As US democracy faces its deepest crisis since the Civil War, it isn’t easy to keep track of all the moving parts. As Donald and his enablers move on multiple fronts to degrade our democratic norms, traditions, and institutions into cheap tools for a white nationalist mob led by a would-be strongman, we need a scorecard to keep track of where we stand – and to avoid the kind of disorientation or dismay that their daily “shock and awe” psychological warfare campaign is meant to achieve.
The truth is that the resistance to Prima Donald has been unexpectedly robust and effective on notable fronts – even as major components of American society have been disappointingly weak in standing up to him. So here is my report card on where we stand in resisting authoritarianism at the end of 2017. I offer it in the hopes of helping folks stay anchored in this fast moving tsunami of a political era, so that we neither lose hope nor get overconfident – while better understanding where we need to apply more or less pressure to succeed in ultimately winning our country back.
Public Opinion: B
Democrats Overall: B
Public Institutions: C+
Republicans Overall: F
Now, in more detail…
It’s past time for Democrats and progressives to get over 2016. A great deal of evidence shows that since Hair Fuhrer entered the White House, we have entered a new era, and one rich with opportunities. The DK Elections spreadsheet shows that out of 70 special elections in 2017, Democratic candidates on average outperformed Clinton’s 2016 performance by an average of 10 percentage points – and even outperformed Obama’s 2012 performance by 7 points.
Voter mobilization against what Republicans are doing to America was an undeniable reality of 2017, thanks to several factors.
First has been how our anger, frustration, disgust, & horror have coalesced into a broad array of “pop up groups” like Indivisible, Swing Left, Run for Something, Swing District, Women’s March, etc., with many local and regional variants. The New York Times did a terrific story on how the campaign manager for now Virginia Delegate-Elect David Reid successfully maneuvered this new political ecosystem, dealing with its challenges while taking advantage of the many eager troops it yielded.
We saw the results big time, this past November 7th, as Virginia Democrats not only had a clean sweep at the top of the ballot, but flipped 15 seats (or more, with 1-2 races still in doubt), turning a House of Delegates that had been two-thirds Republican into one at or near parity. A very positive sign in these races, and others this year, was Democrats winning outer suburbs that are America’s key political battlegrounds.
Democrats in 2017 increasingly have turned out the voting blocs we need to win – e.g., the whopping 81% of Virginia millennials voting for Governor-Elect Ralph Northam, , and the black voters in Alabama voting for Senator-Elect Doug Jones in large enough numbers to constitute a greater share of the electorate than their percentage of the state population.
It has been an impressive show of force, providing much to build on as we head into the all-important 2018 elections. Yet it provides no guarantees. Democrats will need to over-perform at the polls to beat back all the assets and tricks Republicans are sure to deploy, from vast amounts of PAC cash to voter suppression to high-tech disinformation campaigns. Our journey to take back our government is off to a great start, yet with many miles to go.
Public Opinion: B
The current national mood feels very different to me from the Reagan era, when I was in college. Reagan deployed his ample communications skills in a concerted effort to move the American public to the right, and had real success in doing so. Whereas Reagan inspired conservatives to come out of the closet and wave their flags, many Trump voters in their MAGA hats & shirts seem conscious of their status as social lepers. Whereas the 1980s saw the mainstreaming of ultra-conservatism, today the Nazis of the Charlottesville protest seem the most unforgettable symbol of Donald’s constituency.
Unlike Reagan, Don the Con has had little success in mobilizing his constituents to stand up for him in large numbers. Rather, it’s the Resistance that has made the big shows of force, like the massive Women’s Marches the day after his sparsely attended inauguration.
Indeed, he has done way more to move public opinion away from him than in his favor. Surely you’ve seen the countless polls showing him consistently rejected by up to two-thirds of the electorate. When large majorities of voters say the guy in the White House is “not honest”, “does not have good leadership skills,” “doesn’t care about average Americans”, “is not level headed,” and “does not share their values” – well, clearly his phony act is not working on most of us.
