on Wall Street and in state capitals around the country. We will continue to influence the media and criticize it, but this play is about becoming the media, to show them how it’s done.
Press reports have suggested that our aim with ShareBlue is to create a “Breitbart of the Left.” That’s wrong. What we are doing is creating an answer to the Breitbart on the left. The distinction should be obvious, but let me be clear: we aren’t getting into the fake news business. At ShareBlue, we’ll always stick to the facts.
I’m going to end with a quote that has given me comfort since the election.
It’s from a 1780 letter written to a fellow revolutionary who was considering “retiring into private life.” The staunch abolitionist Samuel Adams implored him to reconsider:
“If ever the time should come,” he wrote, “when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”
You hearty souls at this gathering—YOU are our experienced patriots. Retirement is no option. We need you to support this work, not just financially but with your deeds, your spirit, and, importantly, your ideas. So please view everything you are about to hear as a work in progress.
Quite simply, your country needs you if it is going to survive intact.
Thank you for joining us here in Miami. We’re gonna show America that we truly are stronger together.