Remember “this is not normal?”
A year ago, it was the motto of the self-styled “Resistance”—the coalition of liberals, Democrats, and a few wayward conservatives who were implacably opposed to the Trump administration. The endless refrain represented the refusal to countenance Trump as an ordinary political actor. Doing so, they feared, would eventually lead to the acceptance of racism, xenophobia, corruption, and authoritarianism as a regular and unremarkable feature of politics and society.
People articulating such views were easy to find—online, on the front pages, and on the streets. The day after President Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March turned into one of the largest nationwide demonstrations in American history. A week later, tens of thousands of people turned up at airports to oppose and obstruct Trump’s Muslim ban. By harnessing this unqualified opposition, Democrats were able to score shocking political and policy victories: stealing a Senate seat in Alabama, saving Obamacare, winning deep-red districts in state races, and coming close to taking the Virginia House of Delegates in the face of heavy gerrymandering.
And yet, today, in the highest circles of Democratic party politics, resistance is waning. “This is normal enough,” many key Democrats seem to be saying. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in advance of Trump’s State of the Union several weeks ago, he focused on finding ways to “work with” the president, such as infrastructure.
Bipartisan rhetoric is nothing new from politicians, but Democrats appear to be slipping towards making substantive policy concessions to Trump. Particularly in the Senate, Democrats have, bit by bit, begun acceding to Trumpian demands. Their attempted shutdown failed after less than three days, as many in the party pushed for a more conciliatory approach.
The outcome of any final immigration deal is unknown, in part because Democrats voluntarily relinquished much of their leverage by striking a bargain on the budget. But there can be little doubt that many in the party were prepared to make serious—and politically unpopular—policy concessions to Trump. At one point, that reportedly included funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (opposed by 60 percent of Americans). As it stands, Democrats in both houses appear to be on the brink of dropping demands to protect the “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children (protections that are supported by 74 percent of Americans). “He’s not asking for the kind of money that would build a wall sea to shining sea,” reasoned Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. “He’s asking for the kind of money that can say he built a wall.”
Whatever the outcome, the course of these negotiations demonstrates the erosion of the idea that Trump constitutes a crisis in American governance—that he should be treated differently than any other president. And the same change can be found inching into other Democratic rhetoric. For instance, a recent New York Times interview with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi (entitled “Enough Trump Bashing, Democrats”) emphasized the dangers of overreach, stridency, and partisanship. “We need to focus less on what’s wrong with Trump and the Republicans and more on what’s right with us,” said Patrick. With Trump calling for an infrastructure bill—the holy grail of performative bipartisanship—the pressure for moderate Democrats to work with Trump is likely to grow.
There are plenty of ways to explain this creeping acquiescence. Institutions abhor abnormality; even in politics, parties would often rather fight along familiar lines. The passage of time makes Trump’s America seem less strange. Politicos are wary of challenging a president presiding over a thriving economy. And on some level, Trump benefits from the basic dynamic that sustains any cult: His version of reality is so absurd that the only way to peacefully coexist with it is to accept his behavior as normal.
There are also signs of complacency. The closing months of 2017 were marked by resounding Democratic electoral successes in Alabama and Virginia. The new conventional wisdom says that the party will retake the House in this year’s midterms, and maybe even the Senate. For the many party leaders who want to be seen as heralds of reasonable compromise, this has seemed to signal that it is safe to abandon the harsh pose of opposition and revert to a comfortable political formlessness.
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.
As a result, Democratic electoral fortunes depend on maintaining Trump’s unpopularity, much more than any rhetoric of their own. Uniform and unequivocal opposition has helped weigh Trump down in the public eye; abandoning this successful strategy for equivocation and compromise might lift him up. Facing a gerrymandered House and a bad Senate map, it doesn’t take much to put Democrats’ predicted wave at risk. Already, their huge polling lead is shrinking.
Democrats worry that a single-minded focus on Trump will leave them without an agenda after he’s gone. But a new, conciliatory approach will mean that “after he’s gone” gets further away. The anti-Trump coalition may not last forever, but at this moment, it represents, in raw vote-getting terms, the most powerful force in American political life—the unified inverse of the nation’s reactionary minority. As Democrats’ stubborn resistance wanes, they risk eroding that unified coalition, and prolonging the crisis of the Trump presidency indefinitely.