Activism

What Progressives Need to Do for the Next 1,363 Days

100 days of resistance is a start, but progressives need to turn resistance energy into electoral energy.

What Progressives Need to Do for the Next 1,363 Days

Anti-Trump protesters taking a rest in Whitehall during the London march against Trump's immigration ban. (Photo by Alisdare Hickson/ flickr CC 2.0)

If you had asked almost anyone on Nov. 9, or even Jan. 20, if by the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office the Affordable Care Act would remain intact, his pernicious attacks on immigrants and refugees would be largely stalled by a combination of judicial action and public outrage, and that he and the Republican Congress would have less to show for their unified control of American government than any first 100 days of a new government since FDR, or perhaps ever, I would have found it hard to believe.

Trump, who lives in his own alternative reality, is observing the 100-day mark, no one should be surprised by now, by simultaneously calling the start of his term the most historic and productive ever, and denying (despite videotaped evidence to the contrary, as is the case with most of his lies) that he ever embraced the metric to begin with. His core base in our hyperpolarized country continues to buy it, for now, but almost nobody else does.

It’s not that Trump has turned out to be less awful than we expected. His crudeness and personal expressions of bigotry have been contained a bit in office, but his ignorance — manifested most lately in a lengthy Associated Press interview in which, among other things, he conceded that he had trashed NATO as “obsolete” during his presidential campaign before really knowing anything about what NATO does — is on regular and appalling display.

 
The advisers

Trump’s appointments have been a wretched mix of fascist sympathizers like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka; ideologues like Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Sessions, bent on destroying the agencies they lead and undermining the values and policies, like justice and environmental protection, that they are sworn to protect; ignoramuses like Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, who came in knowing virtually nothing about their departments; and generals like James Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, whose dominance would ordinarily be alarming but is sometimes perversely reassuring in the parade of right-wing zealots, self-dealers and incompetents that is the Trump Cabinet, along with hapless aides like Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway who are hard to distinguish from their pop-culture parody doppelgangers.

 
The family

And then, of course, there is the family — Jared Kushner, way over his head with a bulging portfolio from Mideast peace to reorganizing the federal government; and Ivanka Trump, charged with sanitizing her father’s misogyny while pumping her brand. We are supposed to be grateful that Kushner stuck a shiv into Steve Bannon — not dead yet — and that along with Goldman alums Gary Cohn (at the National Economic Council) and Dina Powell (at the National Security Council), Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are said to be a “moderating” influence on the man in the Oval Office. But if the Trump White House is moderate, I don’t want to see what extremism looks like.

 
The accomplishments

Yes, Trump in office has been every bit the horror show we had every reason to fear. The global gag rule has been restored, student loan protections gutted, climate protections pulled back and abusive police departments given a green light from the Justice Department — and that’s just the beginning of a long list. While many of Trump’s executive actions are for show, others are doing real harm, and will continue to. And he’s done considerable damage to the US’ global reputation by embracing thugs and dictators like Sisi of Egypt, Erdogan of Turkey and Duterte of the Philippines.

 
The non-accomplishments

And yet on many of his key priorities, Trump’s not, to use his favored word, winning.

Trump is the least popular president in recent history at the end of his first 100 days, and his campaign promises remain largely unfulfilled or even started on. A partial catalogue of missteps and defeats include the forced resignation of Michael Flynn, the Strangelovian national security adviser, over lying about his contacts with Russia; Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation for related reasons, all part of a steady drumbeat of continuing revelations that may prove too much even for a supine Republican Congress to ignore; the withdrawal of the shoddy Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, dead on arrival at 17 percent public approval despite Trump’s last-minute threats and cajoling of Congress; and of course the string of court defeats for his immigration policies. Mexico, of course, has no intention of paying for Trump’s wall, and Congress is in no mood to shut down the government over Trump’s fantasy project. Yes, he got a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, now sitting in a seat Mitch McConnell stole from Merrick Garland, but the Republicans had to break the filibuster rule to get it done, given how unified the Democrats were.

 
The view from the ground

Meanwhile, in the special elections since Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have come tantalizingly close to winning what had been rock-solid Republican districts and may yet prevail in a few of them — a message not lost on Republicans up for re-election in 2018; and the withdrawal last week of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) may be a harbinger of things to come.

We’re at a better place than many of us imagined in the first 100 days for all the incompetence, hubris and infighting in the Trump administration and Congress, because ordinary citizens have risen up to resist assaults on their democracy.

We’re at a better place than many of us imagined in the first 100 days for all the incompetence, hubris and infighting in the Trump administration and Congress, because ordinary citizens have risen up to resist assaults on their democracy, and because, at least for now, some of the checks and balances in our system — an invigorated congressional opposition, independent courts and a free press — are working as they should.

