President Donald Trump had just addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech, which was well received by both liberal and conservative media, ended with a call for all Americans to dream and do great things again, together.
No sooner had the last syllable reverberated through the chamber of the House of Representatives than the Democratic side of the aisle emptied as though a fire alarm had been pulled. Only a few Democrats stayed behind to shake Trump’s hand, among them West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
The rapid exodus of the Democrats was an example of their “resistance” to Trump, an unprecedented campaign by left-wing activists and Democrats to deny legitimacy to the president.
Democratic politicians often justify their resistance with the claim that the election was stolen from Hillary Clinton due to Russian interference, with the possible complicity of the Trump campaign.
But the resistance also serves other agendas. The focus on Trump provides a point of unity for a party with significant internal divisions.
However, the strategy of resistance is also born out of fear that Trump poses a unique challenge to the left. While the left seeks to delegitimize Trump, he may delegitimize the left.
The resistance began soon after the networks called the election for Trump early on the morning of Nov. 9. A group of friends were chatting online. According to Hepzibah Nanna, a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, one of them sent a message saying “He’s not my president.”
Another responded with the same sentence. The group passed it back and forth, and then someone turned it into the Twitter hashtag #notmypresident, which went viral.
Within 24 hours, protests under the “Not My President” banner broke out around the country and would continue for the next several days, with crowds sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands.
The protests were partly an outpouring of grassroots fervor, as though a segment of the population was having an allergic reaction to Trump, and partly the work of numerous left-wing organizations.
Nanna became a national coordinator for the protests, which she said had a message for Trump: “What you guys preach and teach is not what America stands for.”
Turn to Russia
The Democrats reeled after the Trump victory. Almost every expert had predicted a win for Clinton, and she had an edge in the nationwide popular vote. The combination made Clinton’s loss especially bitter.
The morning after, a few themes emerged among disappointed Democrats:
First, that the Republicans are racists. Former President Barack Obama’s director of communications, Dan Pfeiffer, tweeted out, “It sucks when the KKK wins.”
Second, that the Republicans are hostile to minorities. Civil rights activist Shaun King tweeted, “Dear Muslims, Immigrants, Women, Disabled, and All People of Color, I love you—boldly and proudly. We will endure.”
Third, that the Republicans want to “roll back” people’s rights, as protester Marcy Langstein told NBC on Nov. 10 in New York.
There was also much finger pointing at FBI Director James Comey because of his letter issued 11 days before the election that announced the reopening of the inquiry into Clinton’s emails.
On Nov. 12, Clinton herself named Comey’s actions as a key factor in her loss. In general, the Democrats were in disarray.
In mid-December, the Democrats began to coalesce around a strategy: blaming Clinton’s loss on the Russians interfering in the election.
The seeds for tying Trump to the Russians had been planted in the final presidential debate, when Clinton accused Trump of being a “puppet” of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
An appearance by Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta on “Meet the Press” on Dec. 18 showcased the new strategy. Podesta twice refused to respond to questions on whether Trump’s election victory was legitimate. Instead, Podesta referred to Russian hacks of his personal email account and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee as having “distorted” the election.
Going forward, the Russian connection became the Democrats’ leading strategy for opposing Trump.
One month after Podesta’s interview, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) told NBC he would boycott Trump’s inauguration. Citing Russian interference, Lewis said Trump was an illegitimate president; 66 Democratic members of Congress declared they’d joined Lewis in the boycott.
The day after the inauguration, hundreds of thousands of protesters converged on Washington for the Women’s March, and the protests have continued.
The press has been hostile to the Trump administration. An analysis by the nonpartisan firm Media Tenor found that only 3 percent of reports on NBC and CBS from Jan. 20 to Feb. 17 were positive toward Trump.
Many news stories also carried the narrative that Trump’s campaign may have worked with the Russians to deny Clinton the election.
For instance, a New York Times story on Feb. 14 used leaks from intelligence agencies about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials to suggest collusion. The article cites a Jan. 6 report by U.S. intelligence agencies as saying that Putin had shown a clear preference for a Trump victory, but neglected to mention that the report found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
The Democrats have resisted Trump by slow walking his Cabinet appointments. On Obama’s first day in office, six Cabinet members were approved, plus one carryover from President George W. Bush’s administration. By the end of his first week, Obama had 11 confirmed Cabinet members.
On Trump’s first day in office, two Cabinet members were approved and after one week, still only two had been approved. Three Cabinet members were not approved until March, and as of March 7, six and a half weeks after the inauguration, two Cabinet members were still awaiting approval.
In order to show the degree of opposition Trump’s appointments have received, The Weekly Standard compiled the average number of yes votes each Cabinet nominee received. The nominees of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each received on average over 90 yes votes. Trump’s nominees have received on average 69 yes votes.
By delaying the Cabinet heads from taking office, the Democrats make it difficult for the Trump administration to make progress in its first 100 days in office. In addition, the political appointees—around 1,200 officials that require Senate confirmation—who run the departments cannot be appointed until the department head is confirmed.
According to various political commentators, the goal is to slow down the Trump administration to such a degree that when the 2018 midterm elections roll around, there will be little progress to show voters.
The strategy of resistance is aimed at defeating Trump, but it has its uses within the Democratic Party too.
According to John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, “It is easier to unite people against an opponent than for a policy.”
The Democrats have serious disagreements about what their long-term strategy should be, but the goal of defeating Trump can, to some degree, paper over their differences.
