For the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, Senate Democrats showed an alarming eagerness to cooperate with the incoming executive.
Then Trump provoked a Constitutional crisis, and his Customs and Border Patrol agents openly defied the judicial branch of the United States government to enforce his chaotic, radical policy of freezing immigration and travel for visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries.
With protesters flooding airports in the cities that have actually been victims of terrorist attacks, American voters got their first glimpse of how Democrats might dig in against the new administration’s attempts to abandon longstanding U.S. values. Elected officials didn’t just offer moral support; they showed up in person and lent the power of their office to a concrete effort at combating injustice.
But even then, Democrats were not leading a resistance. They were racing to catch up with the people who moderate strategists and elected officials within the party’s fraying Congressional minority have been ignoring for years.
If Democrats continue begging political media to cover their oh-so-adult compromises, they will stand zero chance of reaching Americans who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe politics.
A gap has opened up between federal officeholders with a “D” next to their names and the wide majority of Americans who do not like President Trump. Staunch Senate resistance to Trump’s ill-suited and ethically challenged cabinet nominees last week suggests some in Washington are beginning to wise up. But the week also offered more evidence that Democrats believe voters will reward them for cooperating with Trump where possible — a misguided notion that would leave the party standing apart from protesters and resistance groups, and create a political vacuum strong enough to swallow the party for good.
For all the party’s faults, and all the harm its corporatism has done to left-of-center political ideas and public policies, further breakdown in Democratic cohesion and backbone would leave Americans without any meaningful opposition to Trump’s backward ideas — and no hope of rescuing the world’s largest free society from self-inflicted oblivion.
People who seek political office tend to view themselves as leaders. But Democrats find themselves instead following a wave of energy they cannot claim to have originated. While it may sting the ego to be behind the leading edge of anti-Trump resistance, the party and its individual members have a perfect opportunity to position themselves as joiners, helpers, and colleagues of a budding populist movement.
Both the Democratic Party and the country are better served by these leaders becoming a part of that movement rather than by attempting to manage it — or appearing to betray it in the name of Beltway compromise.
A war for the soul, not a skirmish over who is most adult
Some influential people inside Democratic politics remain concerned that the party will be penalized if it cannot find at least token opportunities to cooperate across the aisle. These forces are now in retreat, but their ability to shape thought inside the highest levels of the party was in full view during the first week of Trump’s presidency. Policy dilettante Ben Carson won unanimous approval from Senate Banking Committee Democrats to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development — even liberal hero Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Trump’s national security nominees and Commerce Secretary pick got ample Democratic support too.
Chuck Schumer’s Democrats have showed some mettle since then. The minority leader himself is now promising to vote against almost a dozen Trump nominees, and the caucus is united in opposition to Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.
The initial stirrings of a real resistance movement in Washington run contrary to an old party conviction — one that guided Democrats into their early capitulations, and which still lurks behind wishy washy statements on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and in closed-door meetings about “Triangulating Trump” on infrastructure and trade.
Leaders think that Republicans will operate in good faith so long as Dems do likewise. If they show how reasonable they can be, the moderate thinking goes, Schumer’s gang can pick off some Republican votes on the truly odious nominees.
Democrats can now afford to abandon complex media signalling in favor of simple meatspace doing.
But while this kind of horsetrading might have made some sense with Obama in the White House, it is flat-out nuts to accord Trump’s party the same faith.
Trump’s approval ratings are already down from the record lows that greeted his inauguration. Millions are already in the streets marching against him. He is bringing sycophants to the CIA to clap for him in front of the press. He’s telling Congressional leadership that voter fraud is real because a golfer told him a story once. His political brand is emboldening the men’s-rights crowd and the modern white supremacist movement, two allies sure to further taint his reputation.
It is hard to craft “be reasonable” into an effective political brand even in more stable times. Obama-era Democrats should have learned that lesson in 2010 and 2014 as Republicans were rewarded for years of hardline obstruction.
