On January 10, 2017, President Obama traveled to Chicago to offer a farewell address under circumstances that he never expected to face—and had certainly hoped to avoid. He spoke ten days before the inauguration of the man who had questioned his very right to be President, and who had spent eight years charging darkly that the incumbent had presided over American decline.
Obama, as is his way, declined to be gloomy and insisted that his confidence in the American Experiment was undiminished. He mentioned Donald Trump only once, to express his commitment to a smooth transition. But Obama did not ignore the dangers Trump represented—even if he couched them by speaking of “autocrats in foreign capitals.” His audience seemed to know he was talking about dangers at home, too.
The perils democracy faced, Obama declared, were “more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile” and included “the fear of change, the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently, a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable, an intolerance of dissent and free thought.” He defended “science” and “reason” and warned against scapegoating newcomers to America’s shores, noting that the “stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles.”
Above all, he called on Americans to take responsibility for their own democracy. “Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it.”
This is exactly what Americans began to do from the day after Trump took office. The Women’s March of January 21 was about women, their rights, and the demand that they not be denied. But it embodied a broader message aimed at Trump and the country as a whole. Less than 24 hours after the new President took the oath of office, millions of Americans came together to say that they would not stand by in silence if the new Administration threatened the advances of the previous eight years—or the previous 50. Trump’s election jarred many out of quiescence. The passion, energy, and commitment to politics had shifted decisively.
The Washington march drew upward of 700,000 people, as the sentiments expressed in the capital were echoed by crowds in cities and towns across the country, and around the world. The marches grew organically from the bottom up. They drew 3 million to 4.5 million people in total, determined to show that they would not be cowed into silence or sullen indifference. The demonstrators were more jubilant than angry, buoyed by the knowledge that in the face of political troubles to come, those who chose to stand up against Trump would have allies and friends.
Just as striking was the nonsectarian nature of the protests. Different parts of the anti-Trump coalition reinforced one another’s messages. Yet the signs the marchers carried also showed how varied these were: Some referred to his attitude and behavior toward women especially, given the theme of the day, but others pointed to Russia’s role in the election and Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin. There were signs in support of voting rights and against voter suppression, and others in favor of the Affordable Care Act (“I Obamacare About You,” read one), the Black Lives Matter movement, and gay rights. There were loud calls for the defense of free speech. If Trump didn’t talk about freedom in his inaugural address, the protesters picked up the slack the next day.
The January 21 marches proved to be more than a spasm of good feeling, as the success of the Women’s March encouraged Trump’s opponents to take to the streets to highlight other challenges. The enormous crowds that gathered at airports to oppose Trump’s travel ban were a dramatic example of citizens setting boundaries around behavior they saw as both illegal and un-American.
On April 15, protesters in hundreds of coordinated events called on Trump to release his tax returns. The following week, thousands participated in the March for Science, a series of formally nonpartisan rallies around the United States supporting the use of scientific evidence in crafting public policy. A week after that, thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington for the People’s Climate March, timed to coincide with Trump’s 100th day in office, to demand that the President reverse course in his efforts to roll back all of Obama’s environmental rules and regulations.
Perhaps even more remarkable was the sustained pressure in congressional districts around the country. The anti-Trump forces learned the lessons of the Tea Party mobilizations in the early Obama years, also using television coverage to amplify the power of the protests. Even Republican members of Congress representing deeply red districts discovered that a large number of their constituents were unhappy over any show of complicity with Trump.
Although the issues Trump’s opponents raised were varied, there was enormous attention to preserving the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a tribute to Joni Mitchell’s long-ago insight that “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” many Americans who benefited from the act rallied to resist the very personal threat the repeal posed to them. Obamacare, which had never been adequately defended by Democrats while Obama was in office, finally found its champions among the grassroots.
The demonstrations clearly had an effect. As we have seen, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were evidently embarrassed when their bill to repeal the ACA initially was kept off the House floor because of a shortage of votes. Much of the attention at the time was focused on the right-wing Freedom Caucus’s refusal to embrace the repeal bill due to many of its members who felt it did not go far enough. A New York Times vote count found, however, that many opponents of the bill were actually pragmatic conservatives who represented districts won by Hillary Clinton. Reflecting the views of the protesters, they opposed the bill from the left, seeing it as insufficiently generous to those who needed help to buy insurance.
