Earlier this week on CNN, Democratic Rep. Don Beyer explained why he wouldn't attend Donald Trump's inauguration. The Virginian said he wasn't sure Trump was a legitimate president but that his boycott was more about Trump's "character."
To which Jeffrey Lord, CNN's most ubiquitous pro-Trump pundit, responded jokingly: "I have to ask -- are you all on Donald Trump's payroll?"
Lord continued: "I mean, this is a guy who was elected president in part because he campaigned against Washington elites. And I can only tell you the political effect it would seem to me of what you're doing is to reinforce that impression and help him. I mean, did you think of that?"
Beyer admitted he hadn't considered that, but said that he imagined if you polled his district (which went 74-21 for Hillary Clinton), his constituents would support his decision.
It's a very telling exchange. The fact is that both of these things can be true; the move by many House Democrats -- about 70 in total -- to boycott Trump's inauguration can both be exactly what their mostly heavily Democratic districts want and also play into Trump's hands.
Members of Congress often have personal motivations that run afoul of their parties' larger interests. For Republicans, this has long been the case on immigration reform. While the party establishment has clearly signaled a desire to pass comprehensive reform in order to appeal to the fast-growing Latino population, individual members who face conservative voters that oppose such a thing simply haven't been willing to go along. With politicians, their generally isn't a greater good for the party -- only self-preservation.
And when it comes to the inauguration, these Democrats are undoubtedly getting tremendous pressure to boycott the inauguration of a man their districts despise. Of the 203 districts we know Clinton won in 2016, according to nearly complete data from the good folks at Daily Kos Elections, Trump took less than 25 percent in about one-third of them and less than 40 percent in three-quarters of them. Democrats's more urban districts tend to be more politically homogeneous than Republicans', which translates to stronger opposition to Trump and perhaps clearer incentive for members to sit this one out.
It's also worth recalling how impromptu the boycott movement has been. It was born basically only a week ago, when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) went out on a political limb and said he wouldn't attend the inauguration because he didn't see Trump as a legitimate president. To that point, no major Democrat had been talking in those terms -- and some admitted discomfort with going down that road.
But soon Trump was hitting back in a highly questionable manner, and the boycott was on. Democrats were suddenly emboldened to take a stand none of them had taken just days prior. Beyer said Tuesday, "I do think John Lewis actually gave a lot of Democrats cover."
Many who are boycotting, like Beyer, aren't so directly saying Trump isn't a legitimate president. But they are sending a message that isn't too far off of that. They're saying this ceremony, signaling the transition of power from one president to the next, isn't worth their time because of the man at the center of it.
And even some Democrats have worried that's a risky signal to send. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) announced this week that she would attend the inauguration and suggested pretty clearly that she worried the boycott would only embolden Trump.
Moore said that, "knowing how he operates, I suspect President-elect Donald Trump will use this expression of free speech as an excuse to bypass Democrats and to push his extreme agenda with utter impunity. With that in mind, I refuse to be a pawn in the president-elect’s efforts to rally support from congressional Republicans."
Moore makes a point: Were Democrats in a position of power in either chamber of Congress, their boycott would likely be felt more deeply, because Trump would have to work with them in some fashion. But they basically have only the filibuster to stop Republicans right now.
I'm not so sure I buy into the idea that there will be a sudden rallying effect by the political middle to Trump because of the boycott. I'm not even sure we'll remember this boycott in a few weeks' time, actually. And if anything, it will probably just do more to polarize our country when it comes to Trump, if that were possible.
And it certainly plays into Trump's central message: it's inarguable proof of the fact that he's loathed by a good chunk of the Washington establishment.