The few voters who pay obsessive attention to political news may notice Democrats’ commitment to being the adult in the room and reward it. But most Americans won’t see or hear about or understand the intricate machinery of Democratic grownup-ism. They will instead see flashes of Democrats collaborating with Trump, blurring the brand distinction between a Democratic vision for the future and Trump’s bug-eyed retreat into fear and vengeance.
Digging in to fight every battle, on the other hand, would ensure that even casual viewers hear Democrats blasting a constant bullhorn of objection, defiance, and “no.” Becoming the party of no in opposition to Trump would put Democrats on the moral high-ground. The approach urged by party moderates, though, actively privileges a different, stodgier set of values over those of justice, equality, tolerance, and broad economic opportunity.
Senate collegiality is a value. Continuity of administrative competence in Washington agencies that directly touch Americans’ lives every day is a value. Deference to the 46 percent of 2016 voters who put a madman in the White House is a value, too. But they are not ideas that can rekindle a party.
Centrist triangulator Rahm Emanuel is recommending “a measured approach to Trump opposition [picking] only specific fights with a tight game plan,” per Politico. The four Democrats who voted to confirm oil tycoon Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State on Wednesday seem to agree. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) seems to share Emanuel’s vision: Resistance, but on a leash.
Necessary & insufficient
The absolutist rejection of Trump policies on Capitol Hill is a prerequisite for Democrats’ resistance efforts. But it is not, on its own, a resistance movement.
Movements happen in streets, living rooms, diners, bars, and churches. They operate from communities upward. Their structure is bottom-up rather than top-down, which can leave would-be leaders of a Trump resistance who hold federal office on unsure footing. If they attempt to stake out leadership positions on behalf of airport protesters and women’s marchers and defiant federal bureaucrats, will they appear to be big-footing organic populism that’s driving them left?
But it is not complicated to hedge against this risk. Democrats simply have to go to the people directly.
For years, political business has been done through the media. A member wishing to signal opposition to executive policy issues a press release, sends staff out to brief reporters, waits for news outlets to produce coverage of their action, then holds up that coverage in campaign ads and floor speeches. It’s a complicated, slow kabuki show that relies on many intermediaries to relay a simple thought to the public.
Democrats can now afford to abandon complex media signalling in favor of simple meatspace doing. The House members who went to airports in Virginia and New York last weekend to directly confront the Executive Branch officers of Customs and Border Patrol were bypassing old, slow, carefully worded tactics in favor of direct action.
But the most prominent elected Democrats, most notably Pelosi, settled for publicly condemning Trump’s rogue law enforcement clatche from the safety of a keyboard. The airport confrontations were so far a one-off. They weren’t hard evidence of a nascent wing of direct-action resistors within the party, but they did put a marker down for how the party’s elected officials could live up to their rhetoric in the coming months and years.
It could not matter less that Democrats don’t have the numbers to pass legislation or block nominees
In the days since, Trump and his allies in Congress have started trying to cow Democrats into descending from Mount Resistance and play nice. The White House is lacing press statements with gripes about how long the Senate is taking to confirm Sessions and other nominees. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) steamrolled longstanding Senate rules to allow controversial environment, health, and economic policy nominees to move through committee without Democrats even being in the room — even though each man lied to Hatch’s committee about sketchy, self-serving business dealings of exactly the kind Trump’s campaign rhetoric decried.
Trump’s crew thinks they’re calling a bluff. Democrats have to show them it isn’t one. They have to sustain their blockading tactics for the long term and and adapt them to the White House’s recurring stumbles in every corner of foreign and domestic policymaking.
It’s time to use procedural maneuvers to force Republicans to go on the record saying “no” to doomed legislation that would reject Trump’s agenda. It’s time to look someone like Ben Carson in the face and say, “I am voting against you because your boss is an evil man whose success threatens the foundations of our nation-state.” It’s time to stand in front of cameras and call on every American public servant who believes in the Constitution to disobey any directive the administration imposes that contradicts the law or rescinds civil liberties.
It could not matter less that Democrats don’t have the numbers to pass legislation or block nominees, as pundits obsessed with Washington’s normal political order insist. They must prove to the public and media that they are not a party of “well, maybe in this case” but one of “none of this may be allowed to stand.” A political party that’s always been allergic to absolutists must now embrace absolutism.
