Commentary: The anti-Trump coalition isn't happening

Protesters gather near Trump Tower against US President Donald Trump August 14, 2017 in New York. While on his first trip back to Trump Tower since his inauguration, marchers came together to protest against white supremacy and hatred and against Trump's to meet ongoing threats from North Korea with "fire and fury." / AFP PHOTO / Eduardo MUNOZ ALVAREZ (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AFP/Getty Images

Here's an intriguing idea, at least on the surface: In the name of protecting democracy against the apparently existential threat that is Donald Trump, all the forces opposed to him should stop fighting with each other and focus their energies on the president.

This strategy was first proposed by Benjamin Wittes, the Lawfare Blog proprietor and Trump critic known for his "tick tick tick" tweets, and has attracted a few proponents in the last week, including my friend Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast.

Riffing on Wittes' idea, Tomasky proposes a "Popular Front" of Trump antagonists modeled on the Communist Party's anti-fascist strategy of the 1930s, which involved the normally fractious left locking arms in the struggle against Nazis. "And when the USSR became our ally during World War II," Tomasky writes, "Roosevelt and Stalin, two men with very different and indeed irreconcilable world views, were both Popular Frontists."

If Uncle Joe and FDR could unite against a common threat, this thinking goes, why can't #NeverTrumpers like Bill Kristol and progressives like Bernie Sanders? I'll quibble with Tomasky's brief history for a bit and note that America's still-romanticized Communist Party was effectively pro-Hitler at the start of the war due to Stalin's alliance with the Nazis. Pete Seeger, the great red troubadour of the Popular Front, released an anti-war album after the Germans had already begun gobbling up much of Europe. He became an interventionist again only after Barbarossa.

The Popular Front's troublesome history aside, I can think of only two reasons why this Wittes/Tomasky idea is a bad one. The first is that such a grand anti-Trump coalition already exists. It's called "basically everyone in Washington," or at least just about everyone who does politics for a living outside the White House, whether they be staffers or writers. Editorialists of the world, unite!

The problem with our real, existing Popular Front is that nobody really seems to care that much about it outside of the people in it. In terms of real numbers, it's minuscule. Democrats and Republicans alike can get together to drink and kvetch about the president, but that's not a movement, it's a dinner party. Wittes and Tomasky seem to recognize this somewhat and hope that anti-Trumpism can attract real support among voters, which brings me to my second objection: Electorally speaking, such an alliance makes no sense.

Tomasky's outline for his coalition is, as he notes, "bipartisan and unobjectionable": pro-First Amendment, "getting to the bottom of Russia," and an end to anti-Muslim bigotry, presidential abuses of power, and all the other bad things we've seen in this year of Trump.

I'm on board with all that and then some, but the problem is the "bipartisan and unobjectionable" part. We Americans like to argue, and while it's true that the vast majority of us can agree to certain principles, the stuff we fight over isn't all small ball. You can't run a presidential campaign on the idea that liberal democracy must be defended and ditch the rest because – as Jeet Heer notes at The New Republic – it's the rest that actually gets people to the polls.

People vote on guns. They vote on immigration. They vote on taxes and trade and crime. They do not vote for vague, amorphous promises of good government. Presumably an anti-Trump coalition would have a more detailed set of policies than that, and this is where the problem gets worse, because those policies will probably be both unpopular and largely terrible.

The centrist pundit's dream candidate always combines some kind of mushy welfare state liberalism with hawkish, Bushian foreign policies. Think Clintonism without the Clintons. And while there's a rather good chance we get some kind of third party candidate in 2020, if that's the platform they run on, it's a go-nowhere proposition.

The popular appetite for Third Way centrism in the current moment is basically nonexistent, which is why Trump has captured the GOP and the Democrats are rapidly moving left. This kind of polarization might leave the elites without a natural political home, but a union of elites, which is what this anti-Trump Popular Front would quickly become, is not the correct remedy. 

So what is? Well, I'd argue that Trump provides all of his many critics a chance to refine and tweak their arguments. Conservative dissidents should figure out a way forward for the right that loses Trump's vulgar, empty populism while still attracting his voters. Liberals, finally free of the Clintons and their pernicious influence, can concentrate on ways to improve the welfare state and better sell its benefits.

To his critics, a Trump presidency has always seemed like the end of the world. But here we are, one year in, and the fact is the guy hasn't really done all that much. This isn't an argument for complacency, but it is one against hysteria. The president could still prove to be an existential threat to democracy. But he could also be looked back on as an odd four-year blip, a popular revolt that didn't yield much in terms of actual change and presaged the return of something, for lack of a better word, normal.

So put aside grandiose dreams of popular resistance and skip ahead to the hard work of beating him, which starts with understanding how he won in the first place. That's something we can argue about for a long time, and earnestly having that debate that will prove more fruitful, and better for the republic, than building some unworkable coalition against him. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.