When the House passed its modestly amended version of the repeal plan in May, constituents packed town halls to oppose it. Representative Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, one of the chief architects of the revised bill, faced five hours of hostile questioning and chants of “shame” at his public event with voters. And after Senate Republicans unveiled the first version of their health-care bill in late June, supporters of the ACA renewed their activism and made clear that the political costs of any repeal would be high.
Anti-Trump constituents also focused on the failure of Republicans to press Trump on his conflicts of interest and his refusal to release his tax returns. And they protested the reluctance of the GOP, particularly in the House, to investigate possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian intervention in the election. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, confronted angry rebukes from his constituents over his relaxed approach to the conflict and disclosure issues. He eventually found himself with a well-financed opponent in the 2018 midterms who took advantage of the activist mood and the capacity of new technologies to channel it. Kathryn Allen, a physician angered by Chaffetz’s remarkably obtuse comment that low-income Americans had to decide whether they wanted a new cell phone or health insurance, announced that she would oppose him if she could raise enough seed money. In one day, she raised $40,000 on a Crowdpac fundraising page, breaking the platform’s records. She decided to run. It’s not clear what role Allen’s challenge played in Chaffetz’s late-April announcement that he would not seek reelection, but the emergence of opposition to Trump in surprising places gave many Republicans pause about a full embrace of Trump’s agenda.
Trump’s opponents can also take heart from how both professional and grassroots strategists moved quickly to give the anti-Trump movement a sense of strategic coherence. Citizens were hungry for ways to identify their own unique skills and strengths (“What do I bring to this fight?”), and then to figure out how to work strategically with others to direct their collective power where it could have the most impact (“What can we do together?”). These efforts helped build the protests and reinforced a commitment to long-term engagement.
One of the most successful of these was the movement spearheaded by four former congressional staffers, Ezra Levin, Jeremy Haile, Leah Greenberg, and Angel Padilla, who studied the Tea Party for lessons in how to organize a parallel response to Trump. They published a document called “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” online after the election, and regularly updated and supplemented it. “Indivisible” quickly became the equivalent of an online bestseller. Drawing on many years of combined experience on Capitol Hill, the authors detailed easy-to-follow instructions to effect political change by turning up at town halls, contacting lawmakers by telephone and in writing, attending public events in large numbers, and creating local associations of like-minded activists. “Indivisible” was widely embraced because it retaught the basics of democratic politics: Individual citizens can have far more impact than they realize, especially when they act in concert with others.
A similarly successful initiative was Daily Action, which sends texts each morning with marching orders for those who sign up to take action in combatting Trump’s policies. Created by Laura Moser, a writer and mother of two young children, the messages offered by Daily Action are simple and direct. In late January, for example, her subscribers—they quickly numbered in the hundreds of thousands—got this on their phones at 10:15 a.m.: “Today’s daily action is to urge your Senator to place a ‘hold’ on Sessions’s AG nomination until Trump shows some respect for the rule of law.” Its alerts were part of the upsurge that forced House Republicans to back off their plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The group was also part of the phone campaign against Trump’s initial nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, who later withdrew. “If we can sustain this energy and this anger,” Moser told The Washington Post, “maybe we can reclaim our country.” Other groups followed similar models, linking advanced technology with the most old-fashioned forms of engagement.
Nonprofit organizations, so vital, as we have seen, in opposing Trump’s specific actions, have also mobilized broadly to engage more Americans in politics. Citizen University, a Seattle group founded by Eric Liu, launched an innovative program called “Civic Saturday.” Liu described it as “a civic analogue to church: a gathering of friends and strangers in a common place to nurture a spirit of shared purpose.” The faith being celebrated, Liu noted, was the creed of America’s civic religion. He was regularly forced to find larger venues for the events, and other communities have followed his lead in creating civic liturgies of their own.
Liu’s effort is consciously nonpartisan, even if, in a Democratic stronghold, many of those he is bringing into politics are Democrats. Greater civic engagement across the political and ideological spectrum is something to be welcomed. But the larger issue of partisanship must be confronted squarely at this moment.