Resistance inside the beltway must come with outreach outside of it
The greatest downside risk in a total blockade is that Trump will try to turn it against liberals. Autocrats love a good foil, as Venezuelan economist Andrés Miguel Rondón persuasively argued in a Friday op-ed about how the late Huge Chavez hamstrung his political opponents.
“The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy,” he wrote. “[W]e should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.”
The risk of playing into Trump’s anti-elitism and hateful straw-man othering of his political enemies is probably what motivates influential Democratic Party elites like Rahm Emanuel to urge a moderate course from Washington Dems.
Such fears of being too angry, of painting the resistance too broadly, are not totally out of line. A muddy message of “collusion for some, resistance for others” will doom the Democratic brand with voters who hate Trump and oppose his agenda. But a resistance that condemns all Trump supporters without trying to communicate and empathize with the small sliver of his movement that remains persuadable could indeed end up helping Trump consolidate power in the ways Rondón warns.
That’s a war for the American soul, not a legislative tussle. You cannot filibuster it or outflank it with legal language or disarm it with facts.
If there are in fact any Trump moderates, they are severely outnumbered within his movement by dyed-in-the-wool anti-liberals genuinely eager to ban Muslims, wall off Mexico, and lock up every black woman who cusses at a cop. Democrats can speak to the gettable independent voter and say “no” to all things Trump at the same damn time — and there is simply nothing they could ever say that would split loyalists from their glib, TV-savvy president.
So instead of trying to out-argue the ogre in the White House, Democrats must bypass him and the national media figures that jump at his every little mendacity like a crow leaps at a shiny pebble. They must communicate directly with the people. And in doing so, they must surrender their sense of being entitled to call themselves leaders — and embrace instead the power of following.
Federal Democrats who physically joined airport protests and demanded an audience with Border Patrol agents were engaged in an act of followership. They wielded their particular authority on behalf of a shared ideal without pretending to be responsible for these shows of left-populist defiance.
The airport protests, initially mounted by small impromptu gatherings, were quickly boosted through the work of small, locally-rooted organizations like Make the Road NY, the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and others with large distribution lists among activists and voters.
National political organizations tend to be wary of such logistical fracture. Well-meaning people ensconced in large Beltway institutions are accustomed to directing traffic rather than following the signs others raise. Democratic Party insiders are at least as prone to this insistence on being in charge as any other species of political animal, even after 8 years of being led by “organizer-in-chief” Barack Obama. But it is time for these national operatives to let go, to embrace populism, to continue standing with protesters and channel their energy even when it proves messier than this weekend’s civil, loud, spontaneous efforts at America’s customs checkpoints.
It will be difficult for career Democrats to relinquish some of their authority to the resistors they serve. But everything they must do in 2017 will be difficult. You want easy, go sell office supplies.
Humbling oneself before the people one serves is an essential tool not just to resistance, but to avoiding the Venezuelan pitfalls Rondón flagged on Friday. “The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong, it’s that you’re more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot,” he wrote. “Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.”
If Democrats choose to continue the old tactics of begging political media referees to cover their oh-so-adult compromises, they will stand zero chance of reaching Americans who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe politics. Trump is speaking directly to his supporters, including the ones who may be a bit skeptical of his regime. He’s deftly manhandling the political media in the same way he did throughout his election campaign, promising voters that only his truth can be relied upon.
In such circumstances, it behooves Democrats to operate as resistance followers or co-pilots rather than would-be generals isolated inside a Capitol Hill bubble.
Whatever hiccups Democrats face in incorporating themselves into populist resistance efforts or in reconnecting with disaffected voters, the important thing is that they recognize they cannot be conciliatory toward Trump’s ideas.
We are teetering extremely close to a permanent discrediting of once-central American ideals around human rights, human equality, due process of law, community self-determination, and Constitutionally protected multiculturalism. That’s a war for the American soul, not a legislative tussle. You cannot filibuster it or outflank it with legal language or disarm it with facts. It doesn’t matter that you are right; you’re losing.