Benjamin Franklin once said we have a republic if we can keep it. And that’s why (in these weird times) we should read Running against the Devil. In it, Rick Wilson (a life-long Republican who left a party to which he had given 30 years of his life) tells Democrats what they must do to win in 2020 and what will happen if they don’t. The book is divided into three parts. First, Rick spells out what will happen if Trump wins a second term, then he explains some of the issues Democrats will have and finally he outlines what Democrats must do to win.
Rick likens himself to a KGB agent who walks into an American embassy carrying Soviet plans. The analogy is apt. Rick helped build the Republican political machine and he now tells Democrats how to beat it. Because if they don’t, things will be bleak. How bleak? If the first four years were all about having the taxpayers subsidize everything Trump, the next four will be, to quote Rick, a time when “the menu of prices for government services will become more transparent. ‘You want to invade Kraplakistan? Sure, buy two dozen F-35s, and be sure to throw in Eric’s commission, and we won’t say a word.’… Corruption, self-dealing, and criminality [will] become the central tendency of government.” If Trump wins re-election. The cruelty (against immigrants, against Americans) will get worse. And when the economy goes downhill (and despite all the free money, it’s looking shaky now; our manufacturing has been in a Recession for a while), Trump will be at the helm. And that’s just the start.
And Trump very well might get that second term because the Republican machine was designed to give him one. Its aim is to make Democrats do stupid stuff and scare voters. The idea is to make Democrats act like they are taking something from people. That could mean tricking Democrats into saying they want to take away private health insurance or imply that unless you use “he/she” instead of “he” you won’t keep your job. This has nothing to do with reality; it’s all about perception. But since politics runs on perception, Democrats must avoid these traps.
If Democrats want to win, they need to make this election a referendum on Trump and Trump’s corruption. Trump is the guy who truly is trying to take away your healthcare. He is in court right now arguing that if you have ever been sick, you should not have health insurance. Make it about that. This is the guy who throws babies who are breast feeding into cages. Make it about that. And don’t forget that this election will be fought in 15 swing states, many of which have sizable older and Catholic populations. These are not progressive voters. They don’t like socialism. (Oh, I should warn you that if you read this book even once, you will be able to recite the names of the swing states in your sleep—that’s how often Rick mentions them and in case it hasn’t quite sunk in which states they are and how un-woke they are, on page 231 Rick gives you a table listing those 15 states and their partisan voting index. I am not kidding.)
How do you talk to swing voters? To begin with, as Rick says, “speak American.” Democrats spend so much time wrapped up in policy papers (which will be weaponized against them because there will be things in the 600-page plans that scare people) that we talk like policy wonks. Don’t do that. Just say what you want to accomplish and leave the process the policy out of it. At one point, Rick calls that superficial. I disagree. I think it’s deeply practical.
Look, I care deeply about immigration. What can I tell you about immigration? I hate that we, as a nation, are putting kids in cages and on a personal level—my husband is British—that the rules are arbitrary, don’t work, and you need a lawyer if you want to “come here legally.” I want it fixed. How? I have no idea. Just fix it. I think most Americans think like that—not in terms of process but in terms of outcomes. We know what isn’t working and we want to hire the right people to fix it. Why should I become an immigration expert? On immigration, I want policy that will fit on a trucker’s hat.
And Rick tells Democrats exactly how to frame that “policy”. In what I think is the most important chapter (aptly named “Speaking American”) he says, the Democratic nominee should say: “President Trump puts children in filthy cages without blankets, adequate food and water, or medical attention. His policies are killing people who want to come to America to seek asylum or legal status. America is a better country this, and we have always welcomed immigrants to our shores. We believe immigration reform will make our borders more secure, and our nation more prosperous.” That’s it. Figuring out the details is why we, the voters, are hiring you in the first place.
It’s the same story when Rick offers “a mild suggestion to Democrats: Please don’t scare the living shit out of [voters]. Telling them things like “We’re going to eliminate your private health insurance” isn’t a recipe for confidence in these skittish voters. They’re from the suburbs. They like normalcy. They like a system that doesn’t feel too disruptive. They want a return to sanity, not a different flavor of ideological passion.” Want to talk about healthcare? Personally, I think that’s a great idea. (But then I am a healthcare policy wonk.) Here’s how. Democrats should say they will protect people with pre-existing conditions and that Trump is trying to take away folks’ healthcare. There is a lot more of this kind of advice in these pages. Advice I highly recommend you read.
This book tells you how to message; talks about the nuts and bolts of running a campaign; tells you what the other side will do; how to deal with Trump attacks; which voters are most likely to turn out and, most of all, it tells you what is at stake. In the process, Rick destroys some beloved myths. (For example, he provides statistical proof that the youth are not going to turn out in droves to save the Republic.)
Why is a man who gave 30 years of his life to the GOP doing this? Because right now we’re all on the same team: America. Rick is acting like it. Let’s do likewise.