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Reed Galen: Democrats are playing chess while Trump is eating the pieces

(Evan Vucci | AP file photo) President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the Lima Army Tank Plant on March 20, 2019, in Lima, Ohio.

As the 2020 presidential campaign enters its post-Labor Day cycle, Democratic aspirants are scrambling to boost their poll numbers and fundraising to qualify for September’s debates.

President Donald Trump, in the meantime, making sure he stays central to the latest political cyclone; ready, willing and able to do or say whatever it takes to remain there.

As they recover from a summer filled with deep-fried Oreos and pork chops, Democrats are missing how the race for the White House is actually playing out. While they participate in quadrennial ritual and their policy hamsters crank out thousands of words, Trump’s game is different: It’s not about policy. It’s about culture, the past and spectacle.

For decades, Trump has incited public opinion with his outlandish statements and racially charged stunts. That he now employs them with impunity should come as no surprise. For his supporters, approximately 30% of the country, his act is more than catnip; it serves as political opioids for the MAGA crowd. He knows to keep his base close, he must provide their G receptors with fresh outrage and sputtering Twittersphere liberals.

In his book on Russian active political measures, “The Road to Unfreedom,” Timothy Snyder explains Trump’s antics. Trump is a practitioner (whether strategically or because of who he is) of what Snyder calls the “politics of eternity.” The president looks exclusively to the past (think “Make America Great Again”) to encourage his supporters to ignore the future, which is uncertain and uncomfortable, and focus on the past, when they believed they were better off and, perhaps more importantly, when their caste was dominant.

Trump is able to survive politically because the majority of this activity takes place virtually – he is everywhere and nowhere. He is a two-dimensional character, words on a Twitter feed, a voice on a telephone or a body standing behind the podium, seen up close only by the few thousand people in the crowd. Trump projects his preferred image.

In contrast, think about Trump’s recent rally in Ohio at which protesters interrupted him. Watch the president’s body language and strange hand gestures. He stalks away from the lectern, points at the offenders and indicates some desired action.

To counter Trump’s political apparition, Democrats must first accept they’re playing the wrong game. It was perhaps the least conventional Democratic candidate, Marianne Williamson, who admonished her fellow candidates last month, noting that Trump will not be defeated by having better plans. In politics, policy may win minds, but it rarely wins hearts. The 2020 Democratic field and their plans are so many tails wagging dogs. They’re disconnected from a forward looking, positive vision for the country’s future. For all Americans.

To effectively take on Trump next year, the Democratic nominee will need to pull off a difficult double move. First, they must explain to Americans — from Corona, Calif., to Columbus, Ga. — why they want to be president, what their leadership looks like and what it means for the tens of millions of Americans who not only feel they’re being left behind, but whom data shows are not keeping up with the transformative technological or economic tides at work today.

The second piece of the strategy involves something that Trump truly detests: being brought back to Earth. When characters like the president (and he is absolutely playing a role) come in contact with reality, they rarely succeed. Democrats must find a way to bring Trump’s political Icarus back to Earth.

None of this is easy, nor will Trump and his campaign sit idly by while their opponents begin cracking the code. But now is the time, if there ever was a time, to understand why Trump does what he does, get over the daily outrage and spectacle he knows keeps us pre-occupied, and make him three-dimensional.

Only then, will the country find new direction next November.

Reed Galen

Reed Galen, Park City, is an independent political strategist who has worked for President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He can be found on Twitter @reedgalen.

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