From The President / February 20, 2017

Trump and Us, One Month and Counting

Though it seems to many of us like it’s being measured in dog years, the Trump Presidency is just one month old, today. Though Donald Trump in office has proved every bit as appalling as his campaign warned us he would be, he’s faced many more obstacles than anyone imagined than when he lifted his right hand to take the oath of office under threatening skies before non-record crowds on January 20.

First and foremost, Trump has faced a robust resistance movement — on the streets, beginning with the historic women’s marches, at the airports, and in town halls where Republican and Democratic officeholders meet their constituents. Thousands of local “Indivisible” groups, a progressive version of the Tea Party, have formed around the country, turning up the heat on politicians across the spectrum. Millions of ordinary Americans have been roused to protest, refusing to accept Trump’s Presidency as “normal,” and they’re joined by voices from many other quarters, from fiercely oppositionist conservative columnists like Michael Gerson and Jennifer Rubin to six New England Patriots (so far) who refuse to go to the White House for the Super Bowl Ceremony.

Those who wondered whether Democrats in Congress would have the spine to stand up to Trump got an initial answer over the last month, as those spines have been stiffened by citizen pressure. While not enough Republicans — many of them nervous about primary challenges from Trump’s fervent base — have broken ranks, enough did to bring about the withdrawal of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder and force an unprecedented tie-breaking vote on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“Millions of ordinary Americans have been roused to protest, refusing to accept Trump’s Presidency as normal.”

Though under constant and withering attack from Trump, core institutions of democracy like the courts and the press have risen to the challenge well, and the Administration’s efforts to undermine them — for the moment confined to rhetorical attacks — have only spurred them to guard their independence even more jealously. The same is true of public servants, like Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who refused to defend the Muslim ban, and the many career Environmental Protection Agency staffers who opposed Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt — who, like Puzder and DeVos, was chosen to dismantle, not protect, a vital department. Leakers who exposed the Flynn scandal and Trump’s bizarre rants in phone calls with foreign leaders have also played a big part in the rockiest start for a new administration in memory — a debacle captured in historically-low approval ratings moving still further south.

More surprising obstacles have come from the sheer incompetence of the White House staff, a nest of rivalries and competing power centers who can’t manage to vet executive orders, tell their Lone Ranger boss that Frederick Douglass is dead or that his electoral vote count was paltry by recent standards, or even produce White House documents not rife with spelling errors. Along with Trump’s own narcissism and pettiness — just weeks into his Presidency, many are even calling him unhinged, and taking a fresh look at the 25th Amendment — these bush league bureaucrats are making it almost impossible for the relatively few Cabinet members with any stature, like the Secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security, to do their jobs, as their key hires are vetoed and they are left out of the loop in critical decisions. How long will they put up with that, and what foreign policy expert not an Islamophobic conspiracy theorist like Flynn will want to take the job of National Security Adviser? After a month in office, the Trump Administration is further behind in nominating officers who must be approved by the Senate than any administration in memory, much less getting them confirmed.

A fine-tuned machine the Trump Administration is not, and barring a personality and character transplant for the 70-year old man at the center of it, things are not likely to get much better. And yet much damage has been done already, from the rule blocking U.S. funding for organizations that provide abortion counseling overseas to stepped-up raids and deportations with more promised for this week.

The Trump administration has been weakened more by vigorous opposition from outside and by self-inflicted wounds from within than we had any reason to hope just a month ago. But for those of us who see it as a threat to democratic values and norms, we can’t afford a minute of smugness or complacency. There are three things that worry me most as we head into the second of what could be 48 months of the Trump Presidency.

“A fine-tuned machine the Trump Administration is not, and barring a personality and character transplant for the 70-year old man at the center of it, things are not likely to get much better.”

The first is how the Administration, and the country, will react to an act of terrorist violence which is inevitable at some point during Trump’s time in office. For the moment, a fear-stoking President has been reduced to making things up, from the Bowling Green massacre to the tragic non-events in Sweden, but when real violence comes, Trump and some around him will exploit it to consolidate power. The attacks on “so-called” judges, and on the press as the “enemy of the people” are but prologue to the next act, laying the groundwork to challenge their patriotism and legitimacy. The hand of Steve Bannon is not hard to see here. American values, and the institutions which must uphold them, will be tested in time in a crucible much hotter than the skirmishes of the last month. We must be ready.

The second is that Trump will get his act together to focus more sharply on the economic misery that he tapped into to put him in the White House, and drive a wedge into his opposition. Despite a few photo-ops at plants where he claims that Presidential pressure “saved” jobs, this has mostly gotten lost in the daily circus of tweets, feuds, lies and self-pity that we have quickly come to know as life in the Trump administration. With the Republican Congress mired in its own dysfunction — unsure, for example, about how to undo Obamacare now that they’re the dog that caught the bus — and unenthusiastic about any new non-military spending, Trump may already have missed the opportunity for a big infrastructure bill and the politically popular jobs and construction projects that go with it. No Trump/Republican Congress infrastructure bill is likely to be more than a smokescreen for tax cuts and more transfers of income to the wealthy. But it won’t be sold that way, and the political calculus could be scrambled if they come together with a package and promote it cleverly.

Finally, I worry that with so much to resist — from the moral abomination of the travel ban to a parade of ignorant and ideological Cabinet nominees — we may not be throwing a big enough spotlight on some very big things that will have a lasting impact on the structures of democracy and the strength of the social safety net. Betsy DeVos and Andrew Puzder deserved the vigorous opposition they got for traditionally junior cabinet positions, but hard-right ideologues like Tom Price at Health and Human Services and Mick Mulvaney the Office of Management and Budget are now heading massive agencies that control spending on vast swaths of the economy. Puzder and DeVos didn’t know much about the agencies they were nominated to lead, but Price and Mulvaney have been preparing for years to shred health and income support programs on which working class, poor and middle-income Americans depend. And let’s not forget they join Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the leading anti-civil rights crusader in Congress for two decades, now in a position to destroy equal justice from the inside.

At the same time, who is paying much attention to Trump’s appointee to head the Federal Communications Commission, and the dire threat to net neutrality that he represents, or to Trump’s opportunity to reshape the Federal Election Commission? Shifts at both of these agencies imperil the already-weak barriers to corporate control of our democracy.

We’re still in the very early days of the Trump administration. Those of us who vowed to resist it are off to a promising start, and we’ve had some impact, aided by Trump’s unreadiness and unsuitability. But we have to go even deeper and broader, and steel ourselves for tougher fights ahead, if we are to protect our threatened democracy.