Four years after President Donald Trump drove the rules of politics over a cliff to win the Republican presidential nomination and ultimately the presidential election, Democrats will go through their own version of the same test.
In less than a month, Democratic voters will begin the formal process of sifting through a historically large field of candidates. The options include progressives who have inspired energy — and strong opposition — by rejecting traditional party politics and pushing for fundamental changes to America’s political, social and economic systems. Voters could pick the oldest nominee in the party’s history — or the youngest.
Ironies abound at the outset of the Democratic primary.
The oldest candidate at 78, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has a loyal following among young voters but has yet to prove he can build a broader coalition. Older voters, meanwhile, have shown interest in Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose moderate vision has been greeted with skepticism by many fellow millennials.
And a party that prides itself on valuing diversity is contending with a top tier that is all white and mostly male.
The battle for the White House will unfold amid a great political realignment that is disrupting decades-long political alliances and further dividing America by education, gender and race. That means the election will likely serve as a referendum not only on the candidates, but also the country and its definition of the American presidency.
Some of Trump’s most influential allies say he is ready and willing to make 2020 the nastiest presidential contest in living memory.
Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who has long fanned the flames of Trump’s scorched-earth politics, indicated that Trump would lean more aggressively into populism and nationalism over the coming year. And he offered a warning to Democrats who have engaged in a largely polite nomination fight so far: The “pillow fight” is almost over.
“This will be one for the ages. You’re going to get full Trump at max speed,” Bannon told The Associated Press.
Bannon insisted the GOP has become the “working-class party” under Trump, although he has some concern about Trump’s standing with working-class women. His more serious concern, however, lies with the narrow, but vocal slice of establishment-minded Republicans who are fighting his reelection.
He referenced the recent birth of an anti-Trump group dubbed the Lincoln Project, led by veteran Republican strategists who are planning a nationwide campaign to convince disaffected Republicans and independent voters to vote Democrat. The group’s leadership features conservative attorney George Conway, who is the husband of Trump’s chief White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
“We need the Republican establishment on board,” Bannon said, noting that Trump essentially won the presidency because of less than 80,000 combined votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — “an inside straight,” he called it.
“If these guys can peel off 3% or 4%, that’s going to be serious,” he said of Trump’s Republican rivals.
Yet for all the talk of shifting voting blocs, intra-party fights and what will almost certainly be the most expensive campaign in the history of the world, Bannon believes that Trump’s fate will ultimately be decided by one man.
“Only Trump can beat Trump,” he said.