This article will appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States. That is sobering because he is glaringly unsuited for any significant public office, much less the most important in our country and indeed the world. Nothing about his pre-candidacy record recommends him. To the contrary, it is so lacking in relevant achievement, so marred by embarrassment, that many onlookers thought that his run for the presidency was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Then his campaign itself was so repulsive, so saturated with bigotries of various sorts, so ostentatiously crass, so glaringly demagogic, that it prompted many leading figures in his own party to repudiate him.
The conservative New Hampshire Union Leader refused to endorse Trump, remarking, aptly, that he is “a liar, a bully, a buffoon.” The Dallas Morning News, which had supported every Republican nominee since 1940, demurred on Trump, observing among other things that “[h]e plays on fear—exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny—to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, which had backed every Republican nominee for almost a century, eschewed Trump, condemning him as a “clear and present danger to our country.”
What is to be done going forward in the aftermath of the electoral catastrophe?
One thing to be done is to refrain from giving in either to the blandishments of despair or the exhortations to “get over it,” to accept Donald Trump as “our” president, to be a good sport, to “heal,” to “give Trump a chance.” Some disappointed onlookers, aghast at the election’s outcome, are nonetheless trying to retain routines of cordiality and deference that normally attend cross-party changes of administration. Hillary Clinton did this in her concession speech and so, too, did President Barack Obama when he welcomed the president-elect to the White House just days after having told voters that Trump was “unfit” to be commander in chief. Now, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, Obama maintained that “we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.” Even Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking the day after the election, declared, “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.”
As the incumbent president, Obama occupies a position that imposes upon him pressures unlike those felt by anyone else. Perhaps he believes that his office requires him to meet certain minimum standards of protocol that attend the peaceful transfer of executive power in America.
That belief, however, does not require him to be a cheerleader for Trump. A proper sense of decorum does not entail “rooting” for Trump’s success—an eventuality which, given the president-elect’s baleful goals, would constitute a massive defeat for decent values along many dimensions, including attentiveness to the environment, humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, fair assessment of women, and respectfulness to religious freedom and equality.
In the gloom of Trump’s disastrous victory, there have been a number of commentators whose voices have been clear and inspirational in calling for active, realistic, and unstinting opposition to the bad decisions, appointments, and policies that are headed our way. I think here of Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan, Paul Krugman and David Remnick. The most outstanding of the oppositionist commentators, however, has been Charles Blow. In the pages of The New York Times, he has repeatedly penned memorable columns that are full of wise wrath.
In “America Elects a Bigot,” published two days after the election, Blow etches the position from which he has pounded Trump ever since: “I respect the presidency; I do not respect this president-elect. I cannot. Count me among the resistance.” Writing the day after Trump travelled to The New York Times to talk with its top managers and editors, Blow wrote an extraordinary column titled “No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along.” I doubt that the Times’ editorial page has ever run a piece that is more uninhibited in its disparagement of a president-elect. Alluding to the session at which Trump met with the Times’ top officials, Blow noted that he skipped the meeting. “The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust.”
Responding to those who have applauded Trump for saying that he would desist from seeking the prosecution of Hillary Clinton or authorizing torture, Blow declared that the president-in-waiting ought not receive a pat on the back for retracting regrettable statements he ought never to have made in the first place. Addressing others who maintain that persuasiveness is undermined by statements that some observers will decry as alienating or insulting, Blow maintained: “I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, but rather to speak up for truth and honor and inclusion.” Anticipating the charge that he is closing himself off to evidence that perhaps Trump will grow to fit the frame of his new, gigantic responsibility, Blow wrote: “It’s not that I don’t believe that people can change and grow. They can. But real growth comes from the accepting of responsibility and repenting of culpability. Expedient reversal isn’t growth; it’s gross.”
To Blow, it is clear that Trump’s reversals and softenings—his claim, for instance, that The New York Times is “a great, great American jewel”—are merely strategic feints, stratagems intended to confuse and disarm. Dismissing Trump as a “charlatan,” decrying his ascendancy as “obscene,” Blow promises to meet the incoming president and his agenda “with resistance at every turn.”
