President Trump — shedding staff, shredding norms — remains defiant, with little evidence that his critics are persuading supporters to abandon him. For some Trump opponents, this has led to new introspection about the effectiveness of “the resistance.” Case in point: David Brooks, a self-declared “Never Trumper,” proclaimed this week that the “anti-Trump movement is a failure” and that unless “somebody comes up with a better defense strategy, Trump and Trumpism will dominate” American politics in the future. Brooks is not alone in this second-guessing about the Trump opposition.
Perhaps some Never Trumpers believed that a mere “summer school” course on Life in Opposition — a few columns, some cable chatter and warning shots from the special counsel — would be enough to topple a Humpty Dumpty president. Most of us who have been in the trenches in politics had no such delusions. Here’s a reality check: The resistance is not “failing” — it is gathering steam for a long, uncertain battle ahead.
Let’s start with the fact that seems most vexing to the resistance critics: the failure of Trump’s approval rating to fall below 40 percent, even as bad news mounts. To be clear, at 40 percent, Trump remains as unpopular as he was when he was the most unpopular first-year president ever — 20 points below Gerald Ford after he pardoned Richard Nixon. True, Trump has not sunk further in this sub-sub-basement level of public support, but that misses the point: The success of the anti-Trump movement is in keeping him there, notwithstanding the low unemployment rate, stock market gains and billions in tax-cut stimulus surging through the economy. Only two other modern-era presidents enjoyed an unemployment rate below 4.3 percent in their terms and suffered an approval rating below 50 percent: Lyndon B. Johnson (during the Vietnam War) and Harry S. Truman (during Korea). Trump’s 40 percent approval rating doesn’t reflect a failure of his opposition: It reflects success in preventing Trump’s ratings from soaring the way any other peace-time president’s would under such conditions.
Moreover, the anti-Trump movement has shown political progress where it matters most: the ballot box. In the past 150 days, Trump opponents have won a blow-out in Virginia, the first newly elected Democratic senator from Alabama since 1986 and a victory in a Pennsylvania House district Trump carried by nearly 20 points. If the anti-Trump movement is “failing,” that’s news to the GOP leaders sounding “blue wave” tsunami alerts.
Nor have the anti-Trump movement’s wins been merely political: They have come in policymaking, too. Obamacare — albeit wounded — remains alive, covering about 12 million Americans. Deep cuts in social programs were reversed by a bipartisan spending bill Trump loathed — but signed. Trump’s wall is not built, states are enacting common-sense gun reforms and Trump’s environmental protection rollback is more rhetoric than reality.
A vibrant, booming legal resistance — powered by a mix of established groups and new organizations — has checked many of Trump’s worst initiatives. Court rulings have stopped his anti-refugee plans, moves against the LGBT community, deportations of “dreamers,” the foolish “voter integrity” commission, rollbacks of contraception rights, rule changes that undermine environmental protections and more.
True, some of these wins may be transitory, as Trump continues to press allies in Congress for action and to stack the courts with judges less likely to constrain him. But even with the White House and Congress in GOP hands, the anti-Trump movement has defied the odds to block many of Trump’s most outrageous ideas and preserved critical elements of President Barack Obama’s achievements.
Two final points show the flaw in the new anti-anti-Trump thinking.
First, the record number of Americans taking part in “resistance” protests may not yet have won over their fellow citizens, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making progress. In February 1965, even after years of marching, a Gallup poll showed that a substantial amount of Americans (42 percent) still thought civil rights enforcement was moving too fast, rejecting the movement’s view that more action was needed — the month before the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. A year later, again, after countless antiwar protests, a poll found that Vietnam “hawks” in the population outnumbered “doves,” 47 to 26 percent. Were the civil rights or anti- Vietnam movements “failures” in the mid-1960s? Or did they simply have more work to do before achieving their ultimate victories?
Second, it is true that 46 percent of voters backed Trump in 2016, and 40 percent still approve of his performance as president. But 46 percent of voters backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, and 47 percent backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and no one thought McCain-ism or Romney-ism was ascendant. Trump’s continuing appeal points to the fact that we remain a divided country, where more Americans oppose Trump than support him, but elections — and policy-making power — turn on which group shows up at the polls and who wins the dwindling number of people who teeter between the two camps.
The resistance has much more to do, for sure. Victory is far from assured in either 2018 or 2020. But the anti-Trump movement has not failed. It is only just beginning.
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