While there was a substantial anti-Trump movement among conservative writers and intellectuals, the Republican Party’s leadership has stayed closely allied with Trump during his first months in office. Most Republicans in Congress, as we have noted, still hoped Trump might help them achieve many long-standing policy goals and strengthen their hold on lifelong judicial appointments. GOP politicians are unlikely to break with Trump as long as their principal fears involve angering conservative media, alienating their base voters, and being ousted in primaries. Only the risk of losing their seats in general elections—or control of one or both houses of Congress, or power in state governments—will push them toward any second thoughts in their approach to Trump.
This, in turn, means that, within our two-party system, the Democratic Party must be the agent to contain and ultimately defeat Trump and Trumpism. Only Democratic victories will demonstrate to Republicans that the time has arrived for them to abandon Trump. Democrats must thus become a “fusion” party, to use a term once popular among urban reformers, most famously New York City’s longtime mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The idea of fusion involved ignoring old party fights and differences to build broad coalitions, typically aimed at bringing down corrupt political machines. Fusionism was a way of saying that narrow partisanship needed to give way to a larger and more urgent cause. Democrats must not only bring together their own factions (a difficult enough task) and win back white working-class voters who once stood with them. They must also gain the support of Independents and Republicans (in the electorate if not among the elected politicians) willing to suspend old loyalties to deal with the emergency Trump represents.
The heightened political engagement among Democrats that Trump brought about has already had an impact in a series of special elections in longtime Republican congressional districts—in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina—where Democratic nominees ran far ahead of the normal party vote. Their showings augured well for the 2018 elections. So did Democratic victories in a variety of local and state legislative contests in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Illinois, and elsewhere. Democratic successes will, as mentioned, be correctly interpreted as a blow to Trumpism, which is why anti-Trump Republicans will welcome them. So will at least some Republican officeholders who would never publicly say so. They understand that defeating the Trumpian version of Republicanism is essential to rebuilding the more responsible, forward-looking center-right party that the country needs.
The imperative of turning back Trump and Trumpism will require unusual forms of discipline and commitment. It will mean not allowing the ideological and tactical battles within the Democratic Party—between factions loosely defined as Clinton and Sanders Democrats—to tear it asunder and allow pro-Trump Republicans to prevail in general elections. While there are real and important differences of opinion among Democrats (and within the larger anti-Trump coalition) on issues such as trade and health care, these differences are far smaller than those between the entire movement and Trump.
For example, there may be disagreements about moving toward single-payer health care, but not on the need to preserve and expand the gains of Obamacare. There are certainly differences on trade, but not on the imperative of lifting up those left out of our prosperity, whether because of globalization or technological change. Outside Democratic ranks, Trump’s critics may have their differences with both Clinton and Sanders Democrats, but they share with both groups a belief that Trump’s divisiveness, his indifference to political norms, and his lack of respect for basic American institutions are a threat to the kind of politics all three groups value.
This certainly does not mean suspending intellectual and policy debate. But serious debate need not descend into bitter sectarianism. The movement against Trump needs to model a politics in which honest differences do not mean enmity, and disagreements over one or two issues do not lead to the disruption of coalition-building on so many others. As the political commentator Mark Shields has often observed, political movements, like religious traditions, have to decide whether their emphasis will be on courting converts or hunting heretics. This is not a moment for heretic hunting.
Independent mass movements have often found that alliances with political parties are the most effective way—in many cases, the only way—to achieve their ends. As Daniel Schlozman showed in his innovative book When Movements Anchor Parties, such alliances were important to both the labor movement (in the case of the Democrats) and the Christian Conservative movement (in its alliance with the Republicans). As Schlozman writes, “only political parties form the government,” and leaders of major causes always face tough political choices over how “to take movement fervor and translate it into durable change.”
The abolitionists and the Progressives, the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements—all found ways of relating to partisan and political power. Those seeking to get our nation past Trumpism must understand the inevitability of party politics even as they seek to broaden their reach across party lines.
There is reason to hope that the anti-Trump writers and intellectuals within the conservative movement are a harbinger of a larger realignment in our politics and of a more moderate conservatism, or even moderation itself. As the Trump presidency has moved from one crisis and outrage to another, they have become increasingly alienated from a timid GOP leadership. They have also criticized the willingness of their onetime comrades in the conservative movement to apologize for or brush off actions taken by Trump that would have drawn furious condemnation had they come from a Democratic Administration. Will these restive conservatives abandon their traditional loyalties altogether?
