Democrats Are Unprepared for the Trump Era

After an unexpected loss in November, Democrats are nowhere near ready to take on the president-elect.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

For Democrats and other progressive types, Winter Is Coming. Scratch that. Winter has hit—full force—and hordes of White Walkers are now wilding across the land.

It’s not merely that the party’s presidential dreams were crushed. Defeat came at the hands of a chest-thumping reality-TV star with the attention span of a toddler on speed to whom the norms of civilized society, much less politics, don’t seem to apply. Donald Trump’s jerkiness is central to his appeal, and for whatever cocktail of reasons—fear, awe, confusion—even many of the guy’s detractors find him hard to resist.

How the heck is non-Trump America supposed to forge an effective opposition to such a character, especially when his political team controls all the levers of power?

Short answer: Nobody has a clue.

Oh, sure, this group of Democrats has one plan, and that group has another. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are working to fire up the left. Contenders to head the DNC are debating how to reseed the grassroots. Hill Dems are pondering legislative strategies (obstruct, challenge but don’t obstruct, cooperate but exact concessions). Operatives are studying European models for overthrowing despots. And a veritable bouquet of protests are on tap for inauguration week.

But as pretty much any Democrat will tell you (if mostly sotto voce), the party is nowhere near ready to take on Trump. And even some of this week’s more prominent protests illuminate the challenge that lies ahead.

Take the Women’s March on Washington, by far the buzziest of the gatherings. Set for Donald Trump’s first full day in office, the Saturday event is expected to draw upwards of 160,000 participants from across the country. An outgrowth of post-election Facebook venting by disappointed Hillary supporters, the march has garnered scads of attention. People are charmed by its organic, grassroots origins, and, following complaints that its initial organizers were all white chicks, the event has assumed an aggressively inclusive flavor. It is, in fact, not a rally for traditional women’s rights (reproductive freedom, equal pay, protection against sexual harassment, and so on) but rather a show of support for the rights of all potentially oppressed groups: racial minorities, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples, the disabled, and, yes, women. The march’s home page trumpets:

We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up.

The overarching goal: to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights.”

Does this soaring, all-encompassing mission give the march broad appeal? Absolutely. But in standing for everything—and thus nothing in particular—the gathering also lacks political focus. It isn’t a push for change so much as a cri de coeur by anti-Trumpers who want everyone to know that they reject the thuggish, bigoted demagoguery of their new president. Even people who cheer the event acknowledge that it’s basically a chance for those appalled by Trumpism to meet up for a big group hug.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. With a little luck and some targeted follow-up, the march could ultimately spur more women to get involved in the political process and even run for office. (This is clearly what EMILY’s List hopes. The women-focused PAC has joined with a handful of other progressive groups to conduct candidate-training sessions for 500 gals that weekend.) But as for the gathering itself, noted a long-time Democratic strategist who plans to attend: “If anyone thinks they're going to change or scare Trump and his people, they're dumb as a sack of jacks.”

If the women’s march is an exercise in group catharsis, the January 15th Day of Action, which was run out of Bernie Sanders’ office, had a sharper, more targeted aim: to cause Republicans political pain as they work to repeal Obamacare and tinker with Medicare and Medicaid. (This should not be confused with the Day of Action held by immigrant-rights group on January 14.)

In late December, Sanders sent out a letter, co-signed by conference leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, asking Democratic colleagues to organize rallies back home to “Save Healthcare” by slamming the GOP’s efforts “to throw nearly 30 million people off health insurance.” As Sanders’ campaign web site urges: “Tell Republicans loudly and clearly: You are not going to get away with it.”

More specifically, Sanders wants folks to hound Trump about his campaign vow not to mess with Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Repeatedly in recent weeks—on social media, in interviews, and even on the floor of the Senate—the senator has called on the incoming president to either pledge to veto any bill that threatens entitlements or to admit he lied to the American people.

This was Sanders’s first significant foray as the Democrats’ head of outreach. (The event was touted as “Our First Stand.”) Even more notably, it was also his first attempt to rally the revolutionaries who fueled his White House run around something other than his candidacy. But, as President Obama can attest, transferring a political following from a person onto a policy crusade or set of political goals can be tough. A presidential candidate provides a clear, compelling focal point for a diverse coalition. A policy fight, by contrast, tends to draw a much narrower band of support.

The Day of Action didn’t exactly capture the public imagination (certainly far less than the fuzzier women’s march). Around three-dozen rallies were set up (including six in Iowa and five in Wisconsin!), led by a collage of Congress members, local officials and Democratic groups, labor unions, and senior-citizens organizations—not shabby, but hardly an overwhelming show of force.

Its agenda requires the media and public to tear themselves away from the spectacle of Trump’s Cabinet hearings and inauguration hullabaloo, not to mention the rolling revelations about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy. Piercing the cacophony of the Trump carnival will not be easy for any politician, much less those looking to talk policy.

Obviously, Democrats are in the early stages of recovery. (Or is it still the late stages of grief?) After all, Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet. Members of the opposition tell me they will get organized and mobilized and put the necessary systems in place to fight back. (At this point, the DNC’s war room consists of a handful of wounded veterans of Team Hillary.)

What that will look like, no one can yet say—in part because no one can say what the Trump presidency will look like. But all agree that political resistance in the Age of Trump promises to be bitter, frustrating, and very, very weird.