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A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again
By Dan Pfeiffer
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There is nothing more important than beating Donald Trump in 2020, but defeating Trump is just the start of this timely book. Un-Trumping America offers readers three critical insights: first, Trump is not an aberration, but rather the logical extension of the modern Republican Party; second, how Democrats can defeat Trump in 2020; and third, preventing the likes of Trump from ever happening again with a plan to fix democracy.
While the catalog of the president's crimes is long and growing, undoing Trumpism—the political platform of racism, authoritarianism, and plutocracy that gave rise to Trump and defines the Republican Party—is a long and continuing fight. Through a craven, cynical strategy engineered by Mitch McConnell, funded by the Kochs, and fueled by Fox News propaganda, Republicans have rigged American politics to drown out the voices of the people in favor of the powerful. Without an aggressive response that recognizes who the Republicans are and what they have done, American democracy as we know it won't survive this moment and a conservative, shrinking, mostly white minority will govern the country for decades.
Un-TrumpingAmerica dismantles toxic Trumpism and offers a way forward. Dan Pfeiffer worked for nearly twenty years at the center of Democratic politics, from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill to Barack Obama's White House. But it was Trump's victory and Republicans' incessant aiding and abetting of Trumpism that has radicalized his thinking. Here, Pfeiffer urges Democrats to embrace bold solutions—from fixing the courts to abolishing the electoral college to eliminating the filibuster—in order to make America more democratic (and Democratic).
Un-Trumping America is a powerful call for Democrats and progressives to get smarter, tougher, and more aggressive without becoming a paler shade of orange.
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"This is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, needs to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for."
"Could this be it?" I thought to myself at the beginning of the scandal that sparked the fourth impeachment proceedings in American history.1 "Would this be the thing that finally caused some in the Republican Party to break with Trump?"2
If it was true—as the Washington Post and others were reporting—that during a call with the newly elected Ukrainian president, Trump used the specter of military aid to extort the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, then Trump would be guilty of a crime more serious than anything Nixon was accused of during Watergate.
To date, Trump's presidency had been far from successful. His poll numbers had vacillated between mediocre and historically terrible. He had few legislative accomplishments, and most of his executive orders were caught up in the courts because they were poorly thought out and even more poorly executed. But Trump had escaped true political accountability despite saying and doing things on a near-daily basis that would have ended most presidencies.
As I have done every day since the 2016 election, I tempered my optimism. There was no upside to getting my hopes up. After the much-anticipated Mueller report landed with a thud, I—like most Democrats—had conditioned myself to expect disappointment in the scandal department. The problem with the Mueller report wasn't that it didn't include ample evidence of wrongdoing by the president; the report was a none-too-subtle road map for impeachment. But it went nowhere. The press treated it as old news, the Democrats seemed ready to move on before the ink was dry, and Republicans just lied about it. I feared the same thing would happen again. Don't get me wrong, I had little doubt Trump was guilty of wrongdoing—it was just a question how explicit his crime was and how definitive the evidence. Trump's efforts to collude with Russia and obstruct the Mueller probe had been so ham-handed that the lines between his criminality and his incompetence were blurred.
My preemptive sense of disappointment deepened the next morning when Trump announced that he would be releasing the transcript of the call. To say Trump is not the sharpest knife in the drawer is an insult to butter knives, but even he is not dumb enough to release a transcript of a call that would implicate him in global criminal conspiracy to interfere in an American election.
In the transcript, Trump sounded like a crooked capo trying to pressure a local businessman. Trump called his conversation with the Ukraine President—the "perfect call," but it was an imperfect crime.3
In the following days, we would learn that the efforts to cover up this obviously impeachable offense involved the White House, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, and the Department of Justice. As an example, Attorney General Bill Barr who helped cover up the Mueller report played a similar role in this affair. Barr didn't recuse himself from the investigation even though Trump names him in the call with Ukraine as a participant in the criminal conspiracy.
Additionally, the witnesses to the crimes were not partisan actors but decorated veterans, career diplomats and national security professionals, as well as Trump's own staff. It's easy to miss the historical significance of what Trump did. Our national attention span is so short and the pace of events so frenetic that it's nearly impossible to step back and take stock of the moment.
