Dear Democrats: Obstruct Now, March Later

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tags: inauguration, election 2016, Trump

Fedja Buric is an Assistant Professor of History at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY.  

As Trump takes the oath of office, the Democrats are exhibiting all the signs that theirs will be an opposition that is toothless, ineffective, and counterproductive.

Their obsession with empty talk, rallies, and marches at the expense of efficient, and ruthless (but of course, legal) methods of political resistance are an ominous sign.

Rallies are good for creating a sense of a shared purpose. They can energize at times of despair. To millions of Americans feeling hopeless they can give a sense of a personal mission.

But if they are not a part of an organized, sustained, and at times ruthless, political campaign of resistance, at all levels of power, against the opposition, rallies can actually have a counterproductive effect: they drain energy, resources, and attention-spans.

Most dangerously, politically rudderless rallies can inure the public to the normality of a terrifyingly abnormal presidency.

They also allow an autocratic president to claim the rallies as evidence that the democracy is still alive and well.

In the early 1930s Weimar Germany, there were plenty of rallies and street demonstrations. Communists, union organizers, and other opponents of the Nazis marched. They often got beat up. But while they were marching their institutions were taken over by the Nazis. It did not matter that the Nazis never got above 37% in the federal elections for Reichstag. It did not matter that the Communists put up every conceivable roadblock, including fighting his supporters in the streets. In fact, the latter strategy only created a perception amongst the non-Nazi German public that Communists were indeed the biggest threat to Germany. The Bavarian state had branded Communism the largest threat of all, even after the Nazis attempted to seize the state (hence, the outrageously short sentence for Hitler and his cronies in the Beer Hall Putsch).

The chaos in the streets in fact legitimized Hitler. It allowed him to present himself as the man of “law and order” (sound familiar?). In his destruction of Weimar democracy in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire, Hitler was aided and abetted by the establishment conservatives, tragically so. It was the establishment conservatives that normalized him and sat silently while the Nazi party took over the institutions, one by one. This was the very same crowd that had exerted enormous pressure on President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor despite the old man’s strong reservations. No wonder Hitler turned Weimar Germany into a one-party dictatorship in less than six months after taking the oath of office.

The lesson we can draw from Weimar? Trump has to be stopped and blocked in our institutions. This is where the fight has to be fought. Rallies are good, but they should not obscure from the main fight—the fight to obstruct every policy proposed by this president.

So my message to the Democrats is: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. In the process, try to win over decent, patriotic, good public servants who happen to be Republicans. There will be few who will want to join the obstruction, but they may grow in number as the realization of the calamity that Trump will mean for this country dawns on the public.

Trump came on the heels of the GOP-led destruction of the basic norms of democratic governance. They have shattered the baseline of our democratic consensus. Mitch McConnell and his allies effectively withdrew from co-governing with President Obama. In this act alone, they gave fuel to the racist claims that our first black President was illegitimate, a foreigner, and even worse, a traitor who “palled around with terrorists.” It is not a coincidence that these tactics led to the emergence of a man who would build his political rise on the claim of Obama’s illegitimacy.

So far, the Democrats have not gotten the message. They promise resistance and yet, they sit in on the hearings of Trump’s nominees, they attend his private meetings, and will roll out their most prestigious members, including their last candidate for the Presidency, at the inauguration. This, already, is a sign of capitulation from the center left to the Trump presidency.

Whatever their justifications for this acquiescence are, they ring hollow as we prepare to watch the inauguration of a President who has exhibited clear fascistic tendencies.

The obstruction can take many different forms:

● In confirmation hearings, give your seats to individuals adversely affected by policies proposed by Trump or previously advocated by the nominee (Jeff Sessions should have been easy pickings here!)

● Use every single legislative trick to block hearings of any nominee of the new President, including to the Supreme Court (it matters not the qualifications of such a nominee because what is at stake here is much bigger);

● When the hearings are still held, walk out. Dramatically;

● Do not meet privately with the new President—ever!;

● Any time a Trump-sponsored bill comes to the floor of the House or the Senate, pack the Capitol with people who would be hurt by the bill, then put up every conceivable legislative roadblock to passage and when this fails—walk out; Dramatically;

● Extend the obstruction to local levels where GOP holds power;

● Get big Democratic donors to sponsor the campaigns of obstruction from the federal all the way down to local levels.

The overall effect of these methods would be to show to the American people: this is not a normal presidency.

As Mitch McConnell can tell them, the Democrats would benefit enormously from this. They would be able to point out the paralysis of the government, blame all the failings on the new administration, and effectively undercut Trump’s main appeal as the businessman in chief who gets things done. By this time, they would have energized their base much more than Hillary Clinton’s speeches ever did.

It is then that massive rallies and protest could sweep the nation. It is then that the Democrats could unfurl their inclusive agenda based on inclusion, tolerance, rational problem-solving, and a foreign policy based on common human decency, international law, and the awareness of the importance of American leadership in the world. It is then that the Democrats could pull from their bench a younger center-left candidate to run against Trump in 2020. It is then that they could repeat the same on state levels and run against ineffective state governors and legislators.

Tea Party marches worked only because they came on the heels of a countrywide effort to block and paralyze the government, and were funded by big Republican corporate money. The Occupy Wall Street petered out because it had never been anchored in an institutionalized strategy of resistance. (One well-intentioned and brilliant politician like Elizabeth Warren is still not an institution or a sign of a party-level coordination).

This is not to say that we should not be marching. We should.

But it is a warning that those marches, if not tied into a countrywide strategy of obstruction, and if not led by the Democratic Party apparatus, will either peter out or become a normalized part of our abnormal reality.