And what about the 35% who continue to stick with him? Well, in many places – even Alabama! – with hard work, we can outvote them. And perhaps, just maybe, with more pressure on the media (discussed below) to cover this bullshit artist as what he is, we may be able to inform at least a few more people that this Emperor has no clothes.
Democrats Overall: B
I know it’s hard for many on the left to give Democratic officials much credit. But so far, they’ve played their cards pretty well, standing united to block the Republican Congress from passing any major bill except the unpopular tax giveaway demanded by GOP donors. More conservative Dems like Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp could’ve bolted on key votes, or even have accepted cabinet appointments; they have not.
As new grassroots voices – groups like Indivisible and a bumper crop of first-time candidates – scramble to get involved, smart party officials have welcomed them in. Old-fashioned party officials who don’t understand the new realities are hopefully getting eased out. From DNC Chair Tom Perez on down, Democrats are singing the praises of grassroots organizing – in all 50 states.
Of course, as always, there are internal conflicts that need to be handled. I still see people on my Twitter feed trying to keep the Hillary-Bernie feud alive – as if the 2016 election were Groundhog Day and all of us Bill Murray. But how Tom Perriello managed his challenge to Ralph Northam in the Virginia Governor’s Race – instantly conceding after the primary and then aggressively and very successfully leading the campaign to flip GOP House of Delegates seats blue – sets the gold standard for how Democrats can and should unite without sacrificing progressive values.
To be sure, Democrats need a lot of work to flesh out a policy platform, building on the “Better Deal” agenda that I’d describe as an okay but bare-bones start. The beginning of 2018 will be a good time to fill in those blanks.
Public Institutions: C+
One of the most critical and sobering lessons of the reign of Donald the Terrible is that much of what we thought were built-in institutional checks and balances are actually just norms that a president who doesn’t give a damn about democracy can disregard – if allowed to. As a result, he has been getting away with bloody murder in his malignant mismanagement of our government – with way too little pushback from government institutions.
On the bright side, the court decisions against this administration’s overreach have been heartening – particularly against the Muslim bans, though also in a number of cases where the administration tried to roll back environmental regulations. Part of this bright side has been the powerful legal pushback we’ve seen from terrific state Attorneys Generals, like New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Virginia’s Mark Herring.
Some prominent people within the government have voted with their feet to protest against this administration’s extremism – from ethics official Walter Shaub to former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Still, their quitting raises the question of why pretty much all of Donald’s appointees continue to stick around. Are they not disgusted by anything the man says or does? Is there any red line he could cross that would make them want to distance themselves from him? Apparently not.
Overall, the lack of more pushback from across the government is one of the most disturbing trends since Trumplethinskin took office. Much of this, of course, is due to the complete acquiescence of Republicans in Congress to the transformation of their party into “a cult of personality worthy of a banana republic” (in the words of Bill Kristol). Their near-total abdication of responsibility for Executive Branch oversight has demolished the most fundamental source of checks and balances in a system built around such mechanisms.
Without Congressional pressure, internal and institutional forces have been insufficient to stop Donald from:
- Corruptly using government institutions for personal family profit – like the Trump Hotel on Federal property, where he is allowed to be both landlord and tenant and jack up the prices to sell his emoluments and make huge profits off of people looking to bribe him – even as the hotel’s director of revenue management privately admitted that Mango Mussolini was still involved in running the business.
- Letting his appointees run wild – overusing expensive government or chartered jets for travel, having their own flags and commemorative coins, charging the taxpayers $25,000 for an unnecessary sound proof booth…
- Etc., etc., etc…
Perhaps the best news for the government is Agent Orange’s slothfulness in filling appointee positions, resulting in few appointees positioned to change the bureaucracy from the inside. But this is cold comfort as we see critically important agencies like State and EPA being torn apart at the seams. We need to keep the spotlight on these abuses, raise hell about the destruction of our government and continually demand media, politicians and civil servants step up to stop this bleeding. And over the longer term, we need to make sure that the critical norms of democratic government become mandatory as opposed to “nice-to-haves”.
