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26 March 2024

The bloodbath affair

Democrats are making the same mistakes that got Donald Trump elected in 2016.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Donald Trump will unleash mass violence if he doesn’t win the election. So warned the Joe Biden campaign and its media allies in the wake of Trump’s remarks at a 16 March rally in Dayton, Ohio. As the mainstream media initially reported it, Trump predicted a “bloodbath” unless he gets to be president again. Soon “bloodbath”-gate was all the left-of-centre media could talk about: it was the clearest sign yet that Trump represents a threat to democracy.

Except most outlets elided the full context, creating an easy lay-up for Trump in a replay of the sort of media malpractice that helped send him to the White House in 2016. The familiar pattern goes like this: Trump uses sometimes crude or outrageous terms to raise a real issue touching the livelihoods of working-class Americans. Democrats and the “responsible people” focus on the rhetorical outrage – but the voters who matter hear the underlying issue.

The bloodbath line came in the context of a discussion of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and free trade. “China now is building a couple of massive plants, where they’re going to build the cars in Mexico,” Trump said, adding: “We’re going to put a 100 per cent tariff on every single car that comes across the line, and you’re not going to be able to sell those cars. If I get elected. Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s gonna be a bloodbath for the whole – that’s going to be the least of it – it’s going to be a bloodbath for the country. That’ll be the least of it. But they’re not gonna sell those cars.”

As the columnist Matthew Schmitz was quick to point out, industry groups have used language nearly as apocalyptic to characterise the threat posed by the so-called Mexico loophole, which could allow China to exploit America’s free-trade relationship with its southern neighbour to flood the US market with cheap EVs. The industry group Alliance for American Manufacturing, for example, has called this “an extinction-level event for the US auto industry”.

It’s true that Trump later seemed to broaden the “bloodbath” possibility beyond the auto industry. Then again, evoking a “bloodbath” in this way is common vernacular used by ordinary Americans to describe an especially devastating loss for their favourite sports team – or the results of a round of lay-offs at work. Nor have anti-Trump pundits managed to resist the expression in the past, even as they insisted on a literal interpretation of his words in Dayton.

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As the pushback against the media framing mounted, some outlets did relent. FactCheck.org, whose findings often cut against Republicans, conceded that the Trump camp’s “explanation [that the word was used in an economic sense] seems the most plausible, given the context of Trump’s comments”. Politico published an explainer headlined, “Trump’s ‘bloodbath’ tirade contained a warning on Chinese cars”. The New York Times lamented “Trump’s violent language towards EVs” (cue the eye rolls).

But plenty of others stuck with the original interpretation. Not least the Biden campaign, which cut the Dayton “bloodbath” line into an ad and has stuck with the message that Trump “wants another January 6”, when some of his supporters invaded the US Capitol. This is part of a broader Biden strategy to turn the 2024 election into a referendum on democracy itself. The message is that a second Biden term is the only thing standing between the nation and authoritarianism.

That message will no doubt resonate with Democratic-leaning voters and the upscale, suburban subset of Republicans who backed Nikki Haley in the GOP primary. But will it persuade (to describe a typical case) the union member in Michigan who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but then rallied to the Republican banner in 2016 because Trump spoke to their well-justified anxieties about free trade? It’s doubtful.

Talk of “defending democracy” in the abstract doesn’t excite anyone outside affluent postcodes and Atlanticist think tanks. In Trumpy voters’ minds, democracy is just what they will do when they cast their ballot come November. And democracy means they have the right to vote for someone who “says a lot of crazy things” or engages in “nasty antics”, but who nevertheless “has a point” (to recite the things pollsters and journalists often hear when they talk to such voters).

To break through, Democrats must address high-street grievances in strong, genuinely populist terms. Yet it’s not just Team Biden that is coming up short, but the party as a whole. A recent study conducted by the Center for Working Class Politics puts this failing in a cold light. It found that of nearly 1,000 Democratic candidates for the House and Senate in 2022, less than a third spoke of “the need for more high-quality jobs”, while only one in 20 campaigned on old-school progressive messages like “raising the minimum wage or a jobs guarantee”. All this, even though polls show that such messages are popular with voters.

It’s no mystery why. Democrats and Republicans have traded voting blocs. In 1972, if you were, say, a Wasp big-law partner in New York married to a writing teacher passionate about the burgeoning abortion-rights movement, you were more likely to vote Republican. Whereas if you were a Catholic miner or cop in Pennsylvania, you likely voted Democrat. Today, the voting patterns of these social types are almost certainly reversed.

That doesn’t mean the GOP does a good job serving its new base – it frequently doesn’t. But unless Democrats at least try to meet the populist moment, to sound less like the voice of a civility-policing establishment, come November they will be facing, well, a bloodbath.

[See also: Kate Middleton and our conspiracy culture]

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