While political journalists love to identify all of the different ways “Democrats are in disarray,” even when Democrats are fundamentally united, there is a big divide between Democrats that is going largely unnoticed. Call it chill vs. panic, or “Mueller and Pelosi have this” versus “people must get back into the streets.”
In short, the leadership of the Democratic Party is trying to to return to how politics is done under normal conditions. Others see nothing normal at all.
I’m in that camp. And I unapologetically advocate that Democrats should panic. Democrats are not in the streets like they were in the early days of Trump—and I am worried about it. There were a series of worrisome special election results in February 2019 for Democrats, which seem to be the inverse of those from early 2017 which presaged the Democrats’ ultimate gains in the 2018 cycle.
And then there are the lingering threats to the Constitution. Despite my considerable respect for their history of accomplishment, I don’t think that the duo of Nancy Pelosi and Robert Mueller are remotely adequate to protecting the rule of law without an engaged citizenry. And that’s why the decline in mass mobilization from the heady days of 2017, when the Women’s March mobilized millions and hundreds of thousands crowded in airports in protest of the authoritarian “Travel Ban,” is dangerous.
Consider Trump’s “national emergency declaration.” We have a president (a) fabricating a “crisis” posed by (b) people of color in order to (c) seize power for himself unlawfully despite the fact that (d) Congress considered the putative “crisis” and decided it didn’t warrant the funds Trump is spending unilaterally.
There are precedents for this sort of “executive seizing power by demonizing outgroups,” but the analogies that come to mind are the ones you’re usually not supposed to make in America.
Amazingly, many Senate Republicans appear to get how abnormal this has become. Senator Rand Paul, a reliable pro-Trump vote who for once is adhering to his libertarian self-image, estimates 10 Senate Republicans will break with Trump and vote against the national emergency. When have 10 Senate Republicans ever repudiated Trump?
And yet on an issue where even some rubber-stamp Senate Republicans are demonstrating spine, Democrats seem fine not raising a stink. Sure, they will vote against it en masse. But there is no drumbeat of outrage or even, more importantly, elevation of tactics commensurate to the danger.
Nothing about how they are demonstrating their opposition signals that, even by Trump standards, they consider this to be a big deal. The restraint of congressional leadership appears to be sending a signal to the masses. Consider the commendably broad coalition of more than 100 progressive civil society organizations—from MoveOn and the ACLU to large unions and the Sierra Club—which assembled 277 events in 48 states three days after the national emergency announcement. That scale of organizing is heroic. And yet despite the enormity of the organizing and the threat, it’s hard to not wish that total attendance of “at least 50,000 attendees” was a little higher, especially in light of the way Americans took to the airports in January 2017 to protest Trump’s travel ban.
Would attendance have been higher if elected Democrats attended these protests the same way they did in January 2017? Recall that back then, “Democrats spent the weekend building a full-scale opposition” against Trump’s Muslim ban. Both elected officials and candidates for Democratic National Committee leadership positions joined protesters at airports while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) fought back tears while announcing the Democrats’ legislative response.
Democratic Party leaders do in fact lead the party—in inaction as well as action. And the results speak for themselves, though sadly in this case.
Democrats have been waiting two-plus years for a Trump scandal on which they would have significant bipartisan companionship. And yet, given such an opportunity, they are not rising to the occasion. They should be using every available lever to underscore the existence of a bipartisan majority which agrees that the president is behaving in a dangerous and fundamentally unconstitutional manner. But they are not.
A large part of the problem, I suspect, is that Pelosi is restrained by her deep-seated aversion to Democrats discussing impeachment. If Pelosi acts like Trump is a lawless menace, the case for “impeaching that [menace]” gets stronger.
That attitude has been shared across the leadership ranks. Remember before the midterms when Speaker Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle that ordering the president’s tax returns would be “one of the first things we’d do—that’s the easiest thing in the world.” House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal has still not even requested Trump’s tax returns, and it’s almost spring! It’s not as if such a request is unpopular. Quite the contrary, Americans believe by a 64-29 margin Trump should release his tax returns, and by 57-38 that Congress should pursue them if he does not. So why is Neal continuing to delay making a request?
Neal is supposedly “a few weeks” away from requesting Trump’s personal taxes, while continuing to plan avoiding requesting the more revealing Trump business tax returns. A Neal staffer explained his boss’ aversion to requesting taxes up until now by expressing the worry that if Neal requested Trump’s returns—“breaking the glass”—Neal “won’t get anything done after that” with Trump and the Republicans, upsetting his “policy-driven” boss. In other words, Neal is avoiding upsetting Trump because he wants to return to “normal politics” in which, in the wake of a major tax bill, a bipartisan “technical corrections” bill might follow.
But another part of the problem appears to be sheer lethargy among Democrats. Given power by the voters, the party seems almost exhausted by the magnitude of the task before them. That may be Trump’s design.
As Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien noted in 2017, Trump “really is like the Energizer bunny of the political landscape, and people have to recognize that about him because he is formidable in that way.”
In other words, despite dietary habits and (non-)exercise habits that would kill off most 72-year-olds, Trump is outlasting his opponents. Trump is willing to continue to be the center of chaos indefinitely, while Democrats are desperate for any excuse to bring order to a political world devoid of it.
What can Democrats do? I believe they should do what’s right and take the upshot of their honest rhetoric seriously. If Trump is a threat to the country, to the rule of law, to the free press, to decades of too slow but nonetheless real progress against racism, act like it. If Trump committed crimes before he ran for office, during his campaign for the presidency, and in the course of his presidency, act like it. Do not treat issuing subpoenas of Trump as if they are the equivalent of nuclear bombs, rather than a standard form of congressional oversight. And if Trump undertakes a dangerous power grab, act like it!
And honestly, Democrats should recognize that Democratic leaders denigrating the appropriateness of impeachment is no small part of why impeachment is not yet popular.
Month after month of Democrats claiming Trump is an enormous danger without acting like Trump is actually a menace to all that we hold dear creates an untenable contradiction. Ultimately, Americans’ desire for normalcy will judge Democrats by their actions rather than their words. Americans will view Trump as normal if Democrats act like he is normal, regardless of their rhetoric.
The truth is that Trump is not normal, Trump is not contained, and neither Democrats nor “the Resistance” should stand down.