It’s easy to miss amidst Donald Trump’s frenetic pace of activity and nonstop media coverage, but the most important story in American politics right now isn’t about what Trump’s doing: It’s that the opposition is working.
The millions of people who marched in Washingtonand other cities around the world on inauguration weekend and then demonstrated again at airports the following weekend are making a concrete difference in the world. So are the tens of thousands who’ve called members of Congress or showed up in person at their events.
Trump is getting things done, but all presidents do that. Look at what he’s not getting done. A Republican-controlled Congress bowed to public outrage over an attempt to water down an ethics office. Trump dramatically downscaled his own executive order barring entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. He’s having unprecedented difficulty getting his Cabinet nominees confirmed even though the Senate’s rules have changed to make confirmations easier than ever. Conservatives in Congress have put their big plans to privatize Medicare and public lands on hold. And the drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act is running into very big trouble.
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None of this is based on the discipline and self-restraint on the part of the White House. It’s thanks to bold acts of resistance. The result is lives have been saved, many more lives have been demonstrably improved, and the proven template for future success has been created.
Not only have the resisters already markedly altered the trajectory of public policy, they have begun to make a difference in each other’s lives and their own conceptions of themselves. And this is the greatest threat to the Trump movement.
For the moment, Trumpism holds the vast preponderance of political power despite its thin electoral base. That means Trumpism will make progress, even in the face of effective resistance. But for the positioning to hold, Trump needs to convince his opponents that they are failing, so the prophesy will become self-fulfilling.
That is why it’s crucial for Trump’s opponents to be aware that protestors’ efforts are not futile. We know they can succeed because they are already succeeding. What’s needed is for Trump’s critics to continue to resist the siren song of sectarianism and keep at it. If they do, Trumpism will be buried.
So far the highest-profile blow to Trump has come from a federal judge who has temporarily stayed key elements of Trump’s crackdown on travel and immigration to the United States. News has been coming so hard and fast in 2017 that many Americans are not yet aware of the remarkable amount of ground that Trump has already given in the face of sustained public pressure. This popular mobilization lacks the clear-cut victories of a judicial process, but also constitutes a more durable form of anti-Trump activism than counting on the judiciary.
Niki Renee covered much of the news in an excellent tweetstorm Wednesday morning, but the list of progressive successes is actually so long that she left a few things off it.
The main concrete victories of resistance thus far are:
Those walkbacks do not, unfortunately, change the reality that Trump’s cruel new approach to immigration will continue to hurt people. The threat to the health insurance of millions remains real.
But this is still a remarkable amount for a new president to need to walk back in his first 10 days in office.
More diffusely, resistance is already costing Trump politically. A planned trip to Harley-Davidson in Wisconsin was canceled because the company didn’t want to deal with the protests. Disney’s CEO canceled a planned trip to the White House. Maintaining a constant atmosphere of contentiousness has cost Trump the usual honeymoon period and saddled him with approval ratings that are already underwater.
Even the rollout of Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy is, despite its success, a sign of Trump’s underlying weakness. The original plan was to fill a whole week with executive orders. But the massive resistance to Trump’s actions on refugees forced the administration to scramble, moving the low-hanging Gorsuch fruit forward and leaving a number of additional orders hanging on the vine unissued.
It is telling that in most of these cases, the Trump administration is committed to pretending that resistance isn’t the cause of the reversals. Trump has attempted to argue that he — rather than public outcry — is responsible for the OGE reversal. And the administration has tried to sell the public on the idea that his orders were never meant to apply to green card holders, and the “confusion” around this and other subjects is the fault of the media.
Those of us who lived through these events owe it to ourselves and to others to remember them correctly. In all cases, Trump acted in response to public outcry, not in advance of it. Things changed because people paid attention, spoke up, and made a difference.
A flood of telephone calls to members’ offices has suddenly imperiled Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as secretary of education. More important than her personal fate, the fight over DeVos has gotten multiple Republican senators — including very conservative ones like Jerry Moran of Kansas — to come out swinging against the idea of a federal voucher program, a key Trump administration promise.