Indeed, the chief effect of Trump’s young administration, as Eric Liu wrote this week in The Washington Post, is to have sparked a huge wave of civic engagement at a scale unseen in this country for decades, beginning with the massive Women’s March less than 24 hours after he took the oath of office, continuing with airport rallies against the Muslim ban, marches for science and huge climate marches to mark his 100th day. Vocal citizen presence at congressional town halls, sparked by new groups like Indivisible and revitalized older groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, has already dwarfed the tea party’s presence in 2009-10, and shows no signs of abating. Both new and established resistance groups are swelling with members and donors. So are the subscription rolls of traditional newspapers, the ratings of Trump critics and satirizers on TV, and the contributor base for nonprofit investigative outlets like ProPublica.

There’s even some evidence that Trump is affecting events abroad, just not in a way he intended. Europeans watching the train wreck of the Trump administration seem less inclined to gamble on right-wing populists, as the Dutch election and the strong showing of centrist Emmanuel Macron in the second-round French presidential surveys seem to indicate, despite or perhaps because of Trump’s appalling embrace of Marine Le Pen.

 
Not normalized yet

In the broader culture, the feared “normalization” of Trump is still not taking hold. For tousling Trump’s hair during the election, Jimmy Fallon’s ratings have gone south, and a number of New England Patriots found reasons to be elsewhere when Trump hosted the Super Bowl-winning team at the White House. Ivanka Trump, her father’s chief apologist and enabler, was jeered while sharing the stage with Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde in Berlin this week. Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock may roam the White House as Trump’s guests, mocking Hillary Clinton’s portrait, but when the Kennedy Center awards its annual honors, who will want to sit in the box with Donald Trump? And when Trump ventures beyond his own hotels and resorts, and nostalgia rallies with his most zealous supporters in airport hangars in red territory, what kind of reception will he get?

 
What to watch

There’s much to be encouraged about, but much to be concerned about as well. As we head into the second 100 days, we need to take stock not only of how Trump is doing, but of how those of us who oppose him are doing, and where we should be going. Here are three things to watch in the next 100 days and beyond

The ripple effect even from failed or stalled policies. Trump doesn’t need to succeed in enacting all his policies — the border wall, refugee ban, deportations and defunding of sanctuary cities — to make life dangerous and difficult for immigrants. Stepped-up enforcement by unleashed ICE agents and the climate of fear whipped up by his hateful rhetoric, and the most anti-immigrant attorney general since the notorious A. Mitchell Palmer in the Wilson administration, are already doing the job. We have to be careful, in celebrating some big wins that have slowed the machinery of repression, not to lose sight of the reality on the ground for immigrant workers and families. The apparatus of resistance that has so far been trained mainly on protests needs to be focused on protection as well.

Cracks in the resistance. The vibrant opposition to Trump has buoyed us all with its audacity and staying power so far. In the early days, there has been considerable unity among progressives, few fights over credit and turf and a general sense of shared interest and priorities, forged by a common adversary. But there is no denying that, just as there are fissures in the Republican coalition, there are strains among progressives as well. This makes it imperative that progressives find ways to have honest conversations about strategies and policies — and most importantly, about the way donor money flows, and whether groups led by women and people of color are sufficiently resourced for the fights they are waging.

This is the moment for those who work on elections and those turning out in the streets to come together. Grass roots energy is not a force to be “channeled” by a political establishment that has often failed us — it may shape a different politics.

Show me the votes. The ultimate form of resistance is replacement at the polls. Aside from a few special elections, the first places to do that will be in statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey this November. Then one year later, control of Congress is at stake along with a number of key battles for governorships and state legislatures that are critical not only to economic justice, environmental progress, and civil and human rights, but to the way electoral power is distributed when district lines are drawn early in the next decade. Progressives are already at their lowest point in the states since the days of Herbert Hoover. If we can’t make gains with the engine of opposition to Trump powering us, this may be virtually irreversible for another decade. Resistance energy needs to be turned into electoral energy. This is the moment for those who work on elections and those turning out in the streets to come together. Grass roots energy is not a force to be “channeled” by a political establishment that has often failed us — it may shape a different politics. But even as we resist the Trump nightmare in rallies, town hall meetings and other forms of pressure on Congress, the only way to end it is by defeating Donald Trump and his enablers in the same way they came to power — at the polls.

Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche is president of The Democracy Alliance. He previously served as vice president of the Open Society Foundations and president of the Atlantic Philanthropies. Follow him on Twitter: @garalog.