Did Donald Trump just turn a freshman Democratic senator with an itchy Twitter finger into a presidential contender?
Until last year, Chris Murphy was a serious-minded student of the U.S. Senate, a lawyerly freshman from Connecticut who, when elected in 2012, was the chamber’s youngest member and even now is still only 43 years old. He joined the Foreign Relations Committee, studied up on Russia and the fighting in Ukraine, and filibustered on the Senate floor in favor of gun control, his signature cause ever since the deadly massacre of young children at a Newtown, Connecticut, school. His social media feed was a cheery mix of town-hall meeting notices, grip-and-grin photos with visiting constituents, and wonky links to foreign policy commentary. Few considered him a candidate for the White House, at least not anytime soon.
Then came Trump.
And Murphy turned out to have a skill that the older, more experienced Democrats in the Senate do not: Twitter-trolling a president whose own genius for 140-character media manipulation has entirely transformed the idea of the presidential bully pulpit.
Like it or not, appropriating Trump’s confrontational Twitter style is the future of the Democratic Party, says Murphy, and one that too many Democrats are still ignoring as they continue to fail to come to grips with Trump’s election victory. In a new interview for The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs, Murphy says he and others need to channel the “authenticity” that Hillary Clinton lacked on the campaign trail – and acknowledge the “fairly revolutionary mood” that brought Trump to power. Murphy’s tweets “are just me typing out legitimate, real, emotional frustration with what this president is doing and saying,” he tells me, “and I think as a general matter, more Democrats should do.”
This became clear within days of Trump’s inauguration, when Murphy hit upon a simple, inflammatory and instantly viral response to Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees. He tweeted a heartbreaking, iconic photo of a dead Syrian boy from a couple years back, washed up on a Greek beach seeking safe haven. “To my colleagues,” he wrote, “don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today.” Outraged conservatives fumed that the photo was from Barack Obama’s presidency, not Trump’s. TV shows talked about it. News articles were written.
It was not a very senatorial thing for the gentleman from Connecticut to do. And Murphy’s been Twitter-resisting pretty much full time ever since, though his 235,000 Twitter followers and counting still pale in comparison to Trump’s 29 million. When Trump not long ago gave a speech to the National Rifle Association, Murphy tweeted through the whole thing – pictures of dead victims of gun violence, many of them children. More recently, he tweeted that Trump’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is “an intellectual and moral dumpster fire.” When Trump last week unexpectedly invited Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman leader of the Philippines accused of numerous extrajudicial killings and other abuses, to the White House, Murphy quickly tweeted: “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.”
Murphy is, in other words, embracing Trump’s techniques to resist Trump’s presidency. Even his inflammatory appropriation of images of dead children is legit in this new political moment, Murphy tells me, reflecting his desire to make sure people are “psychologically and emotionally challenged” amid “the seriousness of the threats that are posed to this country by the Trump administration.”
As Democrats continue to sift through the election wreckage, Murphy’s answer to the why-did-Clinton-lose question is revealing. He doesn’t outright dismiss the effect of FBI director James Comey’s last-minute public reopening of the Clinton email probe or of the Russian hacking into her campaign – both factors cited by Clinton herself in an interview last week that marked her most extensive comments yet on the loss. “She was not the right candidate for the moment,” he says. “Obviously, in retrospect, we know that people were in a fairly revolutionary mood and having someone that was so clearly identified with the Democratic and the Washington establishment” just didn’t work.
But Murphy is much more focused on what Trump did right than other Democrats I’ve spoken with. And he seems determined to steal from the president’s playbook. Trump, he says, had clear, memorable ideas like building the wall on the Mexican border—and a tactical brilliance in communicating them, “doing everything in a way that was unexpected for a major political candidate, and people liked that because they hated what they were seeing from the run-of-the-mill, conventional candidates. Whether there’s genius or not, he tapped into something that I don’t think Democrats ever saw.”
Does anyone still remember what Clinton’s signature campaign promises were? Whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020, Murphy says, he or she “absolutely should learn from the Trump campaign that wherever you decide to fall with respect to ideology, you have to have a couple of big, easy-to-understand ideas if you want to become president.”
Of course, it’s a lot easier to articulate a theory of the case about the last election than a vision for the next one.
But Murphy is one of a handful of Democrats who’ve started trying, in his case, releasing a “Rethinking the Battlefield” proposal to double U.S. spending on foreign aid – clearly a nonstarter at a time when Trump is seeking a 30 percent budget cut in State Department funding – as well as a series of “progressive foreign policy principles” and speechifying at places like the Council on Foreign Relations about the dangers of a Middle East policy that relies too much on problematic allies like Saudi Arabia. No doubt, Murphy is still an improbable national figure and he has little international experience to bring to his Foreign Relations seat; a Williams and University of Connecticut law school graduate who spent a short time practicing real estate law, he won his first political office, a state assembly seat, while still in his 20s and has been campaigning ever since.
