How the Loyal Opposition Will Work in Trump’s America

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When he took office in 2001, George W. Bush inherited a healthy Republican Party roughly at parity with its opposition. When he left office eight years later, Bush had degraded his party’s image and taught a generation of Americans to loathe the GOP, and members of that generation have clung to their disgust through every election cycle since (though their enthusiasm for showing up at the ballot box has waxed and waned). Bush was such a comprehensive political fiasco that his only saving grace, in terms of the brand management of the Republican Party, was handing his successor a financial crisis so deep it allowed Republicans in Congress to run against his successor’s attempts to recover from it. The Bush administration cratered because it was filled with hacks, ideologues, and business cronies and led by a mental lightweight. Many people believed that for the Republican Party to recover, it would have to develop a governing class that grasped science and evidence.

It is safe to say that this has not exactly transpired. The Trump administration will make the last failed Republican presidency look like an age of reason. The United States has never elected a president so openly contemptuous of democratic norms. There’s no So You’ve Elected a Bullying, Racist, Authoritarian Swindler As President pamphlet within easy reach. The loyal opposition faces an unusual paradox. What will almost certainly be a catastrophe for the Republican Party in the long run will also be a catastrophe for the United States much sooner. The threat posed by Trump requires a massive countermobilization of people and resources with the dual tasks of safeguarding the large-D Democratic Party and small-D democracy.

A letter to Trump from a first-grade student at Woodland School, Portola Valley, California. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

The immediate theater of action will be in Washington, where the key political dynamic has been identified by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” he told The Atlantic in 2011, referring generally to the agenda of Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress. “Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” Democrats in Congress have to understand this. Most people, and especially low-information voters who decide elections, pay little attention to legislative details. Bipartisanship tells them things are going well. Partisan conflict tells them things are going badly. McConnell filibustered the first bill that came up in 2009, a conservation measure with broad bipartisan appeal that ultimately passed with 77 votes.

The second element of this dynamic is equally crucial: It is the governing party that will be held accountable by the voters. Bipartisanship suggests high presidential approval, which leads to more success for the governing party in Congress and for the president’s reelection. Helping the majority govern means helping the majority maintain power. As McConnell said in 2010, “The reward for playing team ball this year was the reversal of the political environment and the possibility that we will have a bigger team next year.” The conventional wisdom of the pre-Obama years, that the minority would pay a price for obstruction, was precisely backward. The minority party pays a price for bipartisanship.

This does not mean Democrats should ape destructive tactics like shutting down the government or threatening default (which, in any case, they have no opportunity to do without the majority in either chamber of Congress). It does not even mean they should rule out all cooperation. It means they should carefully weigh every policy concession they can win, assuming that any present themselves, against the enormous political price they will pay by getting it. A few policy goals could meet this test. If Trump is somehow willing to abandon his catastrophic plan to destroy the international climate accords and unleash irreversible planetary catastrophe, or perhaps rethink his party’s plan to deny access to medical care to millions of Americans too poor or sick to afford it, the political sacrifice of offering bipartisan cover to Trumpian moderation would be worthwhile.

In the short run, this calculation is almost entirely theoretical. Trump’s allies in Congress are prepared to collect on their devil’s bargain. House Speaker Paul Ryan described the election as a “mandate” — a curious term for an election in which his party will finish second in the national vote — and Republicans will move with maximal haste on plans to cut taxes for the rich, deregulate the financial industry, and cut social spending for the poor. There is no other conceivable course of action: The Republican Party in Washington has been organized over the last three decades as a machine to redistribute resources upward. It has no other ideas and automatically rejects any proposals with any other effect. The political cost of waging class war for the rich will not deter them because it is their reason for existing. Trump managed to pass himself off to many hard-pressed voters as an enemy of concentrated wealth, but concentrated wealth mostly knew better, which is why stock of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase swelled on the news of the incoming friendly administration. Democrats in Congress must make it their task to expose the contradiction Trump has heretofore concealed.

So should anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton. The day after the election, protesters swarmed the streets of major cities shouting that Trump was “not my president.” Good for them. They were not expressing the traditional postelection decorum, but then again, many were simply describing reality: Trump has almost explicitly promised not to be the president of large swaths of this country. His campaign was rooted in his belief that Mexican-Americans and Muslim immigrants cannot become real Americans. There can be purpose beyond catharsis to theatrical expressions of alienation and anger. Just look at the tea party.

