It’s sometimes said that Republican politicians fear their base while Democratic politicians hate their base. One week into Donald Trump’s presidency, we’re seeing an explosion of grassroots energy on the left. Democratic politicians are rushing to become part of this nascent resistance movement, and at the back of their minds may be an uncomfortable question: Should I be afraid of this? Could all of these energized liberals turn on me if I’m not careful?
We should acknowledge that there’s no way to know where this Resistance, as it’s now being called (for better or worse) is going to go. It might quiet down over time as people get used to Trump being president and each new horror emerging from the White House seems less urgent, or it might build and grow into an organized and effective movement, winning substantive victories and sustaining its energy all the way through 2018 and even 2020.
But so far, it’s been pretty extraordinary. After the rapid organization of what may have been the single largest protest in American history (the women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration that drew millions in cities large and small all over the country), this weekend a spontaneous uprising against Trump’s executive order on refugees led people to flock to their local airports and city centers to express their outrage and solidarity with those the administration has targeted. According to one tally, there were 83 separate protests in 45 states over the weekend, and rather than taking weeks or months to organize, it all happened in a matter of hours. If there’s ever been a mass liberal mobilization as large and fast as this one, I can’t recall it.
So Democratic politicians rushed to run to the front of the parade, which is a clear sign that something significant and powerful is happening. Elizabeth Warren spoke to protesters in Boston, first at Logan Airport on Saturday night and then in Copley Square on Sunday. Cory Booker went to Dulles Airport outside Washington to address protesters there, where he might have run into Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, or Tom Perriello, the former congressman who’s running for governor, or a few congressmen from the region, because they were all there too. John Lewis was at the Atlanta airport.
Sen. Bob Casey was at the Philadelphia airport, where he was joined by the governor, the mayor, and a couple of members of Congress. Sen. Sherrod Brown showed up at the airport in Columbus. Chuck Schumer came to a protest in Battery Park in New York. The candidates to chair the DNC were at a forum in Houston, so a bunch of them went to join protests at that city’s airport. And tonight at 6 pm, Capitol Hill Democrats will gather en masse on the steps of the Supreme Court to express their outrage at the refugee order.
To be clear, I’m not saying these politicians are acting out of a purely cynical desire to get on the right side of public opinion. I don’t doubt that they sincerely find Trump’s order appalling. But a politician’s motives are never simple; they’re always thinking about how what they do affects their image, their ability to gain or lose influence, and their potential future. When there’s a dramatic new development in the political world, they ask themselves where they stand in relation to it and how they can simultaneously serve their substantive goals and their personal goals. It’s part of the job.
But as the minority party, what can they actually do? There’s a legal opposition strategy being carried out by the ACLU and other groups, which has already borne fruit in the form of judicial orders to release people being detained. The administration is obviously feeling the heat of public outrage. But the political risk for elected Democrats is that they’ll be seen by their base as ineffectual. Schumer is asking Mitch McConnell to allow debate and a vote on a bill to rescind Trump’s order (there’s already one such bill written by Dianne Feinstein, and others are being drafted), but McConnell will probably refuse. And then what?
As former Harry Reid aide Adam Jentleson argued, Democrats in the Senate have a tool at their disposal: they can refuse the unanimous consent that is required to do pretty much anything in the Senate (and which is usually granted in a pro forma way), slowing the entire legislative and confirmation process to a crawl. They may already be planning to do so; we can look forward to another round of arguments about whether the filibuster should be scrapped.
Even if analogies between the current moment and the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 can be overdone, Democrats are no doubt keenly aware of how Republican officeholders became the targets of their constituents’ contempt — and primary challenges — when they were seen as unable to effectively stymie Barack Obama. And they’re going to quickly realize there’s a new reality imposed by an awakened and angry base: Everything is now a test.
They have to show Democratic voters that they’re standing up to Trump, on his cabinet nominations, on his executive orders, on legislation, and on the Supreme Court nomination he’s going to announce tomorrow. Right now all the energy is focused on the Trump administration, but it’s entirely possible that a year from now Democratic voters will start promoting primary challenges to members of Congress who didn’t oppose Trump firmly enough. The pressure will be twice as great on those contemplating a run for president in 2020, for whom there may end up being no more important question than “What did you do to fight Trump?”
It’s going to take some creativity, not to mention a lot of work, to be able to say they did something more than follow their constituents’ lead. But that’s not a bad place to start.