Less than two weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, the center ground, to the extent it still existed, has collapsed. Trump’s presidency has done more than polarize the country; it has established terms of battle likely to persist indefinitely.
The abrupt firing of acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates, after she announced that the Justice Department would not defend the administration’s immigration ban in court, crystallized all that had occurred since Trump took the oath on Jan. 20. The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before. The snowballing effect of his presidency continues at an unprecedented pace.
Trump vowed to shake up Washington, shake up the federal bureaucracy and shake up the country. He is doing just that. But he has found, perhaps not to his surprise, that there is resistance on every front, resistance that is organic and widespread and that is having a cumulative effect. It can be seen almost everywhere: in the streets, in the bureaucracy he oversees, in parts of corporate America, among U.S. allies around the world and especially across social media, the most important organizing platform of our time.
The effects are changing the behavior of Trump’s opponents, whether they are ordinary citizens or elected officials in the Democratic Party. How much this will change the posture of Republican elected officials is a question that everyone in the Grand Old Party is grappling with day by day. Trump’s presidency offers Republicans the opportunity to enact some long-sought policies and change the direction of the Supreme Court. Those benefits, however, must be weighed against the cost of allying themselves with a president as unpredictable as this one.
Trump’s administration, which at this point is not much more than an overworked and beleaguered White House staff aided by a few confirmed Cabinet officials, has moved swiftly to implement in some fashion his campaign promises. He might be rare among politicians, one who is prepared to keep his promises and who knows that an immediate and all-out assault on the status quo might be needed to get things moving.
But he and his team failed their first major test, with a botched rollout of one of the president’s most controversial promises. The design and implementation of the immigration executive order has drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats for its lack of clarity and for the apparent absence of proper vetting and lack of guidelines to those responsible for enforcing it.
The policy itself, predictably, has proved anathema to those who have long opposed the new president. It drew outrage when he first called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the country in December 2015. Even in modified form and language, it is still seen by Trump’s critics as a Muslim ban.
Trump’s advisers have complained that the new policy has been the subject of misinterpretation and distortion. There is popular support for the concept of what Trump has called for. Securing borders is a legitimate role for the government, and protecting people from threats of terrorism inside those borders is one of the government’s highest obligations. Those objectives must be weighed against constitutional norms and the values of an open, democratic society. It is on those fronts that the policy — as a proxy for the Trump presidency — has ripped through the country.
The backlash within the executive branch has been particularly troubling for a businessman-president used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Yates’s defiant memo guaranteed her firing and escalated the already growing warfare between the president and his critics. Both sides understood the terms at issue in that transaction and are acting with predictable and genuine outrage.
Even before Yates was dismissed, the White House had sent a stern message to others in the bureaucracy that dissent will not be welcomed. Career diplomats, using a long-standing mechanism, registered their disagreement with the new immigration ban. When asked about that Monday at his daily briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that, if they have a problem with the policy, “They should either get with the program or they can go.”
Normal rules of political jousting have gone out the window. For Democratic leaders, this is particularly important. Eight years ago, when then-President Barack Obama came to office, Republican resistance was a top-down strategy, hatched on the night of Obama’s inauguration and spread through the party by its elected and other leaders.
The opposite has occurred with Trump’s presidency. It has welled up and presented itself to Democratic leaders as a declaration of war. The bottom-up nature of the anti-Trump movement is best symbolized by the huge outpouring for the Women’s March on Washington the day after his inauguration and then again this past weekend with protests and demonstrations springing up at airports across the country.
Other signs of the resistance include the decision by various mayors to ignore Trump’s vow to end federal assistance to cities that protect undocumented immigrants and that the American Civil Liberties Union raised $24 million over the weekend, which is six times the amount it normally raises online in a full year. And then there is the public relations fallout for Uber after its chief executive agreed to participate in an advisory committee to the president.
The spreading message to political leaders is that cooperation with Trump will come at a cost, and Democratic leaders aren’t the only ones hearing that message. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who on Friday stood in the East Room as the president declared his belief that he and she and the two countries would have an exceptional relationship, has faced mounting criticism at home for appearing too eager to become Trump’s partner.
Day by day, any potential bonds of trust, however tenuous, are being destroyed by an escalating tit for tat between the president and the opposition party. The president, responding to attacks, has taken to Twitter or in public words to belittle Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
The result is more guerrilla warfare, with Democrats taking additional steps to delay confirmation of several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. In more normal times, both sides might slow down and wait to see how the administration shakes out.
Some recalibration of tactics and strategies might still take place. But that becomes more difficult by the day. The likelihood is that the president will respond by further stirring the pot, that the Democratic opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will be stronger and more unified than it might have been and that the lines will continue to harden. The Trump Effect is in full flower. No one is immune, and everyone is taking sides.