It would not be the first time that a group of thinkers opened the way for political realignment. History, it’s said, sometimes rhymes. The anti-Trump distemper on the right has some of the rhythms and sounds of an earlier intellectual rebellion in the mid-1960s involving an uneasy group of liberals. They remained staunch supporters of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but worried about what they saw as liberal excesses and the overreach of some Great Society policies.
Over time, this collection of magazine- and university-based rebels—among them Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Norman Podhoretz—came to be known as “neoconservatives.” They were not party bosses, but they certainly knew how to write essays. They helped prepare the ground for Ronald Reagan’s political revolution. Will the anti-Trumpers—a fair number of them philosophical descendants of neconservatism, and some of them the sons and daughters of the original neoconservatives—have a comparable impact?
Much depends on whether their critique of Trump carries into a broader critique of contemporary conservatism and the Republican Party. This is already starting to happen, as we have seen in the case of writers and commentators such as Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Peter Wehner, David Frum, Ana Navarro, Tom Nichols, Charlie Sykes, and Max Boot.
Like the intellectuals of a half-century ago who developed qualms about liberalism but insisted they were still in the liberal camp, conservatives standing against Trump today still see themselves as being true to their old loyalties. Even so, between the mid-1960s and 1980, a large cadre of those liberal dissenters accepted that they were, in fact, conservatives. Something similar may be happening in the other direction as members of the anti-Trump right, battling against immoderation, irrationality, and irresponsibility, become ever more distant from their old allies and come to recognize the damage inflicted on contemporary conservatism by long-standing habits and impulses. Let’s call them “neomoderates.” They, too, could emerge as a major force in our politics and make a difference in our history by moving the country away from the far right. The progressive wing of the anti-Trump movement should not only welcome their witness but also engage them in seeking to create a politics that is less harsh, more intellectually honest, and more focused on solving the problems the Trump era has brought into such relief.
The anti-Trump movement may seem unusual because it is primarily directed against one man and his impulses. In fact, it is about much more than opposition and resistance. It is, and should be, driven by affirmation.
Consider the aspects of Trump’s persona and approach that incite such disquiet and rage: the ease with which he demonizes whole groups of Americans; his indifference to fact; his willingness to lie with impunity; his lack of even elementary knowledge or intellectual curiosity about policy; his proclivity toward shifting positions again and again; his quest to tote up “wins” without any concern about the content of the proposals he is pushing; his lack of any historical sense; his belief that everything is about a “deal”; and his refusal to acknowledge any need to separate his personal financial interests from his public duties.
Those riled by each of these traits and habits are, in their revulsion, affirming a series of moral and practical commitments and a vision of how a democratic republic is supposed to work. Lies and untruths are the enemy of honest democratic deliberation. Policymaking needs to be taken seriously because government matters. Being a politician of any sort—and especially being President—is a deadly serious responsibility and requires attention to detail and history, as well as a willingness to study and learn. To insist on these things is to demand that we restore our sense of the dignity and, yes, majesty of self-government. We need a new appreciation of what an extraordinary achievement it is. Trump’s rise was made possible by a long-term war on public life that cast public endeavor, the public sector, and public concerns as inferior to private striving and private interests.
This certainly resulted from elite failures and even elite self-enrichment. It also arose from a feeling within a large part of the public that its interests were not being properly represented. The exit polls in 2016 showed that 61 percent of voters believed Trump to be unqualified for the presidency—and about a sixth of these voters supported him anyway. This shows how deep the revulsion toward Washington, politics, and government runs. It also reflects the impact of approaches to politics that have demeaned public service and of a culture that no longer celebrates it. Politicians (and, it must be said, especially Republican politicians) have delegitimized government for political gain. Campaigns run by both parties have become a long-running advertisement against government. No one selling a commercial product treats competitors with a contempt even remotely like the insolence politicians demonstrate toward each other in their television ads and social media messages.
We are under no illusions that campaigns were once graceful affairs. “Politics ain’t beanbag” is a very old warning, and it has always been apt. Competition can bring out hostility. Still, while athletes may occasionally trash-talk each other, they treat their rivals far more respectfully than candidates treat their adversaries. Technologies—from television ads to the creation of fake news—have been used far more to denigrate, demean, and divide than to inform, ennoble, and unite.