Trump handled the beginning of an impeachment inquiry with his usual aplomb. In a period of about 96 hours, Trump
- called for the execution of the whistleblower and the administration officials that corroborated their account;
- referred to six members of Congress as "savages"—the six members Trump chose were two Jews and four women of color which wasn't a coincidence.
- suggested a second civil war would be an appropriate response to impeachment;4
- posted eighteen tweets5 in five minutes attacking the weekend anchor of Fox & Friends for having the audacity to ask a barely tough question of one of Trump's defenders6
- said that the Democratic chair of the Intelligence Committee should be arrested for treason, which happens to be a crime punishable by death; and
- reportedly committed another crime by agreeing to back off legislation to mandate background checks for gun sales in exchange for the National Rifle Association contributing to his legal and political defense.7
In the early days of the impeachment inquiry, public opinion moved decidedly in the Democrats' direction. Majorities backed the inquiry, and even some Republican voters were troubled by Trump's actions. There was a drumbeat of credible firsthand witnesses. Before long, there could be no doubt about what happened. The call and the extensive effort to cover it up were a crime higher than any of the crimes committed during Watergate.
Yet, Donald Trump is still president.8 In the end, none of it mattered very much. A few Republicans expressed private concerns. Some even sent a few sad tweets. But no one actually did anything. Large swaths of voters believed he had committed a crime, but few expected him to face any accountability.
As a nation, we were uncomfortably numb to crimes being committed in the Oval Office.
The whole thing was deeply depressing, but it was also final confirmation of something that had been eating at me for years.
The American political system is fundamentally broken—a fact the Republican Party has ruthlessly exploited to rig politics in their favor.
This notion was not a new one to me. The fact that the Republican Party was out of control has been obvious for a long time. They were radical, rabid, and often racist the entire time I worked for Barack Obama. Their approach to government was nihilist on the best day. They were people who just wanted to see the world burn.
At the time, I thought this was a temporary affliction on the body politic. One that would be cured by the passage of time and the 2016 election.
I cockily assumed that Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump in resounding fashion. The Republicans would learn the error of their ways and take a couple of steps back from the brink. My confidence that Clinton would win emanated from an unyielding—and mistaken—belief in the health of our democracy. Instead, Trump rode into office on the back of our broken democracy. He won with fewer votes and benefited from a raft of laws passed by Republicans to make it harder for people to vote.
The future of American democracy now depends on a Democratic Party that is eyes wide open about who the Republican Party is, what they have wrought, and what it takes to undo the damage.
Democrats have spent much of the Trump era engaging in an internal debate about the future of the party. This to be expected and healthy. We have entered the post-Obama era of the party, and we need to figure out what comes next. However, this divide is usually framed on ideological terms: moderates v. progressives. Should the party embrace the bold progressive policies advocated by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or more centrist solutions? There is often confusion in our political discourse between ideology and policy. In my experience, most voters have policy preferences but rarely view politics through the lens of one specific ideology. A candidate's ability to tell a story about why his or her policies are the right ones is exponentially more consequential than whether those policies are left, right, or center.
The focus on ideology masks the larger issue. The biggest divide in the Democratic Party is not between left and center. It's between those who believe once Trump is gone things will go back to normal, and those who believe that our democracy is under a threat that goes beyond Trump.
Everything flows from this debate. If you believe the former, simply surviving the moment is enough. If you believe the latter—as I do9—then you have to be willing to contemplate ideas that were off the table even a few years ago.
I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing more important than beating Trump, but beating Trump is not nearly enough. The Democratic Party needs an aggressive strategy to fundamentally reshape American democracy. We have to come to terms with who the Republican Party is and what they have done. We have to recognize that Donald Trump is not an aberration or an accident. There will be no Republican epiphany during or after Trump. The media won't save us.10 Bob Mueller didn't save us. And Trump's propensity for committing impeachable offenses won't save us.
