An Open Letter to the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee


By Mickey Desruisseaux, Columnist

In light of the wave of startling political events and tragedies last week, Columnist Mickey Desruisseaux takes a look at identity politics within our current administration and writes an open letter to the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee.

Dear [your name here],

Shortly after the 2016 election, when I had finished repeatedly carving “all is lost” into the walls of my apartment while listening to a loop of Johnny Cash’s “I See a Darkness,” I got into an argument with a classmate regarding the country’s future. We agreed that Donald Trump had risen to power by preying on millions of Americans’ prejudices, but we were split on to what extent his share of the electorate was responsible, and how the left wing should respond once the shock wore off and the Lord of the Long Ties’ presidency began in earnest. He thought that calling attention to Trump’s racism, nativism and xenophobia played into his hands by entrenching his voters and that Democrats should focus on redressing the white working class’ economic concerns. I said that downplaying Trump’s behavior bred complacency, let his voters off the hook for the consequences of their decision and that they should instead target people who sat the election out rather than try to win back those who broke red. We went at it for a while before he exasperatedly asked if I “wanted to win or wanted to be right.”

To which I smirked and said, “Is it too much to ask for both?”

(That’s not how I replied. That’s how I wish I’d replied, because one should never pass up on an opportunity to quote an Avenger.)

But as the midterm elections draw nearer, I find myself flashing back to that conversation. Because no matter how they turn out, this is a balancing act that you, the nominee, are going to have to keep walking until 2020 — maybe even beyond. As it turns out, in many ways my friend and I were both wrong and both right. Prejudice was indeed the predominant factor motivating Trump’s electorate, but studies suggest that counteracting it isn’t going to be enough to swing the pendulum alone. So I won’t tell you how far to the left or to the center the rest of your platform should lean. I can’t tell you what to do with what’s left of the Affordable Care Act, how high or low taxes should be on the different income brackets of the country or how to narrow income disparity.

All I will say is that you, as the Democratic nominee, are going to have to lean into what many dismissively call identity politics. Because after the horror of the last few days, the people whose identities are being politicized cannot afford you not doing so.

To wit: 11 Jewish people were shot and killed in a synagogue during the sabbath by a gunman screaming anti-Semitic rhetoric the entire time. Two black people were killed by a gunman in a store, seemingly as a twisted consolation prize when he couldn’t get into a black church and emulate Dylann Roof’s massacre from 2015. Pipe bombs were sent to roughly a dozen of the president’s favorite stump speech targets, including journalists and political rivals — you may well have been one of the targets. The administration is trying to legalese the transgender community out of political existence. And if the president’s drumbeat on the caravan of Central American refugees isn’t enough of a brown-person boogeyman, he would also like you to know that it’s possible that there are nebulously-defined people he denotes as Middle Easterners among their ranks.

Heaven forfend.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump is not the president because he eschews identity politics. He’s the president because he practices them better than anyone anticipated from a political neophyte running his first campaign. The wall is identity politics. The travel ban is identity politics. Defending Confederate monuments and picking fights with black athletes is identity politics. Providing rhetorical cover for Neo-Nazis and Klansmen is identity politics. Mocking sexual assault survivors is identity politics. Trying to freeze transgender personnel out of the military is identity politics. It may be possible for you to find a route back to the White House by taking a page from the Clinton playbook (that’s Bill, not Hill) and avoiding all racial or ethnic rhetoric and doubling down on the economy. But in the wake of the horrors of the past week, if not months and years, such a victory would be hollow, and in a race where the president will undoubtedly make hurting others an explicit part of his platform, you will have to explicitly make protecting them a part of yours.

However it’ll be painted, this isn’t a far-left idea. You don’t have to want police forces dismantled across the country or encourage anthem protests to oppose police brutality and condemn those who encourage it. You don’t have to believe sexual assault accusations to at least take them seriously and find it distasteful when a woman’s account is turned into a punchline at a political rally. You can be as straight as the proverbial arrow and never think to ask after someone’s pronouns without accepting the administration’s ongoing broadside against the LGBTQ community. You can be the most Christ-like Christian in all of Christendom and not turn a blind eye from Islamophobic or anti-Semitic rhetoric. And you can speak to the economic concerns of the all-so-critical white working class without feeding them a scapegoat instead of doing the hard work of trying to dismantle their prejudices.

These aren’t new or radical notions. If you want to throw it back to the Founding Fathers in true political tradition, you can cite Benjamin Franklin’s (possibly apocryphal) warning to either hang together or hang separately. If want to root this message in biblical precedent, there’s Matthew 25, 31-46, detailing Christ’s encouragement to care for the least among us. If you like your messianic figures a bit more recent, there’s Dr. King’s immortal line penned in a Birmingham jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” However you phrase it, the message has to be explicit: a country where the government either encourages or turns a blind eye to the suffering of its people cannot be the land of the free, and a country where other Americans don’t stand up to that government in the name of political expediency does not deserve to be called the home of the brave.

I can’t say what the next two years hold in store. No matter how the midterms go, if the blue wave gets dashed across the rocks or if it evolves into a tsunami, it’s a solid bet that the president will, in his own words, “tone up” his apocalyptically histrionic rhetoric. And in response, people will still be arguing about what direction we should go.

It’s not going to be easy. Then again, you wouldn’t be running for president if it were.

(P)optics is an irreverent take on the political and pop culture news of the day from a nerdy, left-of-center, black-ish perspective. A play on words, the title hinges on the word “optics” to communicate insight on both pop culture and politics.

Mickey Desruisseaux is a 1L at the School of Law. A Political Science major and Creative Writing minor, most of his work in and out of school has been at the crossroads of the two disciplines. Email Mickey at [email protected]

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