As Trump gains GOP support, Dems struggle to find strong leadership to challenge him
Two months after President-elect Donald Trump was disinvited from a planned campaign appearance with House Speaker Paul Ryan, the two appeared on stage together at Trump’s latest “thank you” rally in Wisconsin Tuesday.
Trump criticized Ryan as a weak and ineffective leader during the closing weeks of his campaign, but any tension between the two was washed away by his November victory, even if some in the crowd booed at the mention of Ryan’s name. At the event, Trump compared Ryan to “a fine wine” and Ryan gave Trump a Green Bay Packers jersey with his name on it.
The rally illustrated how quickly the Republican establishment has coalesced behind Trump, and it serves as a reminder that Trump is largely in sync with the mainstream of the party.
In the weeks since the election, Trump has downplayed his most extreme campaign promises—banning Muslim immigration, locking up Hillary Clinton—while promoting more traditional conservative policies. He has already broken with Republican orthodoxy on trade and some foreign policy matters, but for the most part, his transition has not strayed far from what would be expected of any Republican president.
“We’re probably going to lead with Obamacare repeal and replace. Then we’ll have a small tax reform package and then a bigger tax reform package at the end of April,” Trump’s incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Wednesday. “It’s going to be a busy year with the first nine months being very much consumed with Obamacare and tax reform.”
The response from the left to Trump’s policy statements and Cabinet picks has often been a mix of anger and panic. Each day seems to bring new developments that infuriate and upset Democrats and progressives, to the point where they risk average voters tuning out their sustained outrage.
Fear of a Trump presidency is even driving some liberal activists to urge electors to subvert the will of the states they represent to keep him out of the Oval Office.
With the Democratic Party lacking a clear leader after President Obama leaves office, it may be challenging to muster a coherent, coordinated defense against the Republican majority. Experts say the party will need an argument that goes beyond perpetual shock and horror at Trump’s antics.
Strategist Craig Varoga suggested Democrats should learn from Republicans who successfully made Hillary Clinton’s private email use an issue that defined her campaign. With the evidence emerging of potential for conflicts of interest and corruption under Trump, effective messaging could give Democrats a similar opening.
“The trick is for notoriously undisciplined Democrats to find it in their gut to stay on message, not just for themselves, but for the country,” Varoga said.
Arnie Arnesen, a liberal talk radio host based in New Hampshire and Bernie Sanders supporter, recommended focusing on the voters to whom Trump made promises he may not be able to keep.
Based on Trump’s Cabinet stacked with bankers and billionaires and an economic agenda that benefits the wealthy, she expects many in the working class will be left behind by his policies. Rather than venting anger over what Trump does, Democrats can reach out to them.
“He so oversold,” she said. “He’s such a snake oil salesman. They usually get to leave town before people realize it’s snake oil. He has nowhere to go.”
Many of the initial legislative priorities Trump has outlined since Election Day hew closely to the agenda put forth by Ryan and House Republicans. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, tax cuts that largely benefit the wealthy, and massive deregulation are all policies that Democrats understandably oppose, but they would also likely be at the top of the to-do list for a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.
Trump’s selection of climate change deniers for top environmental posts is jarring to those who consider the science on the issue to be settled, but the reality is that the policies they espouse are not outside of the Republican mainstream.
Democrats are girding themselves for a far-right nominee to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court, but Trump has consulted with prominent Republican think tanks in compiling his list of potential jurists.
In a series of tweets Tuesday, political scientist Matt Glassman made the case that the “marginal Trump effect”—the difference between Trump and a hypothetical mainstream Republican president—is limited on most domestic policy issues. On some matters, Trump is even to the left of the party establishment.
“My hunch is a fair portion of the freakout is really about unified GOP government, with little marginal Trump effect,” he wrote.
Although hysteria will be appropriate if Trump abuses executive power or undermines voting rights and civil liberties, Glassman said Democrats are better off engaging in a policy debate when he pursues typical Republican positions. Policy, and how it affects them, is what most voters will judge Trump on anyway.
“Trump is going to look *most* normal right where most people’s minds are when considering/evaluating POTUS,” he tweeted.
There are also issues that are unique to Trump, though. He has signaled a willingness to subvert norms of democratic society, and some of his rhetoric has swerved toward extremes that even prominent Republicans denounced at the time.
His maligning of the intelligence community in defense of Russia in recent days is one example of behavior that some national security experts find to be truly dangerous.
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said the actions of Trump and his team during the transition suggest a lack of respect for the norms that have limited the power of the executive branch in the past.
“Growing tolerance for conflicts of interest in government, limitations on media access and accountability, and harsh treatment of minority groups can accumulate,” Nyhan said in an interview with the Atlantic. “Similarly, the slow disappearance of various norms can damage our democracy when we’re not paying attention.”
A group of political scientists issued an open letter Wednesday warning of “the erosion of America’s democratic institutions” under Trump. They take the president-elect to task for his personal attacks on critics, his exclusionary rhetoric, his apparent unwillingness to address conflicts of interest, and his intimidation of the media.
“We are concerned about these developments not out of partisan loyalty, but because they threaten the very foundation of the American governing system, which in turn will directly affect the lives of millions of American citizens,” they wrote.
Much of the concern from Trump’s critics centers on the people he has surrounded himself with, many of whom would never get anywhere near a position of power in a more establishment Republican administration.
Combined with Trump’s unusual refusal to accept reports of Russian hacking and his past praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his selection of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who is friendly with Putin, as secretary of state has set off alarms for some Republicans.
A number of Trump’s other Cabinet choices have openly opposed the missions of the agencies he wants them to lead. On Tuesday, he announced former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as his nominee for secretary of energy. Last summer, Perry awkwardly forgot that he wanted to shut down the Department of Energy.
“Is this a joke?” Arnesen said. “It’s almost like he’s got his middle finger up in stereo to anyone who believes in governing.”
Trump’s handling of the conflicts of interest his presidency would create for his business and his family is also unusual. He delayed a press conference originally scheduled for this week in which he claimed he would detail the separation of his business and his administration.
That event will now supposedly occur at an unspecified time in January, but ethics lawyers from both parties have questioned whether anything Trump has suggested he might do would go far enough to insulate him from corruption.
The Trump administration may prove to be conventional in many policy areas, but these other factors give Democrats and progressives reason to keep their guard up for any moves that transgress the standards they expect the presidency to uphold.
“Trump is the first president-elect in history to trash the CIA, defend Russia and claim against all standards of common sense that he does not need to be briefed on matters of grave national security, in addition to defending his right to run his businesses out of the Oval Office,” Varoga said. “That outlandish behavior might have been okay for out-of-touch European kings 300 years ago, but it doesn't cut it for what has been the leader of the free world since the end of World War II.”
Arnesen also believes much of the pushback against Trump is specifically driven by his behavior.
“I didn’t react that way with George W. Bush,” she said. “I wouldn’t have reacted that way to Mitt Romney.”
However, she cautioned against erecting a blue wall of blind opposition to President Trump. That will only harden his base against the progressive movement.
“Celebrate whatever he does right,” she said. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Give him that. You know why? Then you have more credibility when you criticize him.”
Trump revealed in an interview with the New York Times last month that retired Gen. James Mattis, now his nominee for secretary of defense, convinced him to reconsider his enthusiastic support for waterboarding. Democrats should applaud shifts like that, Arnesen said.
“He will do enough to undermine himself, but when he does the right thing, let the American people know.”