Richard F. Bensel, professor of government at Cornell University, said, “The problem for Democrats is that their party has two increasingly polarized wings: one oriented around identity politics and the other committed to class insurgency.”
Bensel said the former group tends to suppress class distinctions, while the latter group tends to suppress considerations of identity. The two overlap, but only by a bit, he said.
The Democrats’ older, New Deal coalition brought together liberals, minorities, labor unions, the white South, and the mountain West. The Democrats’ new coalition consists of young people, college-educated suburbanites, and minorities.
According to Bensel, the party had begun to take its working-class base for granted and tried “to pivot into what they [the party] considered the post-industrial world and identity politics” as its future.
During Obama’s two terms, the Democrats lost 69 seats in the House of Representatives and 13 seats in the Senate. Most of these losses were among those centrists who were more sympathetic to the class-based politics of the older Democratic Party than to identity politics.
The need to get elected puts some Democrats at odds with the strategy of resistance.
Sen. Joe Manchin sees the across-the-board opposition to Trump as a mistake, with the Democrats imitating the opposition to Obama’s agenda implemented by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The day after Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress, Manchin told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham: “The ‘hard core left’ looks back and says, ‘Well, it worked for [the Republicans]. They have both the House and the Senate and they have the presidency. So, why don’t we try the same thing, since it worked for them?'”
“Well, that didn’t work for the American people, I can assure you, and that’s not what they want,” Manchin said.
Trump carried West Virginia by 42 percent, and so Manchin’s political future—he is up for reelection in 2018—may depend on West Virginians seeing him as being willing to work with Trump.
Manchin is not alone. For instance, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, both up for reelection in states Trump carried, each released a statement in connection with Trump’s address to Congress declaring they were willing to work with Trump.
While these senators may have an eye on the upcoming elections, they also have policy disagreements with their own party. Manchin wants the Obama administration’s war on coal stopped, and Heitkamp wants America’s energy infrastructure developed. All three put an emphasis on helping the working class.
“Resistance” has been the watchword for the opposition to Trump by left-wing activists and the Democratic Party.
For instance, a New York University law student created a wiki-style, open source guide called the “Resistance Manual,” and the website The DJT Resistance works to boycott corporations whose heads have supported Trump.
David Horowitz, the head of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of, most recently, “Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America,” said the Democrats’ use of the word “resistance” is an allusion to the anti-Hitler resistance movement during World War II.
Horowitz grew up as a red diaper baby (a child of United States Communist Party members) and became one of the leading figures in the New Left in the United States. The 1974 murder of his bookkeeper by the Black Panthers, whom he had supported, caused him to reevaluate all his political beliefs, which resulted in his becoming one of the foremost critics of the left.
According to Horowitz, the polarization in the United States is due to a clash of competing ideologies: the identity politics of the Democrats and the older idea of what the United States represents. He believes there is a fundamental disagreement about what the country stands for, what Horowitz calls a civil war-type situation.
“The American idea is that we are all created equal by the same Creator and have rights that the government can’t take away, regardless of our origins, or our color, or our religion,” Horowitz said. “That’s the American idea: individuals judged on their merits.”
“The Democrats’ idea is a hierarchy of race, gender, and sexual orientation,” Horowitz said. “It is a hierarchy created by the Marxist idea of the world being divided into oppressors and oppressed. The oppressed are people of color.”
The intensity of the Democrats’ opposition to Trump is due, Horowitz believes, to the way in which their ideology functions as a sort of religion for them.
“The world is a fallen place,” Horowitz said. “They don’t use the word fallen. But it is the same thing, full of oppression. But there is going to be redemption, and they are the redeemers.”
Pitney said the polarization in the country is due to “aversive partisanship,” in which “each side sees the other as the enemy.”
According to Horowitz, the Republicans have been intimidated by identity politics and have feared being called racists. Trump, however, has not been intimidated and by arguing for the American idea, he is arguing against identity politics and its inherent divisiveness.
Horowitz points to the president’s inaugural address to show how Trump offers unity based on the American creed:
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
Trump’s boldness in not accepting political correctness, and his offering of an alternative to identity politics, has badly scared the left, according to Horowitz.
“They really believe Trump is Hitler and Mussolini,” Horowitz said. “They think their rights are going to be taken away, and they will be thrown in jail.”
The Democratic resistance is motivated in part by this fear, which is not just due to Trump’s challenge to identity politics.
Pitney pointed out that Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure and that his rhetoric and tone can invite an extreme response.
In the protests against Trump, illegal immigrants spoke of their fear that they would be deported; Muslims of their fear that they were made vulnerable to hate crimes by Trump’s singling them out; LGBTQ individuals of their fears that they will lose the right to same-sex marriage and otherwise face discrimination; and women of their fear of losing access to abortions.
Pitney believes the Democrats chose a strategy of resistance in part to excite their base, calculating that it will win them elections.
“The problem for the Democrats is that their base is not efficiently distributed,” Pitney said. Clinton carried 489 counties, mostly in urban areas and on the coasts, while Trump won 2,623 counties.
“You might end up with a lot of urban democrats winning with 80 percent of the vote rather than 70 percent,” Pitney said.
Pitney believes the solution for the Democrats is to nominate individuals who are more moderate, like Manchin. The strategy of resistance, however, encourages ideological purity, which makes broadening the party in this way more difficult.
Horowitz sees the Democrats as being on a self-destructive course, one that will deliver the 2018 midterm elections—with a large number of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats—and the 2020 elections to the Republicans.