None of that means progressives should feel complacent about the Trump administration — just the opposite. But recognition that mass mobilization is making a real difference is critical to keeping up the pressure on fights to come, especially the looming battles over Obamacare repeal and the fate of the DREAMers protected from deportation by the Obama administration.
Republicans control the White House, the Senate, and the US House of Representatives, and liberals will find that on many issues there is simply nothing they can do to halt the advance of conservative policy. But there are two big battles underway where activism is already making a difference and where success or failure is important in its own right and freighted with broader implications.
The Affordable Care Act suddenly polls well now that activists on the left are defending it from conservative attacks rather than pushing for even bolder reform. Leaked audio of private conversations inside the Republican caucus make it clear that the GOP is nervous and divided on this subject. As Virginia Rep. Dave Brat has told journalists, citizens are “up in my grill” about the issue, with progressives successfully copying Tea Party tactics and urging citizens to contact their Congress members on the phone and in person. Activism matters on this issue because the Republican position is based on a sleight of hand. Repealing the Affordable Care Act necessarily entails an enormous tax cut for millionaires, which means there is less money available to provide insurance to the millions of people covered with Obamacare plans.
The Republican strategy is to try to pull the wool over people’s eyes, leveling accurate complaints about the shortcomings of ACA plans and then replacing them with something worse while pretending to be replacing it with something better. An active, engaged citizenry that shows up at protests and town halls and makes phone calls signals to Republicans that the deception won’t work and they ought to tread cautiously.
The other is the fate of the DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and were granted relief from deportation under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. The Sessions/Bannon/Miller faction of the Trump administration has written a draft executive order rescinding this protection, but Trump seems cautious about actually promulgating it, fearing the massive blowback that would surely result from deporting a large, visible, sympathetic, and well-integrated group of immigrants.
If opposition to Trump is demobilized and demoralized, these initiatives will be vulnerable. If it is sustained and active, they can be preserved.
If the ACA and the DREAMer program are preserved, then substantial chunks of the Obama legacy will remain in place, and the momentum of Trumpism will be blunted. If they are rescinded, the opposite is the case, and the door is open to things like Paul Ryan’s broader “war on the poor,” or Bannon’s broad-brush attack on all forms of immigration.
Democrats do not have the power, on their own, to win either of these key battles. But citizens do have the power to win them, by making Republicans scared. All the evidence of 2017 thus far is that Republicans are, in fact, scared. The question is whether people will stay mobilized and ensure that the GOP stays nervous.
Political action can be habit-forming. Once you’ve already made a sign and taken it to a protest, it’s easier to just bring it along again in the future. Once you know which of your friends might be interested in going with you, it’s easier to reconnect and do it again.
A Washington Post poll released Wednesday morning says that 25 percent of Americans say they plan on being more politically active this year. That includes 35 percent of self-identified Democrats, 40 percent of Democratic women, and 43 percent of Democrats under the age of 50.
Democrats running in down-ballot races, long suffering from neglect, are suddenly enjoying unprecedented outbursts of grassroots fundraising as angry liberals seek a way to make a difference.
Trump fans, meanwhile, are going to face the natural demobilization and disappointment that comes with actual governance. He will be less of an orthodox free marketer than some of the people who voted for him are hoping, and he will be less of a heterodox populist than some of the other people who voted for him are hoping.
The Republican Party is in a position of enormous power but also tremendous vulnerability. Its central economic policy objective — steep reductions in the taxation of high-income families — is unpopular. Trump’s central policy idea — that trade wars and deportations can make America safer and more prosperous — is simply incorrect. Trump revels in the adulation of his core supporters and will continue to do so no matter what happens — even an incumbent as thoroughly discredited as Herbert Hoover got 40 percent in his reelection bid. But a political strategy of lies and contradictions is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Trump triumphed over divided and demoralized opposition in 2016. He will lose if his opponents stay energized and united.
There’s a lot of time between today and the New Jersey and Virginia elections in November that will be Trumpism’s first test at the polls. But so far, the anti-Trump movement is succeeding — perhaps much better than its foot soldiers realize.
Commentary by Matt Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter at @mattyglesias.
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