To be clear, Democratic leaders are not the only members of the American elite who seem increasingly predisposed to grant Trump a presumption of regularity. The tenor of press coverage of Trump has also become more muted, with ordinary discussions of his policy initiatives competing for space with ever-present scandals. And the Republican Party, of course, has long quelled most of the dissent in its ranks over the president.
But for the Democratic Party, the current moment of elite acquiescence to Trump presents unique and profound dangers.
A Democratic midterm wave has never been inevitable. Democrats have advanced this far because they have positioned themselves to take advantage of widespread anger at Trump.
Recent shifts in elite opinion do not seem to reflect any change of public sentiment. Trump is nearly as unpopular as ever. Voters disapprove of the president by huge margins. Opinion polling consistently finds that over half the country “strongly disapproves” of him. Indeed, loathing for Trump is so profound that he is able to move public opinion towards almost any position, simply by taking the other side. (In one striking example, Trump’s opposition to NFL protests appeared to make those protests more popular.) Tellingly, there does not seem to be a single high-profile policy dispute in which the president’s position commands majority support.
Until now, Democrats have capably exploited this political opportunity. They have, in effect, employed the same obstructionist tactics that were utilized by Republicans against President Obama. By declaring the president anathema, Democrats electrified their party and mobilized everyone who is frightened of him. This is a particularly canny tactic because, as was demonstrated in the Obama era, even voters frustrated with gridlock and chaos mostly blame the president and his party.
In 2010 and 2014, unrelenting Republican opposition to Obama preceded huge midterm gains for the GOP, despite the fact that he was much less unpopular than Trump is today. While opposition to Obama helped mobilize the partisan base, opposition to Trump is a true majoritarian position.
“The Resistance” has been mocked from the left as naïve and Trump-obsessed, and mocked from the center and right as dogmatic, unpractical, and melodramatic. It’s an easy target: it relies heavily on political newcomers with old-fashioned ideas about democratic process and American values; it’s propelled by Trump’s vulgarity as much as his policy proposals; it is apt to celebrate anyone who shares their contempt for the president, including no small share of cranks and charlatans.
Perhaps because of this, tastemakers and party leaders have overlooked that the anti-Trump movement’s core political prescription—uncompromising opposition—has proven itself the single most effective way to frustrate the Trump agenda and elect his opponents. In 2017, nothing unified voters more than their aversion to the president. When anti-Trump sentiment was peaking last December, the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage actually exceeded the gaps produced by economic collapse and mass unemployment in 2010 and 2008. This is no parochial gang of partisans: It’s fully half the country, highly mobilized, and the proximate cause of recent Democratic strength.