Today’s media is the very definition of a mixed bag. On the positive side, press institutions both big and small have been producing outstanding investigative journalistic pieces that have done much to inform us about Donald’s scandals, dirty dealing and missteps.
On the negative side, the media too often seems to take even the most stunning revelations and chew them up into a bland paste conveying the message that everything is perfectly normal, both sides are always equally bad, and Donald the Mad’s most unhinged rants deserve serious commentary and consideration. Believe it or not, they’re still waiting for the man to “pivot”. Even Charlie Brown would’ve given up on Lucy holding the football at this point.
A lot of the coverage thus ends up being downright maddening. As an example, a long piece in the Washington Post on December 14th, “Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked” made the case that Donald denies all the allegations of Russian election interference due to “personal insecurities”, i.e., that he finds the charges demeaning to his electoral win.
Only in one line near the end of the piece do the reporters even consider the possibility that his actions could be due to his actually being guilty of conspiring with Russia: “To critics, the answer is assumed to exist in the unproven allegations of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, or the claim that Putin has some compromising information about the American president.” Note that this possibility is confined to “critics” – as opposed to rational observers, such as the many intelligence officials who have raised it. And why does the word “allegations” even need the modifier “unproven”, since allegations, by definition, are unproven assertions? In short, why are these people, whose job is to report the truth, so afraid to call a spade a spade?
In judging the incredible inconsistency of the press, Nate Silver made a recent point on Twitter worth keeping in mind – we should put more blame on the editors than the writers. It’s the management side of the media that determines the extent to which to honor journalists’ best work or to bury and mush it up to limit criticism from conservative critics, loss of access, and even potential retaliation by advertisers. Rather than beating up on the media in general, we need to target our support to those who represent the best of it while calling out editors and publishers – by name where appropriate – who are blurring the narrative out of sheer cowardice.
Republicans Overall: F
Why even mention Republicans on this list? Because, based on US history up to this point, it’s not set in stone that a party must treat its president as an untouchable poobah exempt from serious oversight or challenge. Indeed, while the actions of the Cheeto Benito this year have been no surprise – reflecting the type of behavior he has displayed during the campaign and much of his life – IMHO, the failure of almost any elected Republican to stand up to him on nearly anything was the biggest and most consequential disappointment of the year.
Despite a raft of scandals and gobs of mismanagement and incompetence, there have been no serious hearings or investigations of the Executive Branch – other than the one on Russia that many GOP stooges are trying desperately to shoot down. Republicans are adamantly refusing to stand up for any of the principles they have ever espoused – not American sovereignty, not fiscal conservatism, not “family values”, not Constitutional principles like due process or freedom of the press, not “restoring honor and dignity to the White House.” All that’s left is helping the rich and corporations while stoking openly racist, angry mobs – and genuflecting to the little man in the White House.
It didn’t have to be this way, and the dynamics of American politics have usually discouraged such undemocratic behavior. Our system depends on the workings of checks and balances – “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”, as James Madison defined the concept in Federalist Paper #51. American officials are supposed to engage in a mix of peaceful competition and cooperation with each other, all promoting different interests, areas, constituencies and institutions. Above all, they are not supposed to bend their knee and give away the store to an all-powerful sovereign.
Republicans – even those who give pretty speeches like Jeff Flake – are, quite simply, not doing the job the Constitution assigns them and the voters pay them to do. On the bright side, this makes our electoral mission crystal clear – throw every Republican out of office, at every level, at every opportunity.
So, to wrap this all up, are we winning? I feel like we’re in a race in which we are gaining on our competitors, and yet there are so many obstacles set up in our way that we cannot afford to take our eyes off the road or ease up on the gas for a moment. We don’t even know if the referee will be co-opted or the course re-routed at any minute.
What even newbies have learned from the last year is that in U.S. politics, unlike in Hollywood movies, the good guy or gal does not always win. We can no longer run from the fact that democracy requires constant vigilance and action by those who can recognize what’s at stake.
2017 brought a lot of hard lessons – but if we act on those lessons in 2018, we will indeed win our country back.