It took me a long time to come to this conclusion and to embrace the solutions in this book. I am an institutionalist by nature. I have spent nearly twenty years working in Democratic politics. I have served a president, a vice president, three senators, and the Democratic Party. I spent most of my career working at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
I chose politics for my career because I thought working within the system was the best way to bring change. I believed politics and government got a bad rap. Despite cynical media coverage and reductionist Hollywood portrayals, the politicians I met were not inherently corrupt or incompetent. They were imperfect humans working within an imperfect system to do what they thought was best for the country. I believed this to be true no matter the party.11 I believed that our democracy was messy but worked. I trusted institutions and believed in norms. I thought the arc of American politics was long but ultimately bent toward democracy.
During the Obama presidency, I viewed it as our responsibility to protect our political institutions because we were the party that believed in the power of government to do good. I believed the filibuster had merit and the Electoral College was a feature, not a bug, of the system. And even if I was deeply skeptical of the motivations of the Republicans in Congress, I remained optimistic that they would one day see the folly of their ways and begin to take governing at least a little more seriously.
But I was wrong. I have been radicalized by Trump's election and everything that has happened since. I believe we need bigger, bolder solutions. The same old politics simply won't do.
Removing Trump is not enough. America is a "democracy" governed by antidemocratic institutions, a country where a growing progressive diverse majority is being governed by a shrinking conservative white minority.
My fear as we sit here on the eve of the 2020 election season is that too many Democrats in Washington remain blind to the stakes of the moment.
If Democrats don't get smarter and tougher about how we conduct politics and embrace the bold activism of the grassroots, we are going to continue to come up short. We might win some battles, but we will lose the war.
I believe that un-Trumping America involves three elements: First, understanding who the Republicans are and what their strategy is. Second, winning in 2020. And finally, using our newfound political power to fix American politics to ensure we never have to deal with someone like Donald Trump ever again.
Tim Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, used to have a saying that became a mantra in the Obama White House—"Plan beats no plan." My version of Geithner's saying was "Memo beats no memo." In the first few days in the White House, there was a staff meeting to discuss whether Obama should do a press conference. In the room were all of the new president's top advisors and me. As the then deputy communications director, I was the lowest ranking person in the room. By title alone, I shouldn't have made the cut. I think I was invited out of habit. On the campaign, which was much less hierarchical than the White House, I was always around for a meeting like this. I didn't really agree with the idea of the press conference, but no one asked my opinion and I wasn't sure I should offer it. The group quickly decided the press conference was a good idea. As everyone was gathering their things, Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff and one of the few people around the table who had worked in the White House before, said, "If we are going to do this, the president needs to be prepared. Who's writing the briefing memo with possible questions and answers?"
Everyone looked at each other in silence for a moment. No one was volunteering for this seemingly mundane and time-consuming task.
All of a sudden, I felt the collective gaze turning to me. I tried not to make eye contact, but it was too late.
"Pfeiffer?" someone said.
"Great idea," someone else said.
The rest of the room concurred, with a palpable sense of relief that they had avoided a homework assignment.12
Before I knew it, everyone was gone and I was stuck writing a memo. I was pissed. No one had acknowledged my presence in the meeting until it came time to assign some work.
As I trudged back to my new office, I ran into Stephanie Cutter, who had been Michelle Obama's chief of staff on the campaign and was now working as a top advisor at the Treasury Department. I told her how annoyed I was that I was going to be at the office all night working on the memo. Stephanie told me I was looking at it the wrong way: "In the White House, you always want to be the person who writes the memo. Being the one who holds the pen gives you the most influence on what the president says and does. Plus, they have to invite the author of the memo to the meeting."
That encounter opened my eyes. Being the person who wrote the memo, whether it was prep for a press conference or the strategic plan for the next quarter, became my golden ticket. It gave me a voice larger than my station. It gave me the opportunity to drive the strategy in the direction that I thought best. Over the next six years, I always volunteered to write the strategy memos and learned the tremendous value of being the one with the pen.
Un-Trumping America is my much longer, post–White House memo to the Democratic Party and the millions of activists that have joined the fight since Trump won. It lays out my ideas on how to defeat Trump and restore American democracy while staying true to who we are as Democrats.
This book is informed by the lessons learned in the Obama White House as we watched the rise of Trumpism and the humility of not fully understanding the danger we were facing. It's also inspired by the next generation of activists who were born out of Trump's victory—people who channeled their anger into activism and helped lead the Democrats to victories in 2018 and have pushed bolder and more progressive policies. They are the present and future of the party—if it embraces them.