DEPENDING ON CIRCUMSTANCES, “resistance” will entail different strategies. For progressive politicians in Congress it will mean using all of the leverage at their disposal to scrutinize Trump’s nominees, educate the public about Trump’s policies, and attempt to delay or stop bad appointments and legislation. The power of the Democratic opposition to Trump is at a disastrously low ebb inasmuch as the Republicans control both the House and the Senate.
But there are opportunities available that should be maximized. The Democratic congressional leadership has vowed that confirmation hearings will be used to carefully scrutinize Trump’s nominees, insisting: No disclosure of nominees’ tax returns, no confirmation vote. Let’s see Trump try to rally his base over that. In a closely divided Senate, pressure can and should be brought to bear on the handful of persuadable Republicans—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake come to mind—who might join Democrats in blocking the worst Trump has to offer.
Democrats can also serve as the champions of regular people, as Trump’s retrograde policies start to harm the voters who were duped into thinking he would serve their interests. Pain will ensue as Trump tries to roll back Obamacare, voucherize Medicare, and minimize Medicaid. Democrats can spotlight corporate harm to ordinary people, as Senator Bill Nelson recently did in his demand that the Federal Trade Commission investigate extra bills for emergency room visits supposedly covered by insurance plans.
One Republican strategy already emerging is to try to get Democrats to share responsibility for horrible Republican policies. It has been reported that Republicans will try to gradually undermine Obamacare and then, as their end game, offer to compromise with Democrats in a “bipartisan” bill to make the result slightly less awful. Democrats ought not take this bait. Nothing Trump does should have any Democratic fingerprints on it. Even Republican initiatives that bear some superficial resemblance to ones that progressive Democrats back, such as renegotiation of NAFTA, should not be praised, since they are part of a larger package that is pro-billionaire and anti-worker.
Democrats can’t pass legislation, but they can act to highlight and widen differences in the Republican camp—between conventional free-trade business elites and Trump-style protectionists; between ordinary conservatives and pure bigots; between isolationists and internationalists; between supply-siders and deficit hawks; and above all between Trump’s actions and what he promised his voters. These contradictions will widen over time.
There will also be opportunities for pure acts of resistance, as in the sanctuary city movement. The refusal of city governments to cooperate with roundups of immigrants is now far from a fringe phenomenon; it includes officials, reinforced by popular backing, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.
In the states, Republicans occupy 33 governorships and control both chambers in 32 states, 17 with veto-proof majorities. Yet states that have become centers of progressive policies can also serve as fortresses to defend American democracy. In a joint statement, for example, California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon declared that they and their colleagues would “lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.”
Regular folks can engage in opposition by petitioning their political representatives; by persuading disconnected friends and family members to become politically engaged; by subscribing to progressive media; by supporting organizations attuned to the protection of our civil rights and civil liberties (such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and NARAL Pro-Choice America); by supporting public radio and television as Trump uses commercial pressures to squeeze the mainstream press; by volunteering to assist Muslim and other victims of scapegoating who may in the future find themselves subjected to governmental or vigilante harassment; by engaging in disciplined marches, targeted boycotts, and other sorts of mass demonstrations; and by mobilizing now for the next round of local and national elections.
Essential to the sustenance of righteous opposition is maintaining an appropriate spiritual and psychological stance toward the Trump calamity. It will be difficult to keep fresh a keen sense of outrage, indignation, anger, disappointment, and, yes, contempt in the coming weeks, months, and years. Inertia dulls idealism and normalizes the outrageous. Moreover, even hardened ideologues find it difficult to resist the allure of presidential power, the pull of presidential pageantry, and the habit of wishing well any new occupant of the White House. The routine genuflection to presidential authority—the omnipresent military salutes, the repeated refrains of “Hail to the Chief,” the ubiquitous sycophancy—is pervasive. But it is incumbent upon those who are rightly alarmed by the Trump ascendancy to resist familiar conventions. This is a peculiarly trying moment that will hopefully prompt an unprecedented assertion of resoluteness in defense of progressive values.