So what, I ask, is his vision for a Democratic foreign policy in the Trump era, as the new president vows to put “America first” and U.S. allies worry he will withdraw from global leadership? “It’s an America that is forward-deployed in the world,” Murphy says, but “with an acknowledgement that the blunt force of military power cannot adequately protect us, given the fact that the threats posed to us today are largely not conventional military threats.”
Much of it sounds like the foreign policy views of another freshman senator, Barack Obama, when he first ran for the presidency on a platform of ending America’s Middle East wars. I ask Murphy how he thinks Obama’s campaign rhetoric held up through eight years of office, with U.S. troops still in Afghanistan today, a new fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and a six-year civil war in Syria that saw Obama critiqued for not doing enough to intervene even as he supported a series of rebel militias with military aid and training.
Murphy was surprisingly critical. “In Syria, listen, I just think he abandoned his doctrine,” Murphy tells me. “He ended up making the situation worse because he put in just enough military support to keep the resistance, the rebels, going, but never enough for them to win, and our policy in Syria under Obama essentially exacerbated that civil war rather than making it better.”
Now, just a few months into Trump’s tenure, he says Democrats are already making that same mistake again by cheering for Trump’s recent decision to launch a Tomahawk missile strike inside Syria as retaliation against a Syrian government chemical weapons attack on civilians.
“It is still emblematic of even my party’s inability to understand foreign policy outside of the military realm. To me, sending 60 Tomahawk missiles into a country side-by-side with a policy of locking those same kids you were trying to protect in Syria because you refuse a) to let refugees into the United States and b) fund the refugee resettlement programs that allowed them to get into other countries is indefensible,” Murphy says. “And so it’s a mystery to me why so many of my colleagues were willing to support that Tomahawk missile strike given that it did absolutely nothing to change the reality of the battle space.”
But for the most part, Murphy sees his Democratic colleagues as largely united in opposing Trump’s foreign policy agenda on Capitol Hill. A bigger challenge is the Republican Party. Although he has in the past worked across the aisle with other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and GOP democracy promoters like Senator John McCain, he says he now sees a situation where Republicans, even those whose longstanding foreign policy principles are being threatened or directly challenged by Trump, are afraid of taking on a volatile president who remains popular with their base.
“They are all willing to criticize Trump’s foreign policy behind closed doors,” Murphy says. “Some of them are willing to criticize it in public, but they have been unwilling thus far to vote in a manner that would disrupt it.”
All those tweets have clearly gotten the Trump White House’s attention. By March, sources were telling the New York Post that Trump strategist Steve Bannon had asked political aides to look into four possible Democratic rivals to Trump in 2020, including Murphy. He was soon being cited on lists (including one by Politico’s Playbook) as a leader of the Democratic resistance, and when the inevitable who’s-a-candidate in 2020 stories started a few weeks ago, his name figured in most of them, no matter that Murphy is a little-known backbencher from a small state, whose main claim to fame until his tweets was a nearly 15-hour gun control filibuster on the Senate floor last year.
Then again, most of the early speculation has focused on extremely unlikely candidates, from former Vice President Joe Biden, whose recent round of selfie-taking with fans in New Hampshire inspired a bout of 2020 handicapping notwithstanding the fact that he will be 77 come the next election, to another up-and-coming young Democrat, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who just last week said she’s not a contender. Pretty much every move of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is now covered as if she’s the presumptive Democratic nominee – if she wants it.
So is Murphy running?
Well, let’s just say there wasn’t much of a denial – or actually, any denial—when I asked him at the end of our interview, though he was quick to emphasize he’s focused first on winning reelection in 2018. He has raised millions of dollars for that race already this year, aided by his heightened profile and frequent Trump-bashing fundraising appeals to small donors.
“I am interested in standing up and being part of a national effort to stop the Trump agenda,” Murphy says. “I do see the need to be part of that but, you know, my focus is really only on running for reelection. That’s what I’ve got to be concerned with right now.”
Not long after our conversation is over, the news comes that Republicans on the other side of the Capitol have gotten the votes to put their Obamacare repeal bill through the House. As I leave Murphy’s office, there’s a swarm of constituents waiting to meet him, people stacked up three deep in the narrow entrance foyer.
But there he is tweeting about the health care drama before I’m even in the cab.
“This is a rare ‘life or death’ vote,” he taps out onto his iPhone. “Thousands will die if this bill becomes law. Upton amendment is just political cover for cowards.”
The gentleman from Connecticut may not yet be running for president. But he is definitely learning from one.