And setting up a freely elected government as the enemy casts democracy as being little different from despotism. “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us,” Franklin Roosevelt declared. “The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
But we have forgotten, and this helped pave the way for a politician who sees little difference between a despot and a democratically elected President—who was willing to declare Vladimir Putin a better leader than Barack Obama. The fight against Trump is thus ultimately a fight to reclaim the dignity of public life and the honor of democratic politics.
The battle against Trump is also an affirmation of a very different vision of what the United States is and can be. The most disturbing aspect of Trumpism—beyond whatever we come to discover about his and his campaign’s relationship with Putin and Russia—is its dark pessimism about liberal democracy, an open society, and the achievements of the American Experiment. If the fruits of the American economy are not shared as fairly as they should be, the fact remains that the recovery of our economy after the Great Recession was a remarkable and insufficiently heralded achievement. As soon as he took office, Trump himself began taking credit for a recovery he had nothing to do with—and which, until January 20, 2017, he insisted had never occurred. We remain the strongest country on earth, and being hopeful about our nation’s capacities is not only truer to who we are, it is also the disposition that will serve us best in facing up to the problems confronted by Americans who are demanding a fair shot, a degree of security, and a better life for their children and grandchildren.
Trumpism ignores the ways in which liberal democracy has strengthened the power of the United States by establishing us, at our best moments, as an example of what freedom and self-rule can achieve.
Of course, there have been times of national exhaustion, particularly after inconclusive or mistaken wars. There is a widespread impatience with the role of the United States as “the world’s policeman,” and a realistic acknowledgment that our country cannot and will not intervene in all of the world’s trouble spots. But the alternative to promiscuous intervention is not wholesale withdrawal from our responsibilities. And, as we have argued, the paradox is that an “America First” foreign policy does not, in fact, put the interests of the United States first (as the country came to understand during and after World War II). American power and influence grew as a result of the extraordinary period of international institution-building in the postwar period. And the United States’s leadership in providing foreign and development aid through the Marshall Plan helped create a more prosperous and stable world—to our own benefit.
We are stronger with allies among like-minded democratic nations than we are on our own. We are also stronger when we do not pretend that autocratic regimes and nationalist movements will advance our interests in the long run. That Trump chose to offer his indirect endorsement of Marine Le Pen’s National Front during the French presidential campaign would at any other time have been a national scandal. The United States will necessarily deal with many sorts of powers in the world to keep the peace, and we have not always been true to our democratic commitments. But our deep sympathies for democratic systems, the rule of law, and minority rights should never be in doubt. Under Trump, they are.
Rejecting Trumpism means rejecting a wholesale rollback of our nation’s extraordinary progress toward equal rights—for African Americans, for women, for Latinos, for the LGBTQ community, for religious minorities, and for so many of our other fellow citizens. It means acknowledging that this progress is still incomplete and repudiating the idea that any airing of complaints about ongoing injustices is “political correctness.” An embrace of equal rights for racial minorities and women should not in any way foreclose the rights of working Americans who are white and male to the redress of their own legitimate grievances. Casting the white working class and racial or ethnic minority groups as enemies is the unspoken but very clear strategy of Trumpian politics. Down this path lies a repudiation of the American promise of a just and prosperous society that will allow all of our citizens, as Dr. King insisted, “to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
A broad and powerful movement has arisen to defeat Trump and Trumpism. From Virginia and New Jersey to Washington state, Georgia, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maine, the November 2017 elections showed that the energy Trump has unleashed among those who loathe him has the potential to realign the country politically. The voting was a sign that anti-Trump groups were, like the Tea Party before them, capable of translating discontent into electoral power. Its further success will be a triumph worthy of celebration. But this is not just an end in itself; it is also an essential first step toward a new politics. It will be a politics that takes seriously the need to solve the problems that Trump has exposed. It will reclaim our country’s faith in the future and its natural inclination toward hope. And it will nurture our dedication to the raucous but ultimately unifying project of democratic self-government. For it is our shared commitment to republican institutions and democratic values that makes us one nation.
This essay is adapted from the 2017 book One Nation After Trump, Copyright 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.