Trump’s loyal opposition has a duty to respect the law. More than that — for all those who are wondering, everyone must hope he can avoid the worst. It might help Democrats regain power if Trump throws 20 million Americans off their insurance, dissolves NATO, or prosecutes Hillary Clinton, but that is not an agenda to root for. Less horrible is better. At the same time, Americans who did not support Trump have no obligation to normalize his behavior. To the contrary: Upholding the dignity and value of the presidency means refusing to treat the ascendancy of a Trump into the office as normal. Trump is counting on a combination of media weariness and Republican partisan solidarity to allow him to grind governing norms to dust. Two days after the election, his attorney reaffirmed his intention to have his children run his business even while he serves as president — an arrangement creating limitless opportunity for corruption, as his use of the presidency enriches his brand and foreign leaders strike deals that curry personal favor.

Whatever signs of normality he has given since Tuesday’s triumph are, thus far, purely superficial. To submit to a world where we say the words President Trump without anger or laughter is to surrender our idea of what the office means.

A broader and even more vital mission, one that should attract support far beyond the Democratic Party, is to safeguard and expand space for political dissent. American politics has regularly been stalked by authoritarian figures, from Charles Coughlin to Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace. None of them has ever had command of a party with full control of government. It is now within the realm of imagining that the United States will come to resemble some sort of illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy — Berlusconi’s Italy or, eventually, even Putin’s Russia.

This is no mere Trumpian personal idiosyncrasy. The GOP is absorbing the ideological tendencies of other far-right nationalist parties. The Nevada Republican Party chair raged at evening early-voting in Las Vegas: “Last night, in Clark County, they kept a poll open till ten o’clock at night so a certain group could vote … Yeah, you feel free right now? Think this is a free or easy election?” Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s closest Senate ally, has railed against “a global intellect — elites with their big money” and “George Soros and his globalist crowd.” Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, who spoke at the Cleveland convention and has been touted as a potential Homeland Security secretary, tweeted that anti-Trump protests “must be quelled.” A recent Pew survey asked whether certain characteristics are important to maintaining a strong democracy. Fewer than half of the Trump supporters surveyed agreed with the statements “Those who lose elections recognize the legitimacy of the winners” and “News organizations are free to criticize political leaders.” Traditional Republicans in Washington will go along with all this, provided Trump signs Paul Ryan’s fiscal agenda into law.

American small-D democrats need to treat the election of Trump’s party in a way not unlike how we respond to authoritarianism overseas. The nonprofit sector has a long tradition of subsidizing institutions to safeguard open discourse, human rights, labor rights, and ballot access. (Not coincidentally, Soros has made enemies in the Putinsphere by doing precisely this.) Trump’s government will probably set itself the task of grinding down all these rights, from union organizing to civil-rights enforcement to freedom from torture. Philanthropists should subsidize legal defenses for journalists threatened by the tactic, embraced by Trump and his ally Peter Thiel, of bankrupting critics through exorbitant legal action. America already has a nonprofit infrastructure devoted to safeguarding domestic civil, human, and political rights, but it will have to scale up radically to meet the threat of a Trumpist party in full command of the federal government. Democracy will not disappear overnight, but it can be eroded over time. The fight to defend it must be joined in full.

There is one glimmer of — dare I say it — hope. Opposition parties tend to suffer from a lack of charismatic, high-profile leaders. American liberals enjoy the unusual good fortune of having the most popular politician in America on their side in Barack Obama. Obama has floated plans to devote his postpresidency to mentoring young black men. This is both a worthy endeavor and no longer the most high-leverage use of his time.

Obama very properly offered his deference to the validity of Trump’s election (proving himself a more committed democrat than the president-­elect, who refused beforehand to bind himself to the outcome and who, in 2012, took to Twitter on Election Night to call for revolution when it momentarily seemed that Obama would win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote). But the political-cultural norm of former presidents’ steering clear of politics is not rooted in any particular public interest. All recent living ex-presidents left office either infirm, unpopular, or in some way disgraced. (A pardon scandal in his final days, compounded by his sexual dalliance, created an especially noxious odor around Bill Clinton.) There is no example of a young, popular former president facing a successor committed to destroying all of his work.

