Elected Democrats could catch up to their base by coalescing around a single, overarching message: Trump’s election, and everything he’s done since his inauguration, is not normal.
Senate Democrats should call a joint press conference, immediately, and announce that they are going to vote in lockstep against every Trump nominee, and filibuster everything that’s subject to the rule, unless and until Trump divests himself of his sprawling business empire and the ongoing probe into FBI Director James Comey’s letter regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails is complete and an independent investigation of allegations that Russians hacked the DNC is conducted. They should echo Trump’s own words when he was pitching his “Muslim ban,” and shut everything they can down “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the Hell is going on.”
At the moment, Congressional Dems are as disconnected from their base as they’ve ever been. The rank-and-file are terrified. As many as 5.2 million people joined Women’s Marches worldwide because they’re afraid of losing their health care, among other things. They’re furious that the GOP effectively stole a Supreme Court seat that should have shifted the ideological balance of the Court for the first time in 45 years. And most of them at least harbor suspicions that Trump’s election was a sort of soft coup, with an assist from Russian intelligence and the FBI. They’re talking about fascism and authoritarianism and watching in horror as Steve Bannon tries to engineer a dramatic restructuring of the post-World War II international order.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is reportedly worried about “five moderate Democrats representing states that President Trump won who are likely to face the most difficult reelection fights next year.” He told the Washington Post, “we have to protect these people. And sometimes we’re going to have to do things to help them.” Some Senate Democrats say they don’t want to mimic the knee-jerk obstructionism that Republicans employed under Obama. Some appear to be gung-ho about filibustering Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, but others are reportedly worried that doing so would lead Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to go nuclear and eliminate the filibuster, which would diminish their leverage if one of the liberal justices doesn’t make it through Trump’s presidency.
To be fair, Dems have shown more spine than many progressives recognize. Politico reports that “Senate Democrats — the last line of Democratic defense — are slow-walking the installation of Trump’s Cabinet to a historic degree, so much so that Republicans haven’t even started yet on Trump’s legislative agenda.” Beginning last night, the Democrats have held the Senate floor for 24 hours in opposition to billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Secretary of Education.
The problem is that these efforts have been undertaken within a framework of normal partisan wrangling, and the media have duly reported them as such. Democrats are pointing out that many of Trump’s cabinet picks are unqualified and outside the political mainstream, Republicans are calling the Dems out as obstructions, and in turn the Dems say the GOP are a bunch of hypocrites. But all of that rhetoric misses the point. What’s really going on here is an existential battle over America’s institutions, and the norms that have made them more or less functional. Liberal, pluralistic democracy is at stake, and demanding that Trump stop violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause – which can only be done by divesting because of the nature of his business – as the price of being recognized as a legitimate president is the best way to make it clear that this is not normal political wrangling. And it would signal to their constituents that they understand the stakes.
At their press conference, Democrats should quote every prominent Republican who’s expressed anxiety about where Trump is taking the country. This would frame Democratic resistance as a matter of patriotism and principle rather than partisan animus. There’s no legitimate comparison between Republican obstruction of Obama – who won 9.5 million more votes than John McCain, was decidedly within the Democratic mainstream and appointed people who were qualified for their offices – with Democrats putting a break on Trump’s agenda.
Staying united around a message like this would also help them run out the clock. Democrats don’t have the numbers to block everything coming down the pike indefinitely, but every day litigating these questions is a day that the Republican Congress isn’t privatizing Medicare or repealing Obamacare or provoking a war with Iran.
The filibuster exists for moments like this. Not only do filibusters protect the minority – in this case, one that actually represents a majority of Americans – but also, as Gregory Koger from the University of Miami points out, “filibusters help members of the majority party when they are pressured to support proposals that they privately believe are bad policy or risky politics.” Hill reporters say there are plenty of Republicans who say privately that they’re freaked out by Trump’s early moves, but won’t risk angering their base to say so publicly. The filibuster lets them tell their base that the Democrats blocked Trump’s less orthodox moves despite Republicans enjoying unified control of government.
That’s one reason why Democrats should call McConnell’s bluff on the Gorsuch nomination. There’s no guarantee that he can find 51 votes to invoke the nuclear option, and if he does, let him. Democrats have now won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections, and in the future it’s more likely that they’ll hold the White House than the Senate, where small red states have the same power as California or New York. Mitch McConnell insisted that the Supreme Court could function with eight justices, and before the election some prominent Republicans said that they wouldn’t confirm Hillary Clinton’s nominees to the Court if she won. Democrats need to take a page from that playbook and make it clear they won’t give up a stolen seat on the Court without a fight.
This is not only the kind of resistance the Democratic base is looking for, but also what much of the world wants to see and what this moment in history demands – because nothing that’s happened in the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency is in any way normal.