And while the White House taught me the importance of being the one with the pen, Pod Save America has taught me the importance of talking (and writing) about politics in an accessible and (hopefully) entertaining way. Too often political discussions are filled with jargon and indecipherable acronyms. This isn't an accident. It's designed to separate those in the "know" from the masses. Too much political messaging is about serving spinach and then wondering why people aren't coming back for seconds and thirds. There is a reason Jon Stewart is a more influential figure than the folks who host the nightly news. There's no law13 that says politics can't be fun. So my hope is that this book is more fun than spinach.14
While the premise that Trumpism will outlast Trump can seem dark, I remain hopeful.15 Despite everything that has happened since Election Day 2016, I know we can relegate Donald Trump and this version of the Republican Party to the dustbin of history. But it's going to take a lot of work, and that work starts with understanding how we got into this mess and who we are up against.
1Three impeachment trials and counting Nixon, who resigned.
2Also, I'm doing the footnote thing again.
3Trump is like Nixon, but instead of erasing the eighteen minutes, he tweeted them out.
4I'm 90 percent sure Trump thinks civil war is an Avengers plotline and not the bloodiest war in US history.
5One of the accounts Trump retweeted was a bot account that just added the word "Shark" to Trump's tweets.
6I support this and wish Trump had sent more tweets about the Fox anchor, who deserves all the shame.
7These are not the actions of an innocent (or well) individual.
8If he weren't, I would be rewriting this book. Un-Penceing America doesn't really roll off the tongue.
9And hopefully you will soon.
10The media may have done more than not save us, but more on that later.
11The Republicans I met were much more "imperfect."
12During the campaign, Obama was answering press questions so often that he felt little need for briefing memos to be prepared for him. Donald Trump is more likely to read Infinite Jest than Obama was to peruse a memo for a series of local TV interviews. (I would bet Trump thinks David Foster Wallace is a member of the Morning Joe roundtable.)
14Really setting the bar high with this one.
15And you should, too!
How Republicans Trumped America
Trump: An Abomination, Not an Aberration
Let's do a little visualization exercise:16
It's January 20, 2021. It's a freezing but sunny day in Washington, DC. The National Mall is packed with over a million Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds. It is the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. A palpable sense of joy and relief pulsates throughout the crowd.
After a beautiful rendition of the national anthem17 and an opening prayer that spoke to diversity and inclusion, the official proceedings begin.
Seated on the platform are all of America's living former presidents and their wives—the Obamas, the Bushes, Clintons, and the Carters. All of them are smiling and appear pleased to be in attendance despite the cold.
The crowd erupts as the newly elected president makes his or her way to the podium to take the oath of office on a Bible held by Chief Justice John Roberts, who seems less excited than everyone else in attendance.
Watching the speech from the front row to the left of the new president is Donald Trump. He has a scowl affixed to his face, he can't stop fidgeting, and the wind has done no favors to his bird's nest of a hairdo. He is seated next to Ivanka because Melania decided not to come for reasons the Trump White House declined to disclose (but we could all guess).
At the conclusion of the inaugural address, which included no references to "American Carnage," Trump—now a former president—makes a beeline for the exits. He skips the congressional luncheon and heads directly to Mar-a-Lago, where he will spend the rest of his days tweeting about "voter fraud" and doing infomercials for a sketchy line of masculine virility supplements.18
Seems appealing, huh? As you can probably tell, I spend way too much time imagining Trump's political demise and national humiliation. Almost nothing would give me more joy and be better for the country than Trump's defeat in 2020. But that beautiful, hypothetical day in 2021 is the beginning, not the end, of the fight against Trumpism. Defeating Trump is not enough; defeating Trumpism must be the goal.
WTF is Trumpism?
Trumpism is a somewhat ambiguous concept. Trump is not a philosopher. He doesn't have a political theory or any underlying beliefs. The only -isms that he has ever been associated with are racism and narcissism. The best summary of Trumpism is "billionaire-funded racial grievance politics." It's plutocracy in populist clothing.
Ultimately, Trumpism is more a political playbook than anything else:
- Sowing racial division to turn out the base is acceptable.