And so the man who thought he was through with politics has, it turns out, one more essential role left: Beginning next year, Obama needs to rally the opposition, to community-organize his coalition, and to exploit his celebrity to make the case for saving his legacy. His visibility alone would serve a vital function. Trump’s election has sent a statement to Americans and the world about the country’s identity. It has been received viscerally, by bullies abusing minorities as well as by fearful allies overseas. Obama is a powerful symbol of rationalism, thoughtfulness, and pluralism — the ultimate anti-Trump, both ideologically and symbolically. Women, religious minorities, immigrants and prospective immigrants, transgender people, young Africans with iPhones, the beat-down opposition in places like Russia and China, and the people who bully all the preceding groups and more — the whole planet, really — need reminding that Obama’s version of America has prevailed before and will prevail again.

The night after the election. Photo: Andres Kudacki

And prevail we can. The aftermath of every election plunges the losers into despair and launches the victors into giddiness, and Trump’s shocking victory has had an unusually distorting effect. American progressives are burdened with a habit, stretching back decades, of handling political success badly — taking power for granted, bemoaning compromised progress, and collapsing into sectarian cannibalism. Hillary Clinton suffered from the same liberal ennui that bedeviled Al Gore in 2000, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Harry Truman in 1948. She suffered additionally from the self-inflicted wounds of bad decisions regarding hired speeches and her private email server, months of bruising attacks on her ethics from Bernie Sanders, and a widespread sexism that made her ordinary shortcomings seem sinister. Add to that a press corps that obsessed over her email lapse and twin attacks by Russian intelligence and rogue, right-wing FBI agents. It all culminated with the director of the FBI’s breaking all precedent to float new insinuations of wrongdoing against her ten days before the election, sealing her image as an untrustworthy and even criminal figure. Polls taken at the end of the campaign demonstrated that voters, astonishingly, believed that she was less honest and trustworthy than her opponent — a man who is literally facing trial for fraud.

Trump will solve the Democrats’ voter-complacency problem for them. He may also help them solve another problem: massive Republican gerrymandering. The House map is redrawn every ten years, and Republicans had the good fortune that the last redrawing followed their 2010 anti-Obama midterm wave, allowing them to lock into place a map of districts designed to virtually guarantee Republican control throughout the decade. Should Democrats generate an effective response to Trump, an anti-incumbent wave could allow the party to capture governorships in 2018 and legislatures that year and in 2020. They would then be in a position to create district maps that are more fair and democratic — and which, more often then not, would turn more Democratic.

Remember: When Trump showed the first signs of seriously challenging for the nomination, the panicked Republican Establishment identified him as a political calamity — a candidate who appealed to the party’s shrinking white, non-college-educated base and alienated the minorities and educated voters whose share of the electorate was growing. Its calculations were off, but only to a degree. Trump drew every ounce out of a shrinking coalition.

The party Establishment was on track to wipe its hands of the foul nominee after his expected defeat, clearing the way for fresh-faced, conventionally right-wing figures like Ryan and Marco Rubio to rebuild their party’s standing. The flip side of a president who will sign Ryan’s agenda into law is that there will be no more oh-so-­earnest Ryan speeches apologizing from the bottom of his heart for the nominee’s transgressions. Instead, a man who embodies hateful, misogynistic bluster will define the party’s imprint in a lasting way. Tens of millions of young voters, and children too young to vote, will grow up associating the Republican Party with a man who embodies reactionary hate against them. The Trump stink will not wash away easily.

Notwithstanding his ability to appear reasonable from time to time, Trump has character traits that are consistent and long-standing. The postelection hope that his lifelong childlike attention span, monumental ego, obsession with dominance and vengeance, and greed verging on outright criminality will abate in his eighth decade is fanciful. More so the notion that the experience of enjoying electoral vindication against his critics, then ascending to the most powerful position in the world, will curtail these tendencies.

Trump’s election is one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worth recalling, however, that history is punctuated with disasters, yet the country is in a better place now than it was a half-­century ago, and a better place than a half-century before that, and so on. Despair is a counterproductive response. So is denial — an easy temptation in the wake of the inevitable postelection pleasantries and displays of respect needed to maintain the peaceful transfer of power. The proper response is steely resolve to wage the fight of our lives.

*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

How the Loyal Opposition Will Work in Trump’s America