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Democratic cowardice in the face of Trump will not be forgotten

One week ago, the United States woke up with a democratically elected president. On the following morning, the nation watched the painfully farcical inauguration of a man who won the election by dint of voter suppression and negative populism, yet still managed to have a disastrously low approval rating when he was sworn in. Things went rapidly from bad to worse, and the most awful part is that the Democrats, who had vowed to stand as the voice of loyal opposition, resisting the worst abuses of the executive, have so far collaborated, leaving a few lone states and cities as bulwarks against the rise of authoritarianism in America.

Things happened so swiftly that sometimes it helps to take a few steps back. Over the last week, the president has:

  • Unsurprisingly restored the global gag rule, which bans the use of federal funds on overseas organizations that discuss abortion in any way. It’s important to distinguish this from the Helms Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion overseas — this executive order suppresses the speech of aid groups overseas by holding funding hostage if they refer people for abortions or even mention abortion as a family planning option or response to an emergency.
  • Moved to restore the framework that would allow the United States to torture subjects in overseas ‘black sites.’
  • Taken steps to make good on the pledge to ‘build the wall,’ sparking a furious response from Mexico’s president, who made it crystal clear that he has no intention of funding such a wall, no matter what Trump promises.
  • Prepared to institute a travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries in the name of defending the U.S. from terrorism. The ban includes not just visitors, but people with green cards and legal residency in the United States — if you leave, you will not be allowed back in.
  • Attempted to institute gag orders on multiple federal agencies.
  • Assembled a ‘shadow cabinet‘ of loyalists to embed in federal agencies in order to provide ‘oversight’ and ‘approval,’ effectively extending the arm of the executive deep into what should be nonpartisan elements of the government.
  • Gotten into a bizarre war with the National Parks Service.
  • Threatened Chicago with ‘the feds,’ citing the myth that the city is a violence-strewn bloodbath in dire need of federal intervention.
  • Clung to an an outrageous lie about voter fraud.
  • Continued to advance cabinet nominations for people who are wildly unqualified (Ben Carson), hold beliefs and attitudes that run contrary to their ability to run given agencies (Betsy DeVos), and are so wildly despicable that even a Reagan-era Congress refused to confirm them (Jess Sessions).
  • Instituted a federal hiring freeze, which will leave agencies dangerously understaffed and lead to retaining private contractors, who are much more expensive than civil servants.
  • Indicated a plan to immediately move forward with the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
  • Laid the groundwork for an important step in repealing the Affordable Care Act.
  • Withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
  • Fought with the media over its accurate reporting of inauguration turnout.

Let’s be clear: It is extremely common for a new president to move fast in the first few weeks of office, especially when assuming power from a president of another party. Presidents want to establish themselves quickly and attempt to coalesce as much power as possible, especially in the face of opposition — the firehose of executive actions is designed to make it difficult to fight them, because it’s so overwhelming. Some of Trump’s actions were expected and others were predictable. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

A Republican-dominated Congress, emboldened by what they see as support from the White House, has ridden fast and hard, jamming confirmation hearings through and introducing dubious legislation, much of which is doomed to fail, but does play to the base, which is eager to hear that ‘values’ like rejecting reproductive freedoms, racist social policy, discrimination against LGBQT people, and allowing disabled people to die are upheld.

Meanwhile, the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted to skip just a bit closer to midnight, and The Economist has downgraded the United States to a ‘flawed democracy.’

But this is not passing without comment. Washington, D.C. saw a number of protests on inauguration day, including, delightfully, an antifa punching notorious Nazi Richard Spencer. On 21 January, millions of Americans took to the streets across the country, from Washington, D.C. to rural Alaska, to protest the election and affirm the values of equality and solidarity. Protest has happened in major cities nearly every day since, often in reaction to news from Congress or the White House. Last night, for example, people turned out in force to support immigrant communities, and today, the streets of Philadelphia are roiling with protesters attempting to send a message to Republican lawmakers gathered there for a legislative conference.

One thing is clear here: Millions of Americans — including some former Trump voters surprised by the news that their beloved leader had no intention of looking out for them — are furious about Donald Trump, oppose the legislative and executive agenda currently being advanced, and are ready to take to the streets to do something about it. They’re also calling legislators, preparing to run for office themselves, and organising campaigns to support marginalised communities in America in an attempt to protect them from the worst depredations of the federal government.

An overhead view of the LA women's march, showing the streets packed with protesters.
Photo: Eric Garcetti/Creative Commons

States like California are leaning on federalism and the alleged protections offered by states rights to lay hard ground rules to protect their citizens from Washington, while cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco have indicated that they will refuse orders that compromise the safety and wellbeing of their citizens. When sitting governors and mayors, state assembles and state agencies are joining the fight, it’s clear that there is a compelling mandate for federal legislators to do the will of their colleagues and constituents and stand up to Trump.

This, then, raises an obvious question: Why isn’t the Democratic Party throwing in with the people of America? Why are Democrats in Congress repeatedly rolling over for terrible legislation and horrific cabinet nominations? Very few seem willing to stand their ground — including progressive darlings like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. While some have made a few compelling floor speeches, or talk big on social media, when it comes times for votes and actions, they’re falling into line with the Republicans.

We’re hearing that they want to help find common ground. That they want to cooperate with the president and develop a peaceful, measured approach to governance. That after eight years of Republican obstructionism, they don’t want to pay back in kind, because it would set up a vicious cycle. That we must be the bigger people. That the peaceful transition of power is an important American value.

A person holding up a sign: HATE HAS NO HOME HERE.
Photo: Carly Hagins/Creative Commons

Perhaps Democrats have bought into the ‘it can’t happen here’ myth, genuinely believing that their collaboration will be excused in the future. If they have, they’ve made a grave mistake, because the American people know better, and the American people are not having it. That includes some of their own staffers, who have shared my bafflement and confusion. Democrats are perhaps not aware that their inaction is only further mobilising people, and that some are attempting to fight fire with fire, preparing to run for office, boosting nascent campaigns, and planning to take their support elsewhere. While the grassroots may lack the tremendous monetary force that backs many members of Congress, if they’re allowed to remain angry enough for long enough, they might bring an unpleasant surprise to the polls in November 2018.

Header photo: Alan Sandercock/Creative Commons


s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.