Letter from Washington - February 26

Tom Fina, Executive Director Emeritus

One month since taking office, the sociopath in the White House is probably more famous than any other living man in history. He has reached that level because of his symbiotic relation with the media, foreign and domestic. He lives for attention and approval. Cut that off, and he is dead. The media lives for readers and viewers. Today, Trump is the narcotic that gives the media a high when its advertising income is a downer. Neither can give up the other. Yet.

This, then, is a moment to remember the rise and fall of the unlamented Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. He, too, was irresistible to the press whether for love or hate. His exploitation of public fear of Communists and Soviet subversion drove his popularity and power. But, after his wild charges in his campaign to root out non-existent Communists in government were deflated, his popularity swooned and he was finally censured by the Senate in 1954. And, that was followed by a de facto press boycott which was the end of his threat to our democracy. 

Trump’s actions as President seem to have no ideological or philosophical motivation. They are driven only by his insatiable need for attention and approval. The more outrageous, the more attention and the more likely to bring our extremist termites out of the woodwork. 

Enter Steve Bannon who has his ear and is a fully charged and brilliant intellectual with a clear nationalist ideological road map. He can transform an erratic narcissist into a lethal poison of our democracy and of the productive and stable world order that the United States has created and led since the Second World War. Bannon believes in “deconstructing of the administrative state”. 

The what? 

“A class of regulators in the government has robbed Americans of their democratic prerogatives. That class now constitutes an “administrative state” that operates to empower itself and enrich its crony-capitalist allies.” When Bannon called for deconstructing the “administrative state” at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23, the audience was wild with joy. You may never have heard of the “administrative state” and I have never heard of it. But, the Tea Party progeny know all about it. 

It was Bannon speaking when Trump told his supporters after election that “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag. From now on it is going to be: America First...” That is an attack on European Union, on NATO, on reciprocal trade agreements, on American defense of democracy and human rights around the globe. It is also a repudiation of Republican belief at least since Dwight Eisenhower.

The first question that Democrats ask themselves and each other as the second month of Trump begins is “when and how do we dump Trump?”

The conundrum for Democrats and Independents is that the Democratic Party is at its weakest in the Congress, in state legislatures and in state governors in many decades. During the Obama presidency, we Democrats lost more than 1000 seats in state legislatures. We lost over 10% of our Senate seats, 19% of those in the House, 20% in state legislatures and almost 36% of governors. Republicans now control 32 legislatures accounting for 62% of our population while Democrats have only 13 with 28% of the population. Without control of state legislatures and governors, Democrats will be unable to re-cast election districts after the 2020 Census - the key to regaining control of the Congress.

Moreover, Democrats are seriously divided between the Obama/Clinton centrists and the Sanders/Warren leftists. That division marked the February 25 election of the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, former Obama Secretary of Labor and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division and the first Latino Chair. Perez was the centrist candidate who narrowly defeated the Sanders/Warren favorite, black Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison from MN, in a very heated face-off between the two factions.

Immediately after his election, Perez called for Ellison to be named deputy chairman and that was a significant step in bringing the party together. In a hopeful sign of future strength, Perez and Ellison are both friends and have similar views about what the party needs to do to recover. That centers on generating candidates and electing them from town councils to the White House. Despite Democratic denunciations of money in politics, the Perez/Ellison team is going to have to raise mountains of money to pay for the revival of the Democratic Party from all 3000 counties. No money. No party. No kidding.

Perez and Ellison are also faced with the tantalizing signs of a ground swell of revulsion at the Trump presidency. The enormous Women’s protest marches on the day after his taking office, not only across the nation but around the world, showed a largely spontaneous grass roots uprising. The question that its organizers, its participants and political leaders of both parties cannot stop asking is whether that passion can be sustained in a political movement that wins elections. Can Perez/Ellison come up with a way to do just that?

Rank and file Democrats and Independents are demanding militant opposition to Trumpism. In town hall meetings with Democratic Members of Congress during the Presidents Day recess (February 18-26), unprecedented crowds of Democrats insisted that their Members of Congress fight Trump tooth and nail. Forget issues on which to agree. Fight.

Republican members were also swamped. But by angry voters denouncing Republican support for Trump and for their promise to repeal Obamacare. That uproar is so powerful that many Republicans are ducking live meetings in favor of telephone conferences. Protesters dream that this outrage is the rise of an anti-Trump Tea Party movement that will last and grow.

The question for both Democrats and Republicans is whether they will be challenged in the primary elections by militant anti-Trump candidates. As Johnson said of the prospect of being hanged, it “focuses the mind wonderfully.”

Much of this push back has been spontaneous. But, among the numerous organizations that have sprung up to carry on the passion of the women’s marches, theIndivisibles are probably the most powerful. Conceived by a small group of Congressional staffers after the November debacle, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” (indivisibleguide.com) has probably been the most organized force behind the overwhelming turnout at Congressional townhall meetings. 

Confronting Members of Congress during the recess is a beginning. The Indivisibles see their campaign as a long haul: “ Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate. He does not have large congressional majorities. If a small minority in the Tea Party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.” (The Indivisible Guide.)

How long can Republicans close their eyes to Trump’s lies and misdeeds? Republicans support him by 83-10%. But, the same polling shows that he is out of sync with public opinion and public support. Quinniapiac (22 February 2017) concludes: his “popularity is sinking like a rock” with 38% job approval, 55% disapproval and respondents saying:
55 – 40 percent that he is not honest; 
55 – 42 percent that he does not have good leadership skills; 
53 – 44 percent that he does not care about average Americans; 
63 – 33 percent that he is not level-headed; 
64 – 32 percent that he is a strong person; 
58 – 38 percent that he is intelligent; 
60 – 37 percent that he does not share their values. 

How long can that mismatch last?