- Lying is not only okay, it's encouraged.
- The press is the enemy of the people.
- The will of the people is at best an annoying speed bump on the path to maintaining power.
- Propaganda is the preferred method of communication.
- Winning at all costs is okay no matter the morals, laws, or consequences to the country.
Many of these tactics were used before Trump, but never so explicitly or successfully. His win supercharged the worst instincts of the Republican Party and wrote a playbook for the party that will be around for years after Trump has been defeated, retired, or imprisoned.
Why Trumpism is Here to Stay
Back when we all slept soundly with false confidence about Trump's political demise,19 I got a preview of the near future of American politics. I was hanging out at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. This was not a choice.20 CNN had sent me to do political analysis from the Democratic perspective—and who turns down a free trip to Cleveland?21 All in all, it was a very odd experience. I had been to a lot of national conventions over the years—this wasn't even the first Republican convention I had been to. But at this Republican convention, you could cut the awkward tension with a knife. The whole gathering felt like a wedding where everyone in attendance knew the union was a bad idea but no one had the guts to tell the bride and groom. In another sense, it felt like a celebration of the worst people in American politics22—a reunion of rejected guests from the C block on a Fox News daytime show. There was a class of pundits and Republican political strategists whose only path to relevance was to be one of the few Republicans willing to publicly defend Trump's indefensible conduct.23 People like Jeffrey Lord, a midlevel aide in the Reagan administration who had been in the political wilderness since the 1980s;24 David Clarke, a sheriff from Wisconsin with a troubling record; and Paul Manafort, a former aide to Bob Dole who would go on to prison. Their bet had paid off. Trump was now the nominee and they were—at least for a moment—celebrities.25
Needless to say, I didn't fit in and for that I was grateful. The whole experience was leavened by my rock-solid belief that Trump was going to lose the election and then all of these folks would return to life under whatever rock they crawled out from.
- "In a natural follow-up to his bestselling Yes We (Still) Can, Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and co-host of Pod Save America, combines an unrelenting assault on Donald Trump and the GOP with outlines of a plan for Democrats to win elections and reverse the current course of the country."—Kirkus Reviews
- "[UN-TRUMPING AMERICA] lays out the path for Democrats to save the day, not by beating Republicans at their own (dirty, he convincingly claims) game but by, like, actually doing democracy."—Booklist
PREVIOUS PRAISE FOR DAN PFEIFFER:"Dan is one of the most brilliant observers of politics and media in America, and he's never lost faith in the idea that activism and public service are noble, worthwhile pursuits -- especially for young people who want to make a difference. We learned a lot from YES WE (STILL) CAN, and we literally host a show with the guy every week. In other words, we're annoyed that he saved the best stuff for the book." —Pod Save America cohosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor
- "I love YES WE (STILL) CAN for many reasons, but most importantly because you will all get to know and learn from the best bro I know. Dan Pfeiffer's wit, brain, charm, humor, and compassion make him a formidable storyteller, the best colleague, and an even better friend. Also without him, I never would have learned how to tweet. Seriously."—Alyssa Mastromonaco, New York Times bestselling author of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? and So Here's the Thing...
- "YES WE (STILL) CAN captures the lessons of Yes We Did during the Obama years and offers clear lessons for why 2016 happened, and how progressives must adapt to win again."—David Plouffe, former campaign manager and White House senior advisor to President Obama
- "In YES WE (STILL) CAN, Dan Pfeiffer has found a way to be nostalgic for the past while still motivating you in the present. Come for the uplifting stories about his journey with President Obama, stay for the honest (and optimistic) outlook on how Democrats can get their groove back and end the Trump era. A must-read for anyone who has asked the question: "'Now what do we do?'"—Jason Kander, New York Times bestselling author of Outside the Wire
- "Amusing and insightful. This is a nostalgic and hopeful must-read for everyone who is unnerved by Trump, misses Obama, and is and determined to fight for a better future for the country."—Esquire
- "A nostalgic look back and hopeful look forward."—Kirkus
- "An entertaining work of memoir-cum-political strategy...Those who share Pfeiffer's admiration of Obama...will love both the chatty insider anecdotes and the advice."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jun 8, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages