Last Saturday I was at a restaurant with my daughter when I ran into a friend of a friend. With little preamble she said, her voice choked with panic, “He’s going to win again.” She told me, I think half-facetiously, that she was finding it hard to socialize, because she could scarcely talk about anything but her horror of Donald Trump and her suppurating fear that he could be reelected.
Pundits sometimes address Democratic primary voters as if they were complacent about the chances of another Trump term and need a harsh dose of reality. The primary campaign, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote recently, “has proceeded in blissful unawareness of the extremely high chance that Trump will win again.” But if there are Democrats out there who think beating Trump is going to be easy, I’ve yet to meet them. I’m deeply scared, and so are most progressives I speak to.
According to the polls, we’re not alone; in one recent survey, 67% of Democrats said they feel anxious about the election. Reports from Iowa suggest that Democratic primary voters, desperate to find a silver bullet against Trump, are wracked with indecision.
“Nobody knows what to do,” one member of a county Democratic committee told The Associated Press. “They’re all afraid.”
Obviously, fear makes sense, given the stakes of this election. But too much of it can be demoralizing, even disabling.
“Democrats are particularly prone to toggling between overconfident jubilance and terrified paralysis,” said Ben Wikler, who was elected Wisconsin Democratic Party chair in June after years with the progressive organizing group MoveOn.
Part of the problem is that it’s not clear exactly what Democrats who abhor Trump should be doing right now. Immediately after the 2016 election, there was the Women’s March, then the airport protests, then the health care town halls. Democrats mobilized for a series of special elections and then for the 2018 midterms. That mobilization is still happening — it’s why Democrats just won big victories in Virginia and, it appears, Kentucky. But at the moment, a lot of Democratic political energy is being spent on the primary, an inevitably divisive process that leaves many people second-guessing themselves.
Those shaken by the possibility of a second Trump term, however, can take concrete steps to make that prospect less likely, even if they don’t live in swing states. Doing so isn’t only useful — it’s therapeutic.
“The best answer to despair is recognizing that you’re not helpless,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible and co-author of the new book “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump.”
Where to start? Well, in Wisconsin, said Wikler, the general election is already underway. Just this past weekend, volunteers braved the snow to knock on 54,000 doors, looking to identify voters who might be sympathetic to Democrats but who aren’t on Democratic voter lists. Until recently, said Wikler, those lists didn’t include a single person in the town of Seymour, population 3,459. But canvassers there found enough people fired up about beating Trump to form their own local group.
At this point, Wisconsin Democrats don’t need outsiders to fly in and knock on doors. What they do need are virtual volunteers to call and text reminders to local canvassers. And, of course, they need money. Once I learned that individuals can donate $10,000 to each of the state Democratic parties, I wondered why I’m not being invited to fundraisers to rebuild the blue wall every weekend.
“As much as people are obsessing over the primary, the work of donating and volunteering and showing up and getting involved — especially in state parties in battleground states — is essential now,” Wikler said. “People often make panic donations in the last couple of weeks of a campaign. Certainly those donations are welcome, but at the end of a campaign all you can do is buy some more ads. If you make the panic donation a year out, it means that state parties and outside groups can hire more field organizers to train more volunteers to be able to reach out to more neighbors who might never get onto the get-out-the-vote lists unless the conversation starts months and months in advance.”
There are also plenty of things that volunteers can do outside the Democratic Party structure. Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the Florida governor’s race last year, is leading a huge voter registration drive in that crucial state. Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for Georgia governor, has founded a group, Fair Fight 2020, to register and mobilize voters and tackle voter suppression.
Indivisible is working on driving more than 1 million calls to Republican senators who are up for reelection next year demanding a fair and open impeachment trial.
“The goal is not, if you’re in Brooklyn, call into Iowa, because Joni Ernst doesn’t care what you think,” said Levin, referring to Iowa’s junior senator.
Instead, Indivisible has created a tool that allows members to call progressives in states like Iowa, talk to them about impeachment, and then patch them through to their senators’ offices. In Oregon, he said, some people have been hosting calling parties.
Levin reminded me that in 2017, Democrats’ chances of winning the House seemed bleak, given the effect of gerrymandering.
“In early 2017 we got laughed at when we said we could take the House,” he said.
The blue wave of 2018 wasn’t preordained — people built it. They’re building another. The only cure for worrying about